Loose Nukes Because every debate can be improved with a little highly-enriched uranium.

16Jan/134

A quick way to speed up your browser

An easy trick you can use to make your web browser more quick and responsive.

The man with the stopwatch: process priorities

Your computer can only do one thing at a time. To run multiple programs at once, the operating system essentially switches back and forth between them hundreds of times each second: the CPU does a little bit for Program A, and then a little bit for Program B, and then a little bit for Program A again. This gives the illusion that the programs are running simultaneously. (Multi-core processors make this a little trickier, but the general idea is still the same.)

Every program (or technically, process) in Windows has a "priority", which Windows uses to decide how much CPU time to give to it. There are a lot of nuances to this, but basically, Windows will try to share CPU time equally between processes of the same priority level. If your web browser is running at "Normal" priority, and another program at "Normal" priority is busy doing something, your web browser will have to share - making it run slower.

So how do we use this to our advantage? Easy: increase the priority of your web browser. Your computer will run as usual when the web browser is idle, but when you click a button, it will process your request immediately - instead of waiting around for everything else.

This won't increase your download speeds, and you won't notice much on faster computers, but if you're using a slower computer it can make navigating around feel significantly snappier.

Adjusting process priority

First, open the Task Manager. The fastest way is to press Ctrl+Shift+Esc - although you can also press Ctrl+Alt+Del and open it from the lock screen, or it may be on the Start menu.

Second, click on the Processes tab and locate the process for your web browser. If you're using Firefox, it should be firefox.exe; if you're using Opera, it should be opera.exe; and if you're using Safari, it should beย Safari.exe. You may want to click "Image Name" to sort the processes by name so it's easier to find.

  • If you're using Chrome or Internet Explorer, this is trickier and less useful. Both create a separate process for every tab you have open, so setting the priority of a specific process won't help much. However, if you're using Chrome you probably don't need this trick, and you really shouldn't be using Internet Explorer anyway.

Third, right-click on the process, click the Set Priority submenu, and click Above Normal.

Setting process priority from the task manager

That was easy! You'll probably get a warning popup, which you can just click through - this shouldn't actually cause any stability issues, so don't worry.

The only problem...

...is that Windows doesn't save this setting, so you have to go through the process above every time you start your web browser.

There's a fairly popular free tool called Prio that is supposed to let you set priorities permanently, but I've never actually used it, so try it at your own risk. ๐Ÿ™‚

29Jun/110

Getting the most out of your browser

Have a look at your computer...

...and notice that the keyboard and mouse are not in the same place.

How you use your keyboard and mouse can have a big effect on how efficient your research is. During an average research session, you'll switch back and forth between the keyboard and the mouse literally hundreds of times. If it takes about a second for each transition, you're probably spending five to ten minutes of each session just moving your hands around. This effect is particularly noticeable when compiling citations. The delay caused by copying and pasting many small bits of text can be frustrating when you just want to get back to researching.

This post is basically a compilation of shortcuts and techniques to minimize unnecessary clicks, keypresses, and hand movements while researching - faster ways to do ordinary things.

I wrote this with Firefox in mind, but most of the tips will work with other browsers as well. (See my previous post, "Browser battle to the death", to see why I recommend Firefox.)

The Keyboard

Believe it or not, you can perform most common actions entirely from the keyboard, without ever touching the mouse. This can be handy when an operation requires a mixture of keyboard and mouse actions; if you can do it all from the keyboard, it will probably be faster than switching to the mouse and back several times.

Many common keyboard commands can be done with one hand without taking the other off the mouse. For example, to copy text, just use the Copy and Paste keyboard shortcuts with one hand, while selecting the text with the mouse. This is much faster than clicking through menus with the mouse alone.

Keyboard navigation

Navigating forms - Pressing the Tab key will select the next link or text field. This is especially useful for site logins. Just type your username, press Tab, and type your password; no need to switch to the mouse to click the next field. (You can also do this backwards by pressing Shift+Tab.)

Selecting text - Firefox includes a feature called "caret browsing", which puts a text cursor on the webpage so you can select text with the keyboard (just hold down Shift and move the cursor over the text.) Caret browsing can be turned on and off by pressing the F7 key; usually, selecting with the mouse is faster, so you'll probably want it off most of the time.

Scrolling - the Page Up and Page Down keys, as well as the Up and Down arrows, are often the fastest way to navigate a large webpage. This will work much better if caret browsing is turned off.

Menus - You can access the menus by pressing Alt. (Note that in Firefox 4 and above, the old menus are hidden; pressing Alt will show them again.) When the menus are active, you'll see little underlines; this indicates that you can type that letter to activate the menu option. For example, pressing Alt, F, E opens the Send Link menu option.

Useful keyboard shortcuts

Copy and paste - If you're right-handed, use Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V, respectively. (You can do this with your left hand without taking your right hand off the mouse.) If you're left-handed, consider using Ctrl+Insert and Shift+Insert instead - if you use the Ctrl and Shift keys on the right side of the keyboard, you can do this with just your right hand without taking your left hand off the mouse. It's closer than reaching over to the left hand side of the keyboard.

New tab - Ctrl+T. Opening a new tab will automatically put your cursor in the URL bar, so you can hit Ctrl+T and type in a Google search without ever touching the mouse.

Close the current tab - Ctrl+W.

Re-open the last tab you closed - Ctrl+Shift+T. This doesn't work in Safari.

Open the Find box - Ctrl+F. Since this puts your cursor in the Find box, you can start typing right away. Tip: Using the Find box is often much faster than scanning through the entire document to find the bit you want - just Ctrl+F and type in a related word. Pressing Enter will cycle through all occurrences of it (you don't have to click the Next button.)

Undo and Redo - Ctrl+Z and Ctrl+Y, respectively.

Reload and stop loading - F5 and Escape, respectively.

Back and Forward - Alt+Left and Alt+Right, respectively.

Focus the search bar - Ctrl+K.

URL autocomplete - Firefox and Chrome do this. When typing a URL, you can press Ctrl+Enter, Ctrl+Shift+Enter, or Shift+Enter to add .com, .org, and .net domains, respectively. For example, you can type google and press Ctrl+Enter, and it will autocomplete to http://www.google.com. This even works with subdomains and folders - for example, typing google/maps and pressing Ctrl+Enter will autocomplete to http://www.google.com/maps.

Add evidence in Factsmith - Ctrl+Alt+A. (Not a browser feature, but important to know.) This will bring up the floating Evidence Editor window on top of whatever application you're currently using. No need to switch to the Factsmith window before each new card.

The Mouse

Physical presence

If you're using a laptop, get a physical mouse to plug into it. Period. You can get them for a few bucks, and once you get up to speed, it's significantly faster than using a trackpad.

Things to look for:

  • A scroll wheel is essential.
  • Get an optical mouse, not a ball mouse; it's much better. Laser probably isn't necessary.
  • Wireless vs. direct-connection is entirely a personal preference; wireless mice don't really have any everyday speed advantage over regular mice.
  • Avoid trackballs like the plague. Some people prefer them just because they're used to them, but a good surface-mouse user will always be faster than a good trackball user.
Shortcuts

Obviously, if you have a scroll wheel, it's the fastest way to navigate a page. What you may not know is that the scroll wheel can also be used as a "middle" mouse button. If you middle-click a link, it will open in a new tab; if you middle-click an existing tab, it will close. (This is, by far, the fastest way to handle tabs. If you have a scroll wheel and you aren't using it, there is something wrong with you. ;-)) If you only have a laptop trackpad, you can get a similar effect by holding down Ctrl while you click.

Holding down Ctrl while rolling the wheel will zoom the current page in and out.

Mouse settings

There are a couple of mouse settings that can influence ease-of-use; play with them a bit until you get something you like:

Pointer speed: Set it as fast as you're comfortable with; you want to be able to travel all the way across the screen without sliding your wrist.

Enhance Pointer Precision: This is a Windows option that "ramps" the pointer speed, so slow movements are more precise and fast movements go further. This makes it dramatically easier to quickly flick to a button and click it. If it isn't already on, turn it on right now like seriously.

Double-click speed: If the double-click speed is set too slow, clicking on things twice can activate double-click when you don't want it to. Set it only as slow as you need it to be.

Snap to default button: Windows can automatically move the mouse to the default button in a window. I recommend keeping this off, because it makes keeping track of the mouse pointer more confusing, but it's a personal preference.

Mouse cursor theme: It does no good to have a cool animated horse for a mouse pointer if you can't see where you're clicking. Keep it simple.

Become ambimousetrous

If you're working on a laptop, learn how to use the trackpad and the mouse interchangeably.

The trackpad isn't usually faster than the physical mouse. It is, however, a lot closer than the mouse. If you're typing on the keyboard and need to perform a quick mouse action, just drop down two inches to the trackpad and do it there.

