Archive for the ‘Ideas’ Category

Accessibility of Dingbat Webfonts

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

Inspired by Jason Santa Maria’s Tweet:

I love the idea of dingbat webfonts, though I want someone to write an article on the accessibility of using them.

The idea is fairly simple: Draw up some beautiful flat-colour vector icons, wrap the whole set into a font, and then load it as a webfont to display the icons on your page. Simple and clean, right?

There are problems.

In effect, you will be littering your page with a list of ‘j’ and a ‘h m n p’ near the title, with some ‘s u f’ in some other places. What does it mean? It’s completely indecipherable unless you successfully load the font and have the required experience/cognizance to recognize the meaning of the shape. A lot of people just aren’t good with icons.

There are some standard solutions. Wrap everything up with plain-text mark-up, then add the symbol and negative-indent the semantic text away.
In browsers that don’t support web-fonts, and in screen-readers that read out text on the screen (which would be all of them), the code would still contain a bunch of odd letters or numbers everywhere.

Someone mentioned a page from Opentype in his post, where they make a characterset which has most of the letters blank, with the ‘W’ mapping to their logo.

So how’s this:
Make an icon set with most everything blank, and then put twenty-six icons in the capital spaces. Put the shopping cart in ‘C’, because ‘cart’ starts with ‘C’. In your shopping cart example, it could say “Purchase, go to shopping Cart” but the “, go to shopping art” would be blank, the “C” would be the shopping cart symbol, and you’d see “Purchase []” where [] is the symbol.

You’d be limited to twenty-six symbols, and each must be applied to the letter you’ll use to start its name (unless you don’t mind the text “caRt” or such).

Net (and a bit about Neutrality)

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

The latest internet storm is the hubbub about Google’s and Verizon’s Joint Policy Proposal for an Open Internet. Essentially, wired networks aren’t allowed to prioritize traffic, wireless is interesting and unique and should be decided later, and the FCC should watch over things.

There are little points here and there. I encourage you to spend an hour reading it over, word for word, to discover for yourself what it means, because most of the internet has it wrong (quite like the iPhone 4 antenna issue, which has turned into ‘antennagate’, which is better described as ‘antennapaloosa’).
So what does that Google document mean? It’s a lot of high-level language with broad generalization and sets a framework for future law-makers.
To clarify, read Brian Fling’s Google, Verizon and an “Open Internet” from a Mobile perspective. He tells us all how wireless networks are different from wired networks (and believe me, they are).

When you get right down to it, what can we really do?

  • Cap bandwidth
  • Charge per-gigabyte
  • Create a tiered system of separate internets
  • Charge more all round
  • Destroy Hollywood
  • Create a foundation for peer-to-peer networking
  • Others

You can’t cap the bandwidth. Throttling might be fine, but most people get so little, anyway, and they can still download hundreds of gigabytes a month. Frankly, fast bandwidth is necessary, or you’ll spend hours a day waiting for your pages and things to load.

I’d be all for charging per-gigabyte, except that providers invariably would charge too much. I would love to believe they could do some research to find out how much people need, and then create a simple stepping chart of prices, but they are either incredibly stupid or are greedy liars—they say you can visit so many webpages and get so many emails with whatever bandwidth, when really you can’t.
See the Rogers Data Calculator. It looks like they’ve made some improvements, lately, but they still say a webpage is 289 KB. I wish that were true, but it seems a lot of pages I visit are several megabytes in size. (Still, it seems fair, right now.)
A good per-gigabyte system should start off small, because basic internet access is very important. If people really want to torrent a bunch of videos, games, and music, they can pay for all that. Imagine if you could get a basic internet connection for $5 or $10 per month.

Obviously, creating a tiered system wouldn’t work, because everyone would have to pay a premium just to get basic bandwidth (although you already do). Worse, this would extend into the internet itself, and you’d subscribe to certain sites the way you subscribe to cable channels. Imagine only being allowed to go to the most famous and corporate sites.

Charging more all around won’t work, because they’re already charging us exorbitant amounts for relatively pitiful network connections.

Utterly destroying Hollywood and hunting down any famous musicians would reduce the amount of traffic downloading torrents. This obviously isn’t going to happen. (Though it would make a great movie!)

