Archive for December, 2009

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.

Twitter, and the Future

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

I may have mentioned, once, that Twitter is very public, and so you mustn’t say anything you might regret later.

As it turns out, this is further-reaching than I thought. I did a search for CozyCabbage, which is my Twitter handle, and I was shocked to find an emerging paradigm:
There are hundreds of services that collect every tweet you submit and cram them into any of a number of categories. There’s a site that gathers swear-words (I’ve pretty much got the lowest rating, with something like “shit” in one tweet), and there’s a Whuffie Bank that tracks your social capital. There are a bunch of services that filter out all but the most popular tweets, so that people can get the most out of their Twitter experience. There’s a service that scans every tweet for websites, and then lets anyone see who’s tweeting what about X website.

That last one is great. It seems someone found the IE6 T-shirt I made! (

It seems Andrew Miguelez, a small time web designer from Bucks County, PA, tweeted about it at 2:34 PM on Nov 11th of this year. He had a hard time that morning, because he had stayed up late the other night designing until 3 AM. (Always seems like a good idea, at the time.) He was looking at things like the HTML <button> attribute, and found my shirt.

Stalkery? That only took me about a minute to find.; go there. “A search engine powered by tweets!”

So, what does this all mean? It hasn’t been made into a big thing (and I only found it all by serendipity), so I don’t see it disappearing any time soon. In fact, these kinds of services will keep growing and branching off. Twitter was an ecological explosion, and now all sorts of different life-forms are thriving on this fantastic new terrain.
I think the future will bring tweets into the forefront of modern society. It sounds pretty perplexing, in the context of the past, but I think were were really waiting for an open platform where we could all express ourselves freely and instantly.

It goes beyond this: I’m sure people had said the same thing about computers, and maybe even about some technology before that. When you get right down to it, there’s always something more to add. Twitter requires us to have the right equipment with us, and it takes us a while to open the app and type something in and press send. When we create a constant network of always-on computers commanded by our thoughts, I think we’ll see yet another huge leap.

This whole Twitter thing is reaffirming my faith in humanity. It’s kind of inevitable that we’ll see science-fiction become science-non-fiction: telepathy, cerebral uplinks, pervasive communications…
Some have painted a bleak picture of fascism and war in our less-private future, but I think the reality is that people will find and embrace each-other, and some fantastic things will be built upon the collective intelligence of humanity.

I’ve been meaning to do a year-in-review, but I also want to do a decade-in-review. I’ve been realizing just how far we’ve come in the last ten years, and that’ll help me see where we’re going in the next ten. I think we’ll get further than most people think. The Social Web is just the beginning, but it shows us what kinds of things we can do.

Project: Social Media Hub

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

I think the next big app will be a social media hub that collects all your stuff together in one place.
I have to keep on top of Twitter updates, remember to visit my Facebook, watch the email icon in the corner of my desktop, and read my feeds sometime. Then there’s Google Wave, and also about a million Web 2.0 services I just don’t use.

So: What if you could just open an application, and get a stream of Twitter statuses, Facebook updates, email headers, news, feeds, pictures, and anything else you’ve subscribed to, in a bite-sized format. If you want to be notified about emails, set it to pop up a message on your desktop. A little floating bar with several tiny icons could light up when you get something new.

One of the biggest problems I’ve encountered with mobile devices is that I have to switch between apps or web-pages to check different services.

Here are my own personal criteria:

  • Small: It can’t be some huge window, like TweetDeck. It should be reducible to a single icon.
  • Informative: None of this, “Hey, new stuff!” It should tell me what new stuff I just got.
  • Push: Some services need to poll, but they should push as much as possible.
  • All-purpose: Every service should fit into the form-factor. That includes images, songs, movies, blogs, tweets, status updates, and more.
  • Beautiful: Well, of course.
  • Responsive: Pretty important.
  • Easy: It should walk users through the setup process, and shouldn’t need all that much information.

The winner will be the ones who make a well-designed and usable version of the above. I might try my hand at it!