This can save a lot of time, so it's worthwhile getting good with both.

Mouse gestures

I talked about this in my previous post. This is primarily a feature in Opera, but you can also get it in Firefox by installing the FireGestures addon.

Mouse gestures are quick, easy mouse movements that you can perform instead of switching to the keyboard or moving the mouse across the screen to click a button. Generally, you hold down the right mouse button and move the mouse in a specific pattern:Once you get used to it, it's much faster than conventional shortcuts.

This actually exists

Button remapping

Most mice have two buttons (not counting the scroll wheel), but you can also get ones with more. You probably don't want quite as many buttons as the OpenOffice mouse on the right (understatement of the year), but a few extra buttons can be handy.

Programming extra buttons to perform common actions like Copy, Paste, Clear Formatting, New Tab, etc. can save a lot of time and keypresses. How this is done will vary by the mouse.

The Browser

Firefox includes a great time-saving feature called "smart keywords", which deserves its own section. Chrome and other browsers include similar features, but the operation is different and they sometimes require plugins, so I'll only cover the Firefox version here. See here for partial Chrome instructions.

Bookmark keywords

If you right-click a bookmark and click Properties, you'll get a box with a number of options. One of these is "Keyword". This defines a shortcut to the bookmark that you can type in the URL bar; for example, I can open a new tab and type in hsd, and it will take me to HomeSchoolDebate.com.

Search keywords

There's a slightly more advanced version of this that's even more useful: if you right-click any search box on a webpage and select "Add a Keyword for this Search...", you can create keywords for search engines. For example, to search Wikipedia for "mushrooms", I could simply open a new tab and type in wiki mushrooms.

This can be used for very advanced searches; for example, by setting various options before I saved the bookmark, I was able to set up a keyword that searches all Google News articles since 2004.

To install the Google News archive search on your own browser, drag this link to your bookmark toolbar and give it a keyword like "gnews" from Properties: Google News Search | Archives. (You may want to move it off the toolbar to the menus afterwards.)

22Jun/119

Browser battle to the death

Which browser is the best for debate research?

It's like an ancient ritual: every few months, debaters are obligated to drop what they're doing and try to convince complete strangers that Firefox is better than Chrome, or Opera is better than Firefox, or Safari is better than them all. After a few futile volleys, everyone realizes they have no idea what they're talking about, and the conversation ends.

I decided to get some hard data. Over the last few weeks, I did a few days of intensive research in each of the top five browsers: Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Opera. My goal? Determine which was the most efficient research platform.

These are the results.

A few disclaimers

First, objectivity. This is an inherently subjective subject, so if you really, really love Internet Explorer - that's totally fine. I'm just telling you what conclusion I came to. Which happens to be that Internet Explorer is really, really terrible. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Second, background. Prior to this test, I used mostly Firefox, but I didn't have any particular "attachment" to it - I've used a number of different browsers, so being acclimated to Firefox wasn't a particularly big deal.

Third, purpose. Throughout this, I'm only going to be looking at suitability for research. Thus, I mostly won't be considering features that don't really affect the research process - like how nicely a browser renders Flash games.

Fourth, scope. This breakdown is not comprehensive - I may point out a feature or a problem that applies to multiple browsers, but only mention it once. In general, I'm only going after the most noticeable issues with each browser.

Fifth, platform. This article covers Windows browsers. In some cases, the browsing experience may be very different under Mac OS or Linux. In particular, Safari is much easier to use without a right-click button than other browsers; your mileage may vary.

Onward to the results!

#5: Internet Explorer 9

First, some (maybe) redeeming features

Accelerators: When you select text, IE pops up a little blue arrow with some fancy buttons to email, translate, etc. This could be useful, but I never really needed it, so it mostly just got in the way. By default, it's very heavily tied into Microsoft services like Bing and Live Mail.

Color-coded tabs: Internet Explorer tries to color-code tabs by their contents - for example, when I had two different biographies of the same person open, it recognized them and colored them both yellow. It's nice, but nothing to kill for.

Tab management: Internet Explorer attempts to open new tabs at intuitive locations on the tab bar, instead of just always sticking them at the end. It's a nice thought, but the execution is rather clumsy, so it's sometimes just confusing.

Taskbar: If you're using Windows 7, open tabs will display as separate images in the application-preview panel. You may or may not like this.

An inferior renderer

I'll be brief. Internet Explorer's page renderer is... not very good. Pages don't always look right, and those that do are often "rough around the edges" (literally - corners and edges are often fuzzy or disconnected.) The anti-aliasing routines also tend to make text look blurry. On the whole, it works fine, but there are better options available.

The interaction with the webpage is not always smooth, either. On more than one occasion, Explorer simply locked up and refused to let me edit a text field.

Internet Explorer is also visibly slower and clunkier than other browsers. The difference is most noticeable when scrolling - large pages tend to jump around and lag instead of scrolling smoothly, especially when other tabs are loading in the background. Scrolling also causes the graphics on some pages to glitch.

Interface problems

Internet Explorer's interface is generally OK, but there are plenty of problems. A sample:

Text select: Wow, this is frustrating. In every other browser I tried, when you select text, it selects the text. In Internet Explorer, when you select text, it selects... something, that may or not be the text. This isn't a problem for most articles, but when the page layout gets complicated, boy does it get annoying. Here's a video demonstrating the problem:

Copying text: When copying text, Internet Explorer doesn't put blank space between the paragraphs, so everything tends to run together. Sometimes it doesn't even put a single break in, so several carefully-formatted paragraphs are smashed together into a single block.

There are a few problems with tabbed browsing:

  • IE doesn't scroll tabs until they get so small you can't read them anymore. Since the tab bar is very narrow, this makes it extremely difficult to work with more than a dozen tabs or so.
  • The tab bar is down a little ways, instead of at the top of the window. There's no reason for this, since there's nothing else at the top of the window - just a blank space. This means that you can't quickly flick your mouse to the top of the screen - you have to aim carefully, which takes more time.
  • The "New Tab" button is all the way on the other side of the window from the URL box. This isn't a big problem, since you can do everything from the keyboard, but it would be nice if they were closer.

Password memory: Like most modern browsers, Internet Explorer can save the passwords to sites you log into frequently, but it's somewhat inconsistent. For sites that redirect (read "most sites"), the "Remember password?" field tended to disappear before I could click it.

Javascript alerts: You can't copy text out of a popup alert. This is a problem for me, because I use a system of popup alerts to store login information for certain academic databases. I can see the text, but I can't copy it.

Bookmark separators: Folders of bookmarks can't have separator lines - everything appears together. This is a cosmetic issue, but it bugs me.

A thermonuclear game-killer (for some people, anyway)

Internet Explorer has no drag-and-drop. At all.

At this point, you are either a) re-reading the previous sentence with a mildly puzzled look on your face, or b) passed out on the floor. While we wait for the second group to wake up, let me explain what the problem is.

Factsmith, the quintessential awesome research software you should all have (hint hint), is built around drag-and-drop. Instead of selecting text, hitting a key combination on the keyboard, clicking where you want it to go, and hitting another key combination on the keyboard, you can just select the text and drag it to the appropriate location - much faster. Virtually every Windows application supports this - except Internet Explorer.

Those who have never used Factsmith won't understand why this is such a big deal, but a few minutes of it made me want to bang my head against the keyboard (and I'm someone who uses keyboard shortcuts a lot.) Does it make Internet Explorer unusable? No, but it does make it annoying. There are better options available; use them.

Did I mention security?

Internet Explorer is famous for being really bad with security. Partly because of its popularity, partly because of the slow, proprietary development cycle (IE vulnerabilities typically take much longer to be patched than other browser's), and partly because IE is built directly into the operating system (giving attacks a shortcut), the majority of malicious websites on the Internet target Internet Explorer.

Also, no adblock

One major problem with Internet Explorer is the lack of a good ad-blocker. Banner ads are unsightly and distracting, and slow down page loading. For most other browsers, you can get free plugins like Adblock Plus that do an excellent job of filtering them out before they even load. With Internet Explorer, you can't.

Really, though, these concerns are minor, and not a good reason to avoid Internet Explorer. Honestly, it's not that annoying to be reading through an article on Greek financial investors and have to occasionally skip past an unobtrusive

AUGH NO KILL IT WITH FIRE!!!!

Seriously, if you're doing any serious research, get Adblock. And a different browser.

The bottom line: Version 9 is marginally better than previous incarnations, but a clunky renderer, missing or broken features, and rampant security holes drop Internet Explorer to the bottom of the list.

#4: Safari 5

A badly-designed interface

I'll cut to the chase. Safari's user interface is really badly designed. Let's take bookmarks for an example - it took me about five minutes to figure out how to create a bookmark, because it is not obvious at all.