Most of the network traffic is duplicates: mailing lists, illegally downloaded movies, millions of upgraded FireFox installers, and the most popular YouTube videos.
If we could lay some protocols, programs, and infrastructure to allow local copies to be shared between local machines without hampering the network, it could really reduce the amount of bandwidth being used for large files.
CDNs already take care of the top-level branches, where the internet backbones would otherwise need to duplicate content, but that data still needs to be downloaded separately each time someone in that region requests the file. We need a way for this content to be managed AFTER the end-of-line provider downloads it.
It would basically be a Fractal Internet. The big pipes shuttle to the smaller pipes, which will share with the even smaller pipes. I don’t know if any research has been put into this, yet.


Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

You’ve got your coffee, you’ve got your latest presentation open, and you can start work on its slides. You notice a new email in your taskbar. You open your mail. It’s one of those crummy daily news emails you’ve set a rule for that throws it into another folder.
You minimize that application, and look at the blank PowerPoint slide. Then you notice there’s a new blog in your feed reader. It’s a link from Daring Fireball’s John Gruber, pointing to another silly thing said by some pundit about some apple product. Okay, whatever.
Back to your work. The slide is still blank, but suddenly your cell-phone buzzes with an incoming text-message.

Is it important?
Then why are you being notified of it at that exact moment?

In today’s day and age, the killer of productivity is distraction. And yet, we need an unprecedented amount of communication to keep stride in our large companies. We need to keep up-to-date with all the latest information. Can we really afford to put that all away and sit in the resulting silence?

What time does what need?

But there’s no reason you have to be alerted to everything you’re subscribed to. All you need to do is limit what gets your premium time. So, what do you need to drop everything for?

  • Your significant other(s) or other family members (if they never send spam)
  • Your team leaders, bosses, or stakeholders at work
  • Specific professionals, such as your family doctors or your dentists
  • Other sources that will most likely provide time-critical information

There are certain times, throughout your day, when you should take a break to unwind and digest information. During this period, it’s usually safe to catch up on emails. You’ve doubtless got tons of junk stuff to read through each day, so you should limit what you see during this time:

  • Most other non-volume email
  • Text messages
  • Blogs or other news sources you’ve labelled under ‘important’
  • Things like Google Wave

Finally, towards the end of the day (and, possibly, also first thing in the morning), you will want everything else:

  • Spam and volume email
  • All those other blog feeds

You’ll have to fit Twitter in there, somewhere. Some people check the entire stream, if they’re following few people, which would fit in that second category. Others have a constant stream of updates, which takes some practice to read without breaking concentration.

How would it work?

So what do these simple rules mean for development? How can they be implemented?

  • Allow the email inbox to be sorted into folders: Spam, for supposed spam, Important, for contacts we list as important, and Inbox, for everything else
  • Allow feed items (or whole folders in your feed reader) to be marked ‘important’
  • Allow specific contacts/items/pages/things/places/nouns/etc. in whatever other programs to be marked as Important or not

And then:

  • Every few minutes, update the Important email messages
  • Every two hours, or on some specific time-map set by you, update the non-spam email, the important feed items, Google Wave items, text messages, and such
  • At 8:00am and 5:00pm (or whatever time you set), update the rest of the emails, the rest of the feeds, and, really, the rest of everything else that would otherwise have distracted you during the day.

Obviously, this would all work better if there was an all-in-one application that gathered your emails, tweets, waves, feeds, texts, status updates, and more all in one place.

This note is, obviously, directed at implementors. You all have a responsibility toward your users! Make the most of their time, and help them (us!) become more productive. Too many programs are shoddy, and we can all do better.

Steam Punk

Friday, May 14th, 2010

I can’t remember the first time I saw some sort of steam-punk accessory, but I fell in love instantly. There’s something about naked metal adorning stripped-down mechanics that pulls at my geek nature.

There’s one glaring problem, though; I couldn’t find any examples where steam-punk was anything but pure fashion, without any function to speak of.

Show me the Light

Last month, while visiting the uncle of a friend, I tried playing his cello. While acquainting myself with it, I noticed that the strings weren’t tuned by turning pegs directly attached to the bit the string was wrapped around; rather, a cog was in its place, and a sort of thick-threaded screw coming from behind turned the cog to tune the string.

Finally, he could keep the thing in tune, and I found a beautiful example of working steam-punk.