Hmmm... there's a bookmark bar. Is there a button there to create a bookmark? No. What if I right-click? No. How about right-clicking the page? Nope. What about the tab bar? Oh, you can create multiple bookmarks at a time that way - but not one. (Why not?) Oh, there's a bookmark manager, it must be there - nope. (By this time I've figured out how to do pretty much everything else with bookmarks except create them.) Oh, there it is - the button with a plus sign to the left of the URL bar. (Why a plus sign, by the way? Literally every other major browser uses a star, which has been the accepted "bookmark" icon since Windows 98.)

The problem is simple: Safari is really bad at predictability - similar tasks are often accomplished in very different ways. I was looking in places related to bookmarks, while the actual button was in a place that had nothing to do with bookmarks. This is a common problem in Safari:This is a minor example, but the same wind blows across most of the application. The list of problems with the interface goes on and on:

  • You can't drag a bookmark into a bookmark folder on the toolbar, but you can do this from the bookmark manager. In fact, dragging is the only way to do this in the bookmark manager - so it's definitely the correct way to do it, but you can't do it in the most obvious place to do it. Why not?
  • Favicons show in bookmark folders, but not on the bookmark toolbar. Why not?
  • The "New Tab" button is way off to the right. You invariably have to move the mouse a long way to get to it, and it's very small, so it's hard to click.
  • etc.

You can defend all this, arguing that it makes more sense to Mac users, you get used to it quickly, etc, etc, but the fact remains that there are much better ways to do the interface.

A plethora of problems

It didn't take me too long to get used to the quirky interface, but Safari had a lot of other problems that made research more difficult. Here are some things that bugged me:

Remembering tabs: This is, in my opinion, the biggest killer flaw of Safari. There is no way to make it remember your tabs when you close it. I have no idea why not - you can remember windows, just not tabs. If you want to save your session, you have to create bookmarks for your current tabs, or hunt through your history when you open it again.

Reopening tabs: There's apparently no way to reopen a tab you closed by accident. Supposedly, there's a keyboard shortcut, but it didn't work for me and it only works with one tab anyway.

Tab overflow: Good heavens, the tab overflow. Safari will only show a limited number of tabs at any given time (on my case, 13.) After this, you can only access the rest of the tabs by opening a menu to change which of the hidden tabs the final tab displays. The only way to show the hidden tabs side-by-side is to rearrange them on the bar - but oh, wait, you can't drag them off the menu, you have to repeatedly set the final tab's identity and then drag it. Also, every time you open a new tab, it gets dumped at the VERY END of the whole list - so if you want it to be usable, you have to set it as the final tab and drag it around. If this sounds bad, it is.

Text search: Every time you switch tabs, the Find box disappears. If you want to search for the same text in several different tabs, you have to re-enter it for each one. (Also, the Find box has no option for matching case.)

URL bar: You can't search Google from the URL bar. This wouldn't be a problem (there's a separate search box, after all), except that Safari automatically puts your cursor in the URL bar whenever you open a new tab - so you're forced to switch to the search box manually, wasting time.

Javascript alerts: Like IE, you can't copy text out of a popup alert.

Creating bookmarks: Aside from the issues listed above, you can't create a bookmark without actually going to the page - which makes it difficult to bookmark a script or a page that redirects. You have to create a dummy bookmark and then edit the address.

Bookmark separators: Folders of bookmarks can't have separator lines - everything appears together. Again, this is a cosmetic issue, but it bugs me.

Visual distinction: Page icons aren't displayed on tabs. In addition, the tabs seem to pick relatively random parts of the title to display - usually the beginning, sometimes the end, occasionally the middle. This means that if you want the tab with the Wikipedia page, you can't just click on the one with the Wikipedia icon; you have to look for the tab that reads "th Australia - Wik...", or whatever it says at the moment, and click on it.

Speed: Safari on Mac OS X is very fast, but on Windows, it's noticeably slower than most of the other browsers I tested.

Other concerns

One potential concern is security. Internet Explorer typically gets a bad rap, but Safari may be even worse, at least in theory. At the 2011 Pwn2Own cracking competition, it was fully compromised in less than five seconds. Safari on Windows is generally considered safer, however (partly because it's a smaller target.)

Another possible concern is stability. Safari was the only browser that crashed during my testing - several times. (This was made particularly annoying by the fact that I couldn't easily restore my lost tabs.) Another time, it decided to delete all my bookmarks for no reason.

Some redeeming qualities

If you ignore the bad interface, Safari is actually a decent browser. The rendering engine (WebKit, the same one Chrome uses) produces nicely-polished pages, and basic browsing functionality works more or less as expected. There are also some nice features for everyday browsing, like a very pretty most-frequent-bookmarks view when you open a new tab.

One feature to highlight is the slick Reader view, which strips away the page fluff so you can just view the article. It's pleasantly easy on the eyes, but probably won't make or break anyone's research experience.

Another thing to remember is that Safari is really designed around the Mac operating system. It gets a big speed hike on Mac OS X, and it's much more usable without right-click than most other browsers. As a result, Apple fans may feel more comfortable with it than with other browsers.

The bottom line: If you can stand the badly-designed interface, Safari is a decent browser - but it's a Mac machine at heart, and most PC researchers will find it incredibly annoying.

#3: Chrome 10

You may be surprised that Google's brainchild only makes #3. Make no mistake: Chrome is an excellent browser. It's fast, it's powerful, and it's secure, but it's beset by a variety of minor irritations that keep it from being an ideal research platform. I'd happily recommend it as a day-to-day browser, and as a web development platform, but there are better options for research.

First: Features I really liked

Chrome is fast. Other browsers have caught up in page-rendering and script-execution speed, so you won't notice much difference during ordinary browsing, but it starts up a lot faster than Firefox.

Excellent security. Chrome is widely recognized as the industry standard in browser security, mostly due to a "sandboxing" technique that isolates web pages from each other and the rest of the system. (Chrome is the only major browser to consistently remain unscathed at Pwn2Own.) In reality, completely ironclad security is unnecessary for causal research (the New York Times website is not going to give you a virus), but it's nice to have.

Automatic page translation. If you visit a page in a foreign language, Chrome will offer to translate it for you automatically. (You can get a similar ease-of-use in other browsers with the Translate bookmarklet I supply in this post - but it's nice that Chrome's automatic.)

The ability to re-open a closed tab by right-clicking the tab bar. I'm not sure why I liked this so much, but I did. In most other web browsers, you have to use a keyboard shortcut (usually Ctrl+Shift+T) to reopen a recently-closed tab, or hunt around on the menus; Chrome supports the keyboard shortcut, but it also gives you the option if you right-click the tab bar. It's just nice not to have to switch to the keyboard.

Integrated developer tools. I've been using Chrome as my primary web-development platform for some time now, mostly because of the fantastic developer tools. You definitely don't need them for debate research, though.

A variety of minor irritants...

Tab management: When you have a lot of tabs open, Chrome just compresses them until they get so small you can't tell what any of them are. Combine this with the fact that the Close buttons are always visible, blocking out the text, and it becomes difficult to handle more than 20 tabs. (Supposedly, this will be fixed in a future version.)Search bar: Chrome combines the URL and Google search bar into one. I found this to be occasionally annoying when it would try to do something "smart" with my text that I didn't want. I got used to it pretty quickly, but a separate search box is more predictable.

Downloads: For URLs that directly download, if you open them in a new tab, Chrome will remove the URL when the download finishes. This is a problem if you want to get the URL for a PDF you downloaded with Google Scholar, since you can't copy the URL directly from Google (it will have a lot of redirect mumbo-jumbo in it.)

Javascript alerts: Like Safari and IE, you can't copy text out of a popup alert.

Bookmark separators: Folders of bookmarks can't have separator lines - everything appears together. Again, this is a cosmetic issue, but it bugs me.

Bookmark toolbar: By default, Chrome's bookmark toolbar only appears when you open a new tab, meaning it takes two clicks to open a new tab with a bookmark. This can be changed in the options, however.

Print preview: Inexplicably, Chrome has no print preview option, so if you want to see what a webpage will look like on paper, you're out of luck. (This can be annoying while printing extemp articles.)

RSS: There's no integrated RSS button, so you have to hunt around and try to find the feed URL manually if you want to subscribe to a page.

...and one deal-breaker

One major problem immediately dropped Chrome out of consideration for my top browser. Unlike all the other browsers tested, Chrome uses a custom, slimmed-down PDF plugin. It's slick and fast, but it has one debilitating flaw: You can't drag-and-drop text out of it - you have to copy and paste. Like IE, this makes Chrome annoying to use with Factsmith.

The bottom line: While all-around a solid browser, a few major deficiencies and a variety of minor irritants make Chrome less than ideal for a research platform (but not necessarily for other uses.)

#2: Opera 11

This was a bit unexpected. To my surprise, Opera was one of only two browsers I really enjoyed researching with (Chrome came close, but the PDF drag-and-drop issue kept coming back to haunt me.) Opera isn't perfect by any means, but it worked well, and it wasn't afraid to try out new ideas.

Bold new frontiers

Opera is a bit of a maverick, trying out new features before they become mainstream. For the most part, it operates (pun intended) just like any other browser, but a few features stand out:

Excellent performance on low-speed connections. The most interesting feature is Opera Turbo, a compression-proxy service that can make large pages load significantly faster. You can also use various other bandwidth-saving features like not loading images. If you have a decent connection, these features probably won't help much, but it's something to remember the next time you're trying to do late-night research on an overloaded hotel network.

Mouse gestures. This is really cool. Opera allows you to perform many common actions with "mouse gestures" - quick, easy mouse movements - instead of forcing you to switch to the keyboard or move the mouse across the screen to click a button.

Generally, you hold down the right mouse button and move the mouse in a specific pattern:Once you get used to it, it's much faster than conventional shortcuts (although you can still use them if you wish.) Mouse gestures are completely customizable; for example, I added one for copying text (see below.) (If you like mouse gestures, but want to use Firefox instead of Opera, there are addons like FireGestures that emulate this functionality.)

Comprehensive caching. Opera features much more sophisticated cache management than most other browsers; going forward and back and visiting pages repeatedly is often much faster, since it doesn't try to reload everything. You can even search the contents of all the pages you've visited in a session.

Full MDI tabs. Most browsers will let you have multiple windows. Opera goes a step further: it combines windows and tabs, so you can turn specific tabs into popup windows, while still managing them from tab bar. For example, you could put Google Docs side-by-side with a website for fast copying, without having two entirely separate windows.

Built-in bittorrent client. BitTorrent is a file-sharing transfer protocol; normally, to download torrents, you have to use special software. In Opera, you can download torrents just like any other file. I've never needed to use bittorrents while researching (honestly, they're mostly used for pirating software), but it's cool nonetheless.

Voice control. If you feel like commanding your browser to do things out loud (for whatever reason), you can do that. I promise not to look at you funny. ๐Ÿ˜‰

A well-done interface

For the most part, Opera is very intuitive - everything works about how you would expect. A few features in particular stand out:

Speed Dial: Opera has (in my opinion) the nicest "frequently used sites" display when you open a new tab. The tiles are large and clean, with crisp page previews. The URL bar is also well-done, with a powerful but not overly intrusive advanced-search dropdown.

Customizable: Almost everything about Opera can be customized, from the mouse gestures to the location of the tab bar. Compared to other browsers, Opera just plain has a lot of options.

Tab pinning and grouping: Tabs you use frequently can be "pinned" as icons, and several tabs can be grouped together. In practice, you probably won't use it much, but it's a nice touch.

Tab bubbles: I'm not sure what they're called, but they're nice. Tabs you open in the background will have a little bubble to let you know you haven't looked at them yet - useful when managing lots of different articles.

Tab preview: When you hover your mouse over a tab, it will display a preview of the page. (This sometimes makes it difficult to see the full title for a page, but that's a minor concern.)

Recently-closed-tab trashbin: All recently closed tabs are available by clicking a small trashbin icon. Other browsers have similar features, but it's nice that it's so easy to manage.ย  The bin also stores blocked popups, which is a great way to handle them.

Javascript alerts: For once, Opera does allow me to copy text out of a popup alert.

Speed: Not really an "interface" issue, but Opera is fast, no question about it.

A few design missteps

Tabs: While tab management is generally excellent, there are three minor deficiencies:

  • First, new tabs always open at the very end of the list, which can get annoying if you have a lot of tabs open. (Browsers like Firefox or Chrome will usually put them next to the current tab.)
  • Second, the tab bar isn't quite at the top of the window - it's close, but there's a little gap. This means you can't just flick your mouse to the top of the screen - you have to aim carefully.
  • Third, and most problematic, tabs don't scroll - they just compress until you can't read them. The problem isn't quite as severe as Chrome, however, and there are ways to compensate - you can pin tabs together, or have multiple rows of tabs. Still, it's a bit annoying.

Tabs will also sometimes behave in rather unexpected ways; for example, tabs sometimes randomly resized when I moused over them, making me miss the Close button. On the whole, it works well, but it it's not as polished as Firefox or Chrome.

Bookmarks: This is one major exception to Opera's general intuitiveness. Managing the bookmark toolbar is really, really awkward. You can sometimes drag things, and sometimes can't, and folders are really random. I was extremely confused at first, because I successfully created a folder, but did it in the wrong way somehow so nothing worked. Actually, managing bookmarks in general is a lot more complicated than it needs to be.

There are also no bookmark separators (well, you can do them in the sidebar, but not on the toolbar), and you apparently can't reorganize bookmark folders in anything except alphabetical order.

Trackpads: Like most browsers, you can open a link a new tab by middle-clicking. Unfortunately, if you're using a laptop trackpad without a middle-click button, you're out of luck: you can't use Ctrl+Click like you can with most other browsers. You can use a mouse gesture instead (right-click and flick down), but it's not quite as fast or comfortable.

PDFs: You can't view large PDFs until they're fully downloaded - most other browsers will let you view them as they download. This is only really a problem on slow connections.

Text search: Opera has the same problem as Safari - every time you switch tabs, the Find box disappears. If you want to search for the same text in several different tabs, you have to re-enter it for each one. (It does, however, have a Match Case option for once.)

Back button: You can't middle-click the Back button to open the previous page in a new tab. (Apparently I do this a lot more than I realized!)

Alas, poor Factsmith!: Drag and drop woes

Like IE and Chrome, Opera has problems with drag-and-drop. While you can drag text out of PDFs, you can't drag text out of ordinary webpages.

This is disappointing, since everything else works so well. I managed to compensate partially by creating a mouse gesture for Copy, which made it less frustrating than Internet Explorer, but I really missed the easy of drag-and-drop. Oh well, at least PDFs work.

The bottom line: Bold and under-appreciated, Opera features a wide range of innovative features, but falls a bit short on usability.

#1: Firefox 4

Even before reviewing my notes, Firefox was the obvious choice. Internet Explorer and Safari were merely frustrating; Chrome was solid but imperfect; and Opera was cool, but lacked a few key features. Coming back to Firefox felt like coming home after a long trip.

Firefox is simply very polished. This is a web browser that's been around a long time, has been used by a ton of people, and knows exactly what it's doing. Everything just... works. Bookmarks, tabs, windows, text selection, drag-and-drop, printing, options...

Here's a few things I like about Firefox.

Ridiculously extensible

Mozilla's official archive contains over 60,000 add-ons that have, collectively, been downloaded over 2.5 billion times. Firefox is built on an extremely extensible framework that allows add-ons to do almost anything; a small sample:

Adblock Plus - Ad-blocker.

DownloadThemAll! - Download accelerator and bulk downloader; lets you download entire batches of links at once, with advanced filtering and naming patterns.

Debate Copy - Adds a variety of functions for debate research, like autocopy, keyboard shortcuts, formatting tools, and site extenders.

FireGestures - Adds Opera-style mouse gestures to Firefox.

FoxReplace - Find & replace text on a webpage.

Zotero - An elaborate tool for organizing and tracking academic research.

Other browsers have add-ons, but for sheer number and quality, Firefox wins hands down.

Lots of features: a sampling

Download manager: Firefox's internal download manager is very nice. You can easily start, stop, and pause multiple downloads, track progress, and search past files. If your computer unexpectedly crashes mid-download, you probably won't even have to restart it - the download will pick up right where it left off.

Excellent session restore: Firefox's session restore is one of the most polished. You can close Firefox, go away, come back, and open it again, and all your tabs, windows, downloads, and half-completed sentences will be right where you left them.

Synchronization: Chrome and Opera can synchronize your bookmarks across multiple devices. Firefox goes further: It can synchronize everything, even your open tabs. You can seamlessly jump between computers mid-research and have all your tabs, bookmarks, and add-ons waiting for you.

Security: Firefox includes a variety of interesting security features. For example, it shows you site-verification credentials, automatically virus-scans downloads, warns about malware and phishing sites, prevents information tracking by advertisers, and allows you to easily erase cookies and other data by time or specific sites. While most of these features can be found in other browsers as well, some are unique to Firefox.

Built-in RSS reader: Firefox has very good RSS integration. You can easily subscribe to a site with Google Reader, a desktop reader, or even the built-in feed reader in Firefox.