Since then, I’ve been looking around and examining some issues:

  • There are usually better ways : With today’s technology, we very rarely have the chance to use victorian engineering effectively. Steam is out of the question, with electricity virtually everywhere, and mechanical sytems are being replaced by solid-state technologies.
  • Different Aesthetics : Modern-day design tends to reduce everything to its simplest components, which really doesn’t help those big clunky steam-punk attributes.
  • Everything is Manufactured : In today’s world, everything comes ready-built. You can sometimes move a couple parts, but overall the only thing you can do is re-case it. It seems kind of backwards to rip something apart and rebuild it differently if the new build isn’t actually better.

Marriage of Mechanic and Electric

The obvious question, then, is “What can we do to keep the charm of the mechanical while using electricity?”

  • Think Outside the Circuitbox : The most obvious use for steam-punk is in things that require engineering and mechanics. The clock on your wall, your cabinets, your doors, and all manner of appliances have a multitude of mechanical bits.
  • Jewelery : Try not to. Dangling cogs from your ears or wearing vacuum-tube necklaces can be gaudy and rarely works well. Gears are supposed to make things move, so use them for that purpose if you use them in ornamentation.
  • Strip it Down : Forget mechanics for a while. Half the beauty of steam-punk is the display. Strip off as much of the casing as you can; perhaps bolt the pieces together if they fall apart without the case. Never again will your toast get stuck in the toaster.
  • Always look for Opportunites : Keep an eye out for anything which could be solved using gears or widgets. Keep in mind that a solid engineering mind is needed to get everything working as intended.
  • Other Victorian Fashions : Engineering wasn’t all the Victorians were good for! Some of the patents from that era are stupendous: couches and beds and desks, all in one, and combinations of all sorts of household furniture into compact, transformable pieces. As they say, convergence technologies are coming strong!

New Possibilities

So I’m optimistic for the future. I think I’ll find a great number of things that could be made steam-punk, and I’ll eventually find myself with a full complement.

The Awareness of No Heat

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

Do you often think about your furnace?
The odds are that you don’t, and that it’s turned up somewhere in the low-to-mid twenties (Celsius; you Fahrenheit types know what yours is set to). But what if you turned that down?

In my day-to-day life, I’ve turned the thermostat down to about 15 degrees, and suddenly I found myself noticing every time the furnace came on. That’s because I need it, now, and it’s no longer just something that happens in the background.

Any time you’re comfortable, try doing with less. You’ll notice more about your surroundings.

Life Below 640px

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

You’ve probably seen a similarly-named post proclaiming some ill-thought-out idea about folds. This post isn’t about the fold.

It’s about the window width.

You see, there are a good number of people using windows that are below what we consider average (say, 1920×1200 or so). This isn’t even about the total screen size, but rather is about the size of the content area for any specific window.

It’s possible to full-screen browsers, these days, which will fill up the screen, but the basic idea behind Windows was that we have… well, windows. Multiple windows, so that we can work on a couple things at a time. Windows with scroll-bars and status-bars and title-bars and possibly chocolate bars (but I wouldn’t bet on that last one).

With wide screens, one can have a couple things open at once. I’ve found it handy to have twitter open to the side while I browse in the remaining screen space. On a 1024×600 netbook, that means I have something like 629×454 of webpage.

Life below 640px.

At this moment, I’ll take a moment to mention The Fold. Yes, people can scroll, with that helpful little wheel on their mouse. That one-directional wheel. The one that can’t scroll horizontally.

The fold does exist, but it isn’t where you expect: it’s to the right, where only a small scroll-bar hints at additional content.

Google mentioned something about this, a couple months ago. They were wondering why few people were downloading Google Earth, and discovered that the Download button lay to the right of The Fold.

There’s an easy fix for the fold. All you have to do is create a fluid grid, or else design your site with collapseable structures that reshape the page on smaller screens.
Perhaps also media queries that style the page differently when the page width is too small.
All in all: Just don’t do fixed-width, least of all for 960 pixels. Those designs take up almost my entire screen.

I guess this post was about the fold. But as I’ve pointed out, the whole fold thing is just a sub-problem of bad design for small screens.

I’ve done some experimentation with pixels and ems, and there’s a post I need to make about the best ways to position and size things. You shouldn’t use pixels all the time, but you also shouldn’t use ems all the time. More on that later.

One final thought: The W3Schools compile lists of screen sizes of visitors, which is actually nearly worthless. I’d prefer they gathered the height and width of browser windows’ active areas, so we can have definitive evidence of screen sizes used in the wild. I’m certain that very few 1920×1200 monitors are used full-screen.