A polished interface

I could list all the nice things about the Firefox interface here, but instead I'll just point to all my complaints about the other browsers above and say "it doesn't do that." ๐Ÿ˜› A few points are worth mentioning, though:

Stuff just works:ย The Firefox team spent a good deal of time looking at how people tried to do things, and designed the interface to accommodate them. There are often multiple ways to do common tasks, so you don't have to hunt around for the "right" way - you just do it. I have a few gripes with the default placement of some buttons, but it's easy to change things if you don't like them.

Bookmarks done right: Firefox's bookmark handling was my clear favorite. Everything behaves in a natural, obvious way: You can create bookmarks and bookmark folders several different ways, and drag and drop bookmarks wherever you want. Bookmark folders are powerful but not cluttered, and you can add separator lines to keep everything looking nice (yay!)

Tabs done right:

  • The tab bar is nice and wide, and tabs scroll before they get too small to read. You can easily scan through the tabs with the mouse wheel, search them from the Awesome Bar, or even see them all on a dropdown menu.
  • The tab bar is right up against the top of the screen, so you can easily flick your mouse up and find it without having to aim carefully. The tabs are also large enough to click easily, without taking up too much space.
  • Tab placement is intelligent (like Chrome, but better.) New links open right next to the current tab, so you don't have to search around for them; bookmarks open at the end of the list. The tab bar automatically scrolls around to keep recently-opened tabs in view.

The only tab feature I miss from Chrome is constant-sizing. Chrome won't change the size of the tabs until you move your mouse away from them, so you can close a lot of tabs in a row without having to re-orient your mouse as they change size. Nice, but not essential. UPDATE: The new Firefox 5 now includes this feature. Yay!

Awesome Bar and context-sensitive options: The URL bar (aka the Awesome Bar) does a lot more than just store URLs: it also searches Google, bookmarks, history, and open tabs, and you can assign special tags and shortcuts for additional options. Similarly, the search box can automatically show Google's search suggestions. Other browsers include similar features, but Firefox is one of the most polished.

The bottom line: A few eccentricities aside, Firefox is an excellent research platform, with solid features and an efficient, refined interface.

11May/112

The Epic Formatting Post

I wasn't quite sure whether to make this an introduction for newbies, or a technical reference manual, so I decided to make it both. The resulting monstrosity is probably the only document in existence that includes both technical descriptions of font readability and a giant mecha.

Written by quasi-request of several people, who probably regret ever bringing up the subject.

Semi-related note: Factsmith 1.1 was just released, which is part of the reason this post is late. Easier collaboration, access dates, automatic updates, etc. Get it while it's hot.

PART ZERO: FOR THE NEWBIES

All of this is going to sound a lot more complicated than it really is (I really love technical details.) In fact, if you get Factsmith (see Part 2), you can pretty much ignore everything else in this post, but you might want to read it anyway to understand the reasoning behind what Factsmith does.

Otherwise, the most important sections are Parts 1 and 2, and the Extend-o-tron at the end.

PART 1: INTRODUCTION

Why format?

Answer: You format to win. Strange as it sounds, a well-formatted brief will help you win.

We format briefs for the same reason that we cut quotes instead of just printing the entire article out: It makes the evidence easier to handle. If your taglines and dates always look the same, and are always in the same place, you'll be able to find them much faster in-round than if you have to read through the whole document to find them.

Speed wins rounds. Formatting means speed. Ergo, formatting wins rounds.

Rule Number 1: Visual distinction

Taglines should look a certain way, citations should look a certain way, quotes should look a certain way. Basically, everything that serves a purpose should have a distinctive appearance.

Associating a specific look with a specific type of content allows your eyes to jump directly to where you want to go without having to read all the text. Taglines are a good example. If all the text looks the same, you have to read it all to find the taglines; if taglines have a specific appearance, you can just find the next piece of text that looks "like that" and read it.There are a number of properties that contribute to an element's visual style:

  • Font size - making text larger or smaller.
  • Text decoration - Bold, italic, and underlined text all looks different. Note that italic looks a lot closer to normal text than bold does, so making text italic may not be the only distinction needed (see the citation in the example above.)
  • Text location - placing text in different locations on the page, like centering it. In the case of items like page numbers that are always in the same place on the page, this may be the only distinction needed.
  • Spacing - separating a block of text by putting blank space on one or more of its sides (as in the citation shown above, which has a blank line below it.)
  • Font typeface - this is a weak effect, since most readable fonts look fairly similar, but it can be useful when combined with other properties.

Sub-elements should also be visually distinguished. For example, you could always put the article title in quotes, as above. It's a subtle difference, but if makes it easier to quickly find the title in the citation.

Rule Number 2: Consistency, consistency, consistency

Every element of the same type needs to have the same look - every time. Without consistency, most of the benefits of visual distinction are lost - your brain has a much harder time recognizing what an element is without reading it.

In Soviet Russia... consistency formats YOU. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

When I say "the same look", I mean "exactly the same look." It's easy to be lazy and settle for things looking "about right". Take a little time to make everything look perfect - it'll make things easier for you in-round. Plus, psychologically, potential traders won't think as highly of your briefs if they're sloppily formatted.

...and the rest is up to you

As long as your elements are visually distinct and consistent, what they look like is entirely a matter of personal preference. I'll cover some technical recommendations in Part 3, but basically, if you like the way it looks, go with it.

PART 2: HOW-TO

Pictured: Cheating.

Cheating with Factsmith

If you do any amount of research on a Windows computer, stop reading this post and go download a copy of Factsmith. I'll wait for you.

Back? Okay, now I'll explain what you just installed on your computer. Factsmith is a free research software package that basically does all your formatting for you. Instead of copying and pasting lots of text, you can just pull everything together with easy drag-and-drop and have Factsmith turn it into a beautiful document, ready for the printer.

Cheating? Probably. Worth it? Yes.

Factsmith isn't the only software designed for debate research - it's just the one I'm obligated to support, by virtue of, you know, writing it. ๐Ÿ˜› I do think it's probably the best, though, and right now it's the only one being actively updated (albeit infrequently.)

The two other research packages to look into are Evidence Scribe, which comes in two flavors (desktop and web-based), and the formatting tools built into Blue Book Report. You can see a comprehensive feature comparison here. Another tool to look into is Debate Synergy, a complex set of Word extensions designed for NFL/collegiate debate.

If you're new to Factsmith and want to take it for a spin, here's a link to the quickstart guide. In the meantime, I'll keep talking about formatting the manual way.

Necessary software

To process words... you need a word processor. (Even if you're using Factsmith or a similar tool. You'll still need one to view and print the resulting briefs.) You probably already have one.

'"Uncle Cosmo, why do they call it a word processor?"
"It's simple, Skyler. You've seen what a food processor does to food, right?"
- Shoe

I could offer a detailed comparison of the competing products, but I'll just say that if you don't already have Microsoft Word or Pages, snag a copy of OpenOffice.org. It's totally free, and does everything an ordinary debater would ever need their word processor to do. (It's popular, too - the latest version has been downloaded almost 100 million times.)

For the rest of this post I'll be assuming you're using either OpenOffice or Microsoft Word.

Side note: Google Docs is great for collaboration, but isn't so good for formatting because it lacks a lot of page layout features. For this reason, I recommend doing final formatting in another word processor, instead of printing directly off of Google Docs.

Basic formatting functions

(Experienced debaters can probably skip this section.)

Doing basic formatting in OpenOffice

Most of the common formatting tasks are done with the main formatting toolbar (at the top of the screen by default.) It looks like this:The options are, left to right: Select font, select text size, toggle bold, toggle italic, toggle underline, left-justify, center-justify, right-justify, full-justify, numbered list, bullet points, decrease indent, increase indent, select color, highlighter, select background color.

To change the formatting of some text, select it with the mouse (click and drag so the background behind it changes color.) Then click the button you want. For example, to change the font, select the text, click the font box on the left, and click the font you want. To make text bold, select the text, and click the "B" button. (Click it again to remove bold.)

The best way to figure out how everything works is just to play with it a bunch. There are also keyboard shortcuts for most of these, if you like that sort of thing.

More advanced formatting can be done by selecting the text you want, clicking the Format menu, and clicking "Character...". A window will pop up with several tabs and various options. Formatting that applies to the whole line of text (like spacing, indentation, etc.) can be done by clicking the Format menu and clicking "Paragraph..."; a similar window will appear. Again, playing with it is the best way to learn.

(Note: You can also access the Character and Paragraph windows by right-clicking the selected text and clicking Character or Paragraph on the popup menu.)

Doing basic formatting in Microsoft Word

Most of the common formatting tasks are done with the main formatting toolbar, on the Home tab of the ribbon at the top. It looks like this:The options are, from left to right, top to bottom: Select font, select text size, increase text size, decrease text size, remove formatting, bullet points, numbered list, multilevel numbered list, decrease indent, increase indent, sort, show/hide special formatting marks. Bold, italic, underline, strikeout, subscript, superscript, select case, select color, highlighter, left-justify, center-justify, right-justify, full-justify, change spacing, select background color, create table. (You can see what each button does by putting your mouse cursor over it and waiting for a moment.)

To change the formatting of some text, select it with the mouse (click and drag so the background behind it changes color.) Then click the button you want. For example, to change the font, select the text, click the font box on the left, and click the font you want. To make text bold, select the text, and click the "B" button. (Click it again to remove bold.)

The best way to figure out how everything works is just to play with it a bunch. There are also keyboard shortcuts for most of these, if you like that sort of thing.

More advanced formatting can be done by selecting the text you want, right-clicking it, and clicking "Font...". A window will pop up with several tabs and various options. Formatting that applies to the whole line of text (like spacing, indentation, etc.) can be done by right-clicking and clicking "Paragraph..."; a similar window will appear. Again, playing with it is the best way to learn.

Easier formatting with paragraph styles and templates

Case-by-case formatting, as described above, is simple and easy-to-understand, but there is a better way. Enter paragraph styles.

Paragraph styles allow you to pre-define sets of formatting options, and apply them to an element with a single click. Even better, if you decide you want to change the way (say) your citations look, you don't have to go through and manually reformat them all - you can just change the paragraph style, and everything set to it will change too. Magic!

Both Word and OpenOffice come with a number of pre-defined styles; I'll explain how to use them first, before explaining how to make your own.

Using paragraph styles

In OpenOffice, the fastest way to set the style of a paragraph is to click on it and select the style you want from the style dropdown to the left of the formatting bar (pictured, right.) The style dropdown doesn't display all available styles, just ones that you use in the document, plus some extra common ones. (To see the full list, click the button to the left, and the "Styles and Formatting" window will appear. You might have to set the dropdown at the bottom to "All Styles" to find what you're looking for.)

In Microsoft Word, the interface is a little more complicated. Word displays the top few styles in a panel on the Home tab of the ribbon:If the panel shows the style you want to apply, click the paragraph and click on the appropriate style in the panel. If not, click the small button on the lower left of "Change Styles" (the bottom one in the row of three.) More styles will appear. Click the one you want.

Creating paragraph styles

What if the default styles don't look the way you want? Change them, or make new ones.

In OpenOffice:

To modifying an existing style: The fastest way is to find a paragraph that's set to the style you want, right-click it, and click "Edit Paragraph Style..." from the popup menu. Alternatively, you can open the "Styles and Formatting" box by clicking the button to the left of the style selector, find the style you want, right-click it, and click Modify.

To create a new style: Open the "Styles and Formatting" box by clicking the button to the left of the style selector. Click on the button on the far right (the one with the little green plus sign.) Click "New Style from Selection" on the popup menu, type in a name for the style, and click "OK". (The new style will start off with the formatting of the current paragraph.)

In both cases, a window will appear with lots and lots of formatting options. Customize them to your liking, and click OK.

In Microsoft Word:

To modify an existing style: Find the style you want on the styles panel, like you were going to apply it. Right-click it, and click "Modify". A window will appear with lots of formatting options. Alternatively, you can find a paragraph that's set to the style you want and make formatting changes to it manually. Then right-click it, click "Styles" from the popup menu, and click "Update [stylename] to Match Selection".

To create a new style: Format a paragraph the way you want the style to look, right-click it, and click Styles from the popup menu. Then click "Save Selection as New Quick Style...". Type in a name for the new style, and click OK.

You'll want to create styles for section headers, taglines, citations, and evidence quotes, at minimum. You'll probably want your section headers and taglines to be modified versions of Heading 1 and Heading 2, respectively, to make tables of contents easier (see Part 3, Table of contents.)

Templates

Recreating your paragraph styles every time you create a new brief is annoying. Instead, create a template - basically, a blank brief with all the paragraph styles, headers, footers, tables of contents, etc. already added. Save this somewhere and make a copy of it when you want to create a new brief, instead of making everything from scratch.

Alternatively, you can add your document as an "official" template that appears on the list when you create a new document. The process is a little complicated, so I'll just link to instructions for OpenOffice and Microsoft Word.

Keyboard shortcuts

Here's a neat trick most people don't know about: You can assign keyboard shortcuts to paragraph styles, so when you press (for example) Alt+F9, the current paragraph is set to the "Citation" style. This is much faster than hunting around in the styles display.

Tip: In Microsoft Word, the preset Heading 1, Heading 2, and Heading 3 styles are already set to Alt+Ctrl+1, Alt+Ctrl+2, and Alt+Ctrl+3, respectively. In OpenOffice, it's Ctrl+1, Ctrl+2, and Ctrl+3.

To set a keyboard shortcut in OpenOffice, click the Tools menu, and then Customize. A window will appear; click the Keyboard tab. Find the keyboard shortcut you want in the long list at the top, and click on it. Next, scroll down to the bottom of the "Category" list, and double-click "Styles". Click Paragraph. Find the style you want in the middle list (Function), and click on it. Finally, click the Modify button in the upper right part of the window, and click OK.

To set a keyboard shortcut in Microsoft Word, follow this guide.

PART 3: ELEMENTS & CONCEPTS

Table of contents

In an ideal world, every brief would come pre-packaged with a genie to float above your head and tell you where everything is. Unfortunately, most briefs do not have genies, so you need a table of contents.

To add a table of contents in OpenOffice: Put the cursor where you want the table to go, click the Insert menu, and select Indexes and Tables. Then click Indexes and Tables again from the popout menu. A new window will appear. If you want, you can customize the table in this window, but it's not very intuitive, so you probably just want to click OK.

To add a table of contents in Microsoft Word: Put the cursor where you want the table to go, click the References tab in the ribbon, and click Table of Contents. Then click your desired style.

But how does the word processor know what to include in the table of contents? It uses paragraph styles. Text set to Heading 1 will be first-level entries, text set to Heading 2 will be second-level, and so on. To include an evidence card on the table of contents, just set its tagline to Heading 1 or Heading 2. (You can redefine the heading styles to match whatever you want your taglines to look like, as described in "Easier formatting with paragraph styles and templates" in the previous part.)

Note that the table of contents may not update automatically when you change taglines, but it should always update when you save or print. If this bothers you, you can force it to update manually (in Word: Click "Update table" on the References tab; in OpenOffice: Right-click the table and click "Update Index/Table".)

A related trick from Joseph Clarkson: The table of contents is an excellent place to mark your favorite arguments. Just mark them with a highlighter - you'll save a lot of time in-round.

Headers and footers

This picture actually exists.

Headers and footers are text and information that's automatically added to the top or bottom of every page - for example, if you wanted to have the phrase "WEASEL TUXEDO" at the bottom of every page.

To add headers or footers in OpenOffice: Click the Insert menu, then Header or Footer, and then Default. This will get you a blank field to put whatever you want in. To edit a header/footer later on, just click it.

To add headers or footers in Microsoft Word: Click on the Insert tab in the ribbon, click Header or Footer, and select the style of header you want. To edit a header/footer later-on, double-click it on the page.

There are two things that really need to go in the header/footer.

First, page numbers. Page numbers are pretty much a must - unless you are particularly fond of spending thirty minutes painstakingly resorting all your evidence after a round, of course. Even if you staple all your briefs, you still need page numbers to navigate off of the table of contents.

To add page numbers in OpenOffice: Put the cursor where you want to have the number and click the Insert menu, then Fields, then Page Number.

To add page numbers in Microsoft Word: Click on the Insert tab in the ribbon, click Page Number, and select where you want them to go from the dropdown menu.

Second, the brief title. If you don't staple your briefs, this is essential for after-round resorting. If you do staple your briefs, it's still nice to have the brief title on every page so you can riffle through a stack of briefs and find it without stopping to check the title pages. The brief title should always go in the header, since nine times out of ten you'll be looking at the top of briefs when you flip through them.There are a couple of other things you may also want to put in the header, primarily your team name and club name. This way, if you lose your evidence, other teams can get it back to you - or, if they can't find you, they can get it back to a clubmate. Since you almost certainly have space, go ahead and add them.

Card splitting

Card splitting is when a piece of evidence crosses more than one page. This is bad, for reasons that will become obvious the first time you're reading a killer card and suddenly realize that the most important part of it is still back at the table.

There are two ways to ensure that cards stay on the same page:

Manual way: Page breaks

Basically, manually start a new page whenever a card would run over. There are two ways of starting a new page: inserting a page break, or pressing Enter a bunch of times to create blank space. I recommend page breaks, for several reasons.

To insert a page break: Hold down the Ctrl key and press Enter.