Round Houses

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

I recently had a thought about polygonal houses (a couple minutes ago, really).
Swiss Miss had posted a chair that used the corner of a room for support. It was basically just a shaped board.
I thought, Why would this be limited to a corner? I think just putting it against a wall would leave it open to tipping, but even a small corner should keep it up. And so: why are houses square?

The immediate thought that comes to mind is, “Houses are square because is really hard to work with circles.” And it is. But when you get right down to it, a circle is just an infinitely-sided polygon, which means there’s a corner at literally every spot.

So it’s the corners that are hard to work with.

I’m left with an idea: Give a house an arbitrary number of sides, but let there be a set minimum space between corners, and perhaps a maximum angle. Make every angle the same.

a diagram of a hexagonal house, with each side a different length from the others

By playing around with the base pieces, we see that it’s possible to make all sorts of shapes with the same angles. This is loosely a hexagonal house. I might call this a Scalene Hexagon. The corners aren’t as harsh as in square houses, but there’s still space on the shortest for a couch or something.

The walls inside could follow this same scheme, so that the house is full of hexagons and squares. I’d say we should stay away from triangles.

Laptop Portability

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

While using a laptop, this past month, I’ve come to realize some basic things which ruin my mobile experience and degrade it to merely a portable experience.

I’m really tired of ordered lists, so I’ll just put this in paragraph form:

The battery life on laptops is atrocious. Batteries have been improving steadily for the past ten or twenty years, but computers have been growing in power to match. Actually, the newer CPUs (especially Core 2) should only be using half to a quarter of what the old Pentium IV chips used. We’re talking savings of 150 Watt-hours.

A battery that lasts three hours (and, to be frank, that’s only if I’m conserving battery by keeping the screen dim; otherwise it’s two hours) is meant to be used only for emergencies. Essentially, the laptop is made to be plugged in. You unplug it, take it elsewhere, and plug it back in. You can use it while you’re travelling from one plug to the other, but that’s almost just an aside.

Now, the way they’re doing it isn’t all that bad. Not really. There are a few ways, however, that we can make it better. (And here I’ll use an ordered list.)

  1. End-user optimization – Installing a solid-state drive will reduce electricity usage, and you’ll get work done faster—which means you’ll use less battery waiting on things. You could also not use the CD drive (if what you’re using comes with one), and keep USB peripherals to a minimum. These things aren’t large power drains, though, and can only extend your battery life a bit. The more important things are accessible interfaces:
  2. The plugs – When you plug your laptop in, the prongs of the plug slide into narrow spaces inside the outlet. There they’ll be stuck until King Arthur comes along to help. What would help the ordinary person more is if manufacturers made a sort of finger grip that people can use to pull the plug out without yanking on the cord and fatiguing the wires. It might sound like a small thing to you, but think of it this way: If you have a box of cookies beside you, you’ll eat a bunch. If they’re in a jar plastered to a table in the next room, you might swing by a couple times for a couple handfuls, but then you’ll become too lazy. My point is this: It’s kind of hard to just pick up a laptop and go.
  3. The power adapters – I understand a laptop is a delicate piece of machinery, and that there must be all sorts of regulating electronics in that tremendous block of black whatsit, but does it have to be so unwieldy? All those gangly wires that you can only scoop up into a tangled mess? Nothing fancy has to happen with the cord. Having a spring-loaded spool to store any unused cable would be pretty beneficial, because I could just unplug, hold a button to slurp up the cords, and put the adapter back into whatever I use to carry my accessories. Maybe laptops can have a short cord that clips snugly to the back, so I can just plug it in whenever I sit down, without lugging anything else around?
  4. Weight – The industry has made great improvements in this area. Congratulations! I’ll also note that a hard-disk drive is a lot heavier than a solid-state drive, so that’s another reason to get an SSD.
  5. Devices – Things like mice and keyboards add a lot of bulk. The better idea is to have a well-designed keyboard and good trackpad. Both are limited, but there’s room for improvement. (I’ll talk about keyboards next). I think a good idea would be to make a usb port that swings flush along the side of the laptop, so you can plug in a flash drive and have it flat where it won’t stick out. SD cards can also be nice, and you can get those bluetooth mice with the usb button that only barely sticks out of the port. Because trackpads are so much worse than a mouse.
  6. Keyboards – The keyboards on all laptops today have settled into a crappy standard where the delete key is crammed into the top-right corner, and all those other keys are kind of mushed around the right side of the keyboard, wherever manufacturers can fit them. Then you’ll have a good inch of blank space around the entire keyboard, as if to say, “See? We weren’t cramming, because we fit it all with room to spare!” If they actually did have room to spare, they’ll cram the keys in as tight as they’ll go and then add a keypad. Most laptop users are used to not using the keypad, because there is none. If they wanted one, they would add a USB extension. Get a proper keyboard in, and the numpad out.
  7. Hinge – Way too many laptops have a solid hinge that you have to pry apart with both arms. That means it’s impossible to open if you’re carrying something, eating a sandwich, laying on one arm, holding peripherals, holding the laptop, or are otherwise not in a position to apply gravity-defying force. I’m waiting for the day the screen itself snaps in half when I put the laptop’s full weight on it. Rule of thumb: The screen of a laptop should open with less force than is required to overcome the weight of the laptop. In other words, I should be able to open it without wedging a finger under the lid and yanking upward on the screen several times, sending my laptop desperately prancing atop my desk. While running.
  8. External infrastructure – This has nothing to do with a laptop; but it’s still important, because your laptop experience will be ruined without the proper setup. Your wireless should work. Laptops today let you push your wireless switch to automatically connect to your wireless and get an internet connection. Without wireless, you have no internet, and that’s half the experience (it’s probably what you’re doing right this moment). If you have another computer with a larger drive which hosts all your files (and movies and such), then you’ll want some sort of network set up, and you’ll want the proper sharing permissions. This way, you can move seamlessly from computer to computer.