First, compatibility. Briefs will sometimes display slightly differently on different computers and word processors; for example, if the font is slightly different, the brief may require five blank lines instead of four to reach the next page. There are few things more annoying than frantically trying to print a brief on a hotel computer, only to discover that all your taglines are separated from the evidence. With page breaks, the computer automatically calculates how much space is necessary, so the worst you can get is an extra blank page.

Second, and related, ease of modification. All sorts of minor tweaks can change the amount of blank space necessary: changing a tagline, trimming a quote, decreasing the font size, etc. If you have to fill the space manually with blank lines, you have to do a lot more work, and you're more likely to mess up.

Automatic way: Paragraph locking

This is the best way if you're using paragraph styles. You can tell your word processor to keep specific paragraphs together, and it will automatically handle all the page breaks. To do this, edit your paragraph styles for taglines, citations, and quote text to set the following attributes:

In OpenOffice: On the Text Flow tab of the paragraph settings window, check "Do not split paragraph" and "Keep with next paragraph".

In Microsoft Word: On the Line and Page Breaks tab of the paragraph settings window, check "Keep lines together" and "Keep with next".

Each card will now lock together on one page.

Note that you need to have a gap between the evidence that does not have these attributes set, or the word processor will unsuccessfully try to keep the entire brief together on one page. (You could not set the "keep with next" option for the quote itself, but then multi-paragraph quotes will spill over pages. The best way is to simply have a blank line of Default style between each card.)

Fonts

There are two different types of fonts: Serif and sans-serif. Serif fonts have little extra strokes at the end of certain lines, like Times New Roman. Sans-serif fonts do not, like Arial. There is evidence that, on paper (not on a screen), serif fonts are easier to read than sans-serif fonts, so I recommend using a serif font for your quotes. Other elements are less important.

Examples of a few good, readable fonts:I recommend using Times New Roman for most text, and whatever you prefer for "special" elements like sections and taglines, to taste. Go for whatever is most readable, and whatever you do, don't use Comic Sans. (I once saw a 1AC printed entirely in Comic Sans. I am not making this up. My eyes have only recently recovered.)

Congratulations, you have successfully spent precious seconds of your life making this text readable, only to discover that it contains a random scene from Hamlet. HAMLET: Sir, I lack advancement. ROSENCRANTZ: How can that be, when you have the voice of the king himself for your succession in Denmark? HAMLET: Ay, but sir, 'While the grass grows,' -- the proverb is something musty. (Re-enter Players with recorders) O, the recorders! let me see one. To withdraw with you: -- why do you go about to recover the wind of me, as if you would drive me into a toil? GUILDENSTERN: O, my lord, if my duty be too bold, my love is too unmannerly. HAMLET: I do not well understand that. Will you play upon this pipe? GUILDENSTERN: My lord, I cannot.

Text size

There is a lot of conflicting evidence about what size font is the most readable. It depends a lot on what font is used, who is reading it, and whether it's on paper or on a screen. Generally, however, there's a "sweet spot" between 10 and 14 points. I recommend 12-point font, for three reasons.

First, 14-point is not ideal for younger eyes. You won't notice much difference reading aloud, but when scanning a brief at the table, your eyes have to cover more ground. Since you won't have any trouble reading smaller text, there's no real advantage. Plus, it's not very space efficient.

Second, 10-point fonts don't work well in standard brief format. This is because of something called horizontal retrace, which is what your eyes do when they reach the end of a line and jump down to the next one. It gets harder to do this the longer the line is. With a 12-point font, each line has about 85 characters; with a 10-point font, you'll get up to 110. Thus, while small fonts can be easier to read in narrow columns, 12-point is a bit easier across a whole page.

Third, 12-point font is standard for almost all briefs and sourcebooks (except the Blue Book line). When trading briefs, the other party will probably be expecting 12-point font, so if you use something else, you may be giving them more or less than they expected.

Note: 12-point size may look a little different for different fonts. For example, Tahoma 10-point is only marginally smaller than Times New Roman 12-point.

Added material

OK, time for my personal crusade.

It's normal to add explanatory material (like full versions of acronyms) to quotes, in square brackets. For example:

"Researchers at USCN [University of South Central Nowhere] announced the shocking discovery yesterday."

The problem is, some quotes will contain text in brackets already. The normal solution to this is to add a note indicating which brackets were added. But there's a much better way: Italicize all added brackets; leave all original brackets unchanged. For example:

"Researchers [see 156] at USCN [University of South Central Nowhere] announced the shocking discovery yesterday."

The first set of brackets was in the original; the second was added. By using this system, you can see what was added at a glance, instead of hunting around in the citation.

Miscellanea

Tagline case

There Are Two Different Ways Of Capitalizing Your Taglines: Title Case (This Style) Or Sentence Case, Like Ordinary Written Sentences. Some People Prefer Title Case Because It Looks More Official, but I recommend writing taglines in sentence case like this. It's a lot easier to read.

TITLE CASE IS NOT THE HARDEST TO READ, OF COURSE; THAT WOULD PROBABLY BE ALL-CAPS, LIKE THIS. Interestingly, early computers and teletypes only used capital letters, to cut down on the storage and processing power required. Nerd folklore has it that lowercase letters were initially favored for their readability, but were rejected when an executive pointed out that "it would be impossible to spell the name of the Deity correctly." (There is, alas, no evidence that this ever happened.)

Quote emphasis

It is normal to "highlight down" long quotes, and only read the most important parts of them. The normal way of doing this this simply to underline the parts you want to read. A few other ways you might want to experiment with:

  • Bold instead of underline, bold with underline, or a thick underline.
  • Shrinking the font size of everything that isn't underlined.
  • Actual highlighting.

In my opinion, simple underlining gets you the best bang for your buck, with occasional font-shrinking if the quote is really long, but this is mostly just preference.

PART 4: EXTEND-O-TRON 5000

Template time! Yay!

For your enjoyment, I've attached several brief templates that you can use, peruse, modify, and mangle however you want. I recommend that newbies start with one of these, instead of trying to start from scratch.

I've included a few "dummy" cards in each to show how they're used. Click to download.

Snapdragon I (OpenOffice)
A basic, utilitarian 12-pt Times New Roman style with a focus on simplicity and readability. Official style of the COG sourcebook, and Factsmith's default style.

Snapdragon I (Microsoft Word)
A basic, utilitarian 12-pt Times New Roman style with a focus on simplicity and readability. Official style of the COG sourcebook, and Factsmith's default style.

Blue Book (OpenOffice)
Designed after the style used by the Blue Book, Monument Publishing's flagship sourcebook - with a table of contents and a few other improvements added.

Blue Book (Microsoft Word)
Designed after the style used by the Blue Book, Monument Publishing's flagship sourcebook - with a table of contents and a few other improvements added. (Note: the Word version doesn't look quite as good as the OpenOffice version.)

Evidence Scribe (OpenOffice)
Designed after Evidence Scribe's standard export style, with shaded citations, boxed headings, and a variety of fonts and sizes.

Evidence Scribe (Microsoft Word)
Designed after Evidence Scribe's standard export style, with shaded citations, boxed headings, and a variety of fonts and sizes.

6Apr/110

4 useful bookmarklets to improve your research

A "bookmarklet" is a small script stored in a bookmark. When you click the bookmark, it does something nifty. Here are four useful bookmarklets for researchers:

1. Retrieve Google's cached version of the current page

Google's bots save basic text copies of webpages they visit. If a website is temporarily down, you can often read it anyway by loading Google's cached copy. (Unless Google itself is down. But - let's face it - if Google is down, you probably need to be in a fallout shelter, not researching.) With the button below, you can instantly access Google's copy of any page.Cached VersionTo "install" this bookmarklet in your browser, just drag-and-drop it onto your bookmarks toolbar (or menu). Then, whenever you need to get the cached version of a page, just click on the little "Cached Version" shortcut and it will take you right there.

2. Retrieve Archive.org's backup of the current page

Google's cache works well for pages which are temporarily unavailable, but what about pages that have been offline since 2006? Amazingly, there is a way to retrieve them: the Internet Archive. The Internet Archive is a nonprofit digital library with a stated mission of "universal access to all knowledge", which basically means "a complete public backup of everything ever put on the internet." If you find a really amazing link to an article that no longer exists, you can often plug it into the Internet Archive's WayBack Machine and get a copy of it.WayBack VersionThis bookmarklet works the same way as the Google Cache one; just drag it onto your bookmarks toolbar and click it when you need it.

3. Translate the current page into English

If you run across a useful article in Russian, it's not hard to get an English version. Google supplies some excellent translation software, which you can access on demand with this bookmarklet.TranslateGoogle Chrome will do translations automatically, but this bookmarklet is still useful for Chrome users, since it gives you a static URL. If you want to cite a translated page, it's helpful to have a URL that gets you directly to the translated version.