In the end, you’d be left with a laptop that you can easily pick up, use on the go, and plug in to any nearby socket. It doesn’t require you to lug around anything else (besides the power cord, and maybe an internet cable), but you can if you want. You can easily move from one machine to the other without losing your productivity.
Sounds great!


Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

The source of my inspiration is a man that I’ll never see, and who I can’t prove exists.
He is… Future Me.

I’ve written him a letter, a couple years ago. He hasn’t received it, yet, and won’t for another eighteen years. I do wonder what he’ll think when he reads it. I also wish I could get a letter back from him.

I also imagined what it would be like to send a letter to Future Me every day, and eventually tell him what Past Me was writing to me that day.
We should all have a broader relationship with our futures, because they have such unlimited potential, and because we can never know them completely.

Actually, you can do this today: Make a private blog, either as some separate WordPress(/etc.) installation or as a new blog on Livejournal or something. Write an entry each day, as if you were talking to the person you imagine you’ll be in twenty years.
Who is this person? Are they married? Do they have kids? With twenty years of fog between you, you just can’t be sure. Maybe you’ll feel daunted, because you imagine they’ll be a big professional who would look down on you.
Maybe look twenty years into your past and imagine what you’d say to yourself.

I think this would be a good experience for everyone. Most people don’t ever stop to think beyond the next two or three years.


Saturday, November 14th, 2009

I was playing with the sun, today. It seems to travel along my wall at an inch a minute, so I can sit there and watch it go. At about 12:30, it enters through the bedroom door enough that there’s a 7″x10″ square on the wall, and that seems enough to light the room like a 60-watt bulb.

I’ve decided that sunlight is a pale (near-white) yellow colour, which is completely different from either cool-white or daylight bulbs, which are red-white or blue-white, respectively. It’s also far away from those horrid orange bulbs, which people seem to believe mimics natural sunlight. I’d say those reddish Cool White bulbs come closest, so far.

The problem with lightbulbs is that they’re so dark. When a patch of reflected sunlight a square foot in area is brighter than a 60-watt bulb, what’s a full-on beam from a window? You’d need to fire a pale yellow light onto a wall or the ceiling at about 20000 lumens to get a full daylight effect. That’s like having at least ten lightbulbs on.

I repositioned my big-ass mirror so that the afternoon sun is directed onto the ceiling directly above me, which casts an amazing light around my desk.

In short: We should stop kidding ourselves. Normal lightbulbs are like fire; dark, hot, and orange; and the more we try to convince ourselves that they’re fine, the more we’re just living in modern caves. It’s the future, and we should really be finding that real daylight lighting solution.

I’m imagining fake ‘windows’ made with a huge sheet of OLED material. With luck, we’re only a year or two away from good, real consumer applications. Those would create a fairly-diffuse light of any colour the manufacturer chooses. Hopefully, they don’t go with dark orange.