A note: There are a few sticky ethical considerations in citing a machine-translated article, since it's harder to be sure of the author's original intent. Just be careful.

4. Information on demand

This one's a little more complicated. If you need to look up a bit of information frequently, you can create a button that will display it in a popup box. (For example, I use a button like this to store my library card number, which I use to access EBSCO, JSTOR, and a few other databases. When I need it, I can just click the button and copy the number out of the popup.)

To make an info-button, create a new bookmark and use the following as the URL:

javascript:alert('yourtexthere')

Replace yourtexthere with whatever your text is. There's a catch, though: The text must be URL-encoded. To save yourself some time, you can use this online tool to do this automatically. Save the bookmark, and you're done!

Of course, you could always just memorize the information, but where's the fun in that?

Filed under: Research No Comments
24Mar/113

The Epic Tagline Post

Hitler on a magic carpet

Picture is unrelated.

Since this post is a day late, here's a picture of Hitler on a magic carpet.

What's a tagline?

Tagline

More importantly, "why should I care?" Simple: good taglines make good rounds. How you write your taglines can have wide-ranging consequences:

  1. Organization - Good taglines make it easy for the judge to follow what you are saying, making you sound more organized.
  2. Persuasiveness - Good taglines make your arguments sound more distinct and pre-planned, making you sound more confident.
  3. Argumentation - Good taglines make it easy to understand evidence at a glance, improving your understanding of the case and helping you argue better.
  4. Flowing - Good taglines are easier to write down, making your flow more organized and useful.

In short, if you're not paying much attention to your taglines, you probably have a lot of room to stretch out and improve your speaking.

Flow tags vs. Brief tags

Taglines serve two purposes. First, they tell you what the card says so you don't have to read the whole thing (the "brief" tag.) Second, they provide a short "handle" for the evidence that the judge can write down and use to track it throughout the round (the "flow" tag.) These two purposes are very different, and often require very different tags. For example:

Brief tag: "Obama promises to veto any new spending"

Flow tag: "Spending freeze"

All sorts of problems arise when people don't understand this distinction and try to use the same tagline for both. Usually, the tagline winds up being either far too complicated to write down, or far too short to adequately explain the card. (Ethos tends to land on the former side; most novices tend to land on the latter.)

In reality, these two tags are rarely the same, nor should they be. A good tag must have both. Many debaters eschew the flow tag and only include the descriptive brief tag in their printed briefs, on the grounds that the flow tag can change in different contexts. While this is true, prepared flow tags save a lot of time in the vast majority of cases, so there's no reason not to include them.

There are basically two ways of including both:

  1. Put the brief tag on a different line from the flow tag. What this will look like depends on your formatting.
  2. Combine the two in some way.

Since the two-line method is straightforward, I'll focus on #2. There are basically two ways of combining the brief tag and flow tag:

  1. Separate, on one line. To use the example above, "Spending Freeze: Obama promises to veto any new spending". This is simple and clean, and is probably the easiest way to start doing flow tags if you're used to only using brief tags.
  2. Flow tag, then any additional information that's needed (but not included in in the flow tag.) For example: "Spending freeze - Obama promises to veto". This is usually shorter. Some people may find it confusing if they're not used to thinking schematically.

Flow tags: Be S.A.F.E.

What makes a good flow tag? I follow a standard I call SAFE.

Short: The tag should contain as few words as possible. If there's a way to rewrite it to make it shorter, do it. (For example, "Damages our relationship" becomes "Relations hurt".)

Accurate: The tag should accurately reflect the core meaning of the card. (If the tag says it will hurt relations, then the card had better actually say it will hurt relations.)

Flowable: The tag should avoid words that are long, hard to spell, or otherwise not easy to write down. (Use "hurt" instead of "damage", "bad" instead of "detrimental", etc.)

Easily-understood: The tag should immediately make sense. This seems obvious, but it's violated surprisingly often. (For example, "IRC can't make laws" is much easier to understand than "IRC is not a legislative body".)

Brief tags: What's the difference?

The purpose of the flow tag is to help the judge understand and manipulate the evidence. The purpose of the brief tag is to help you understand and manipulate the evidence. In other words, the brief tag tells you what the evidence says, and how to use it.

Generally speaking, the brief tag will merely be a factual summary of what the evidence says, including all the details you need to understand it without reading it.

Avoid needless words

Short is golden. When you're scanning a brief, the more compact the taglines are, the faster you can read and understand them. This translates to a better understanding of the case, and hence a better chance of winning. Basically, if you can make a tagline shorter without significantly damaging usability, do it.

I should clarify that I'm not advising you to cut out information, although that may be a good idea under some circumstances. I'm just saying that there is no reason to write "The Forkoro nuclear reactor meltdown was the result of an accident" when you can write "Forkoro meltdown was an accident". (Remember that your taglines do not necessarily have to be complete sentences.)

A related note: Sticking All Your Tags In Title Case Like This Makes Them Slightly Harder To Read And Hence Harder To Use. If You Really Prefer Them That Way, Go Ahead, But For Most People, they're a lot easier to read if you write them in sentence case like this. See?

Direct-quote tagging is the spawn of Satan

Direct-quote tagging is the practice of taking sentences from the quote verbatim and using them as your taglines. This method was originated by several high-profile researchers, and has since spread to many other people. It's fast, it's easy, it identifies you with the elites, and it is the Manifestation of Pure Evil.

I'm deadly serious. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever for you to do this. Direct-quote tagging consistently violates all of the principles discussed above, leading to taglines that are wordy, obtuse, and unflowable. (If you don't believe me, here's a real-life example from a brief I had to reformat: "Sulfate concentrations in the atmosphere โ€“ a major component of fine particles, especially in the East โ€“ have decreased since 1990." It means "Acid rain has gotten better since 1990." WHY?)

The only real justifications for doing this are "it's fast" and "it reduces powertagging". However, the amount of time saved when researching is more than offset by the amount of time wasted when trying to use the darn thing, and if you really can't afford to spend an extra 15 seconds writing a good tag, you're doing something wrong. Similarly, the best way to reduce powertagging is simply to not write powertags. Direct quotes don't reduce powertagging anyway, since one sentence rarely captures the nuances of the whole card.

I understand that there are plenty of excellent debaters for whom direct-quote tagging works perfectly fine. That doesn't mean it's a good idea any more than the existence of perfectly healthy smokers means smoking is a good idea. In my experience, people who use direct tags tend to be less concise and harder to flow overall. You can make it work, but it requires a lot of unnecessary effort that could be avoided if you just did it right from the beginning. Please, if only for the sake of the people you'll trade evidence with, don't use direct-quote tagging.

Extend-o-tron 5000: A tagline workshop

Here's a real-life example to test out some of these concepts on.

US has permanent veto over any changes to the convention
William H. Neukom, President of the American Bar Association, September 27, 2007. LL.B. Stanford University. A.B. Dartmouth College โ€œStatement submitted to the Committee on Foreign Relations of the United States Senate regarding the Convention on the Law of the Seaโ€ http://meetings.abanet.org/webupload/commupload/IC965000/relatedresources/2007sept27sfrcstatements_t.pdf

โ€œThe rule of law in the oceans is not static, and the Convention will provide the platform for additional legal rules on future uses and protections of the oceans. The ABA did not endorse the treaty until 1994 because we agreed with objections to one part of the treaty dealing with deep seabed mining. After intensive negotiations, again led by the United States, those objections were resolved in an Agreement signed by the United States in August 1994 and now in force with the Convention. In accordance with that Agreement, the United States will become a permanent member of the governing Council of the International Seabed Authority and of the Finance Committee, which operate by consensus, once it becomes a party to the Convention. From that point forward, no decisions will be able to be made over the objections of the United States. Our failure to become a party to the Convention and take advantage of these changes negotiated in the Agreement will become more problematic in the future when and if mining of the deep seabed becomes commercially feasible.โ€

This evidence doesn't have a flow tag at all, so we'll have to create one, but first let's work on the brief tag. What we have right now is fairly accurate and contains pretty much all the information we need, but it's wordy. Here are a few possible alternatives:

  • "U.S. will be able to veto changes to UNCLOS"
  • "Changes will require U.S. consent"

Etc. I'll go with the second one for simplicity (you'll see why later.)

The flow tag is supposed to be a short handle that describes the content of the quote. Let's go with "Can veto". Now check: Is this SAFE?

Short - Two words. Check.
Accurate - That's what the quote says. Check.
Flowable - Neither of the words are longer than four letters. Check.
Easily understood - We can veto it, obviously. Check.

Now, combine the two together in some way. I'll go with the separate-on-one-line method: "Can veto: Changes will require U.S. consent". (If you want, you can add in some extra notation to indicate what this is responding to.)

And that's it!