About Netbooks

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009
Nicholas Aylsworth
Submitted on 2009/12/29 at 5:27pm
I bought this netbook about two months ago to replace my old Dell Inspiron which had begun having the “white screen” problem . There were several reasons I went with this netbook:

1. 93% keyboard is a absolute must
2. 160 GB (more like a 142 GB) of memory
3. Integrated Bluetooth work great with my Phone, which also happens to be a SamSung
4. Battery life is amazing, 6-10 hours depending on what you’re doing
5. This thing is lighting fast compared to my old Dell laptop

I use it daily to surf the web, check e-mail, watch movies, and talk via the webcam. I installed Word, Excel, and Powerpoint and have yet to experiencing any slow downs. The only program that I use regularly that I have NOT install onto my netbook has been Photoshop. Though I haven’t, I have heard that a massive program like CS4 has been know to work very sluggishly on netbooks. Not a real problem for me because I still have my Dell laptop with the Photoshop loaded onto it.

This is easily the best purchase I have made in a long, LONG time. And for under $400 dollars, it is definitely worth the money.

That comment was spam, but it sounded like something a real person would say. So I figure I’ll reply to the things they said.

1. 93% keyboard is a absolute must
The keyboards on netbooks are fun, but I’ve found that it’s easy to get used to the size. Besides, people work with Blackberrys on a daily basis. The most important thing is the keyboard layout, variations of which you’ll also find on full-size USB keyboards. Some have an Enter key that spans two rows, and the ” key is placed somewhere else. The ‘Delete’ key might also be in a very strange spot. As a programmer (and one who needs to use the backslash frequently), I couldn’t stand that setup.
When you’re dealing with a non-standard keyboard, you have to re-learn the layout. If you spent a lot of time on that machine and then switch to another you’ll notice that you keep pressing the wrong keys because you’ve gotten so used to doing it that other way.
So, ignore the size, but make sure it’s a keyboard layout you can live with.

2. 160 GB (more like a 142 GB) of memory
A netbook isn’t meant to be your main machine, and I’d urge you to at least get a $500 laptop before the netbook. A netbook is made to be a fast, light, cheap, weak computer with tremendous mobility, which is kind of dulled-down with the bigger screens and the heavier, slower, break-it-if-you-shake-it hard-disk drives.
Most of the drive space on your main machine will be taken up with movies, music, and games (or other installed programs). You really shouldn’t have a lot of movies on a netbook, because it’s just a little thing you grab with you when you go somewhere. If you’re on a trip that’s long enough to need movies, you might as well bring your big laptop with an expansive drive. You can also get a small external drive, and maybe an MP3 player for music.

In other words, get a 16GB SSD (or higher, if you can afford it; they go up to 80GB for a couple hundred dollars) with your netbook. They can be tremendously fast (booting in ten seconds or less), and you don’t have to worry about losing data if you drop the netbook. They don’t hold nearly as much, but you’ll still have gigs and gigs of space. You can also get a 64GB SD card if you need it.
My core files (all the archives of my past, et-cetera) fit into an 8GB flash drive.
(And, considering you can have your main drive, an SD card, a flash drive, and an external hard-drive, there are a lot of memory options.)

3. Integrated Bluetooth work great with my Phone, which also happens to be a SamSung
Okay. I’ve not used Bluetooth at all, myself, and I have no idea if netbooks really do come with built-in bluetooth, but I assume you’d then be able to connect a bluetooth keyboard/mouse to it.

4. Battery life is amazing, 6-10 hours depending on what you’re doing
Battery life is a sticking point. Keep the brightness low (unless you’re in the sunlight), keep always-on peripherals, such as mobile modems, out of the USB ports when you don’t need them, and solid-state drives will take less power than hard-disk drives.
Different netbooks have different battery lives. Because they’re so mobile, you really do need a good battery in your netbook. Look for something with more than three hours, if you want more.

5. This thing is lighting fast compared to my old Dell laptop
These last few points may have been spammy lies to make a long list of great-sounding stuff; I have no access to benchmarks, and the spammer didn’t leave a link to the netbook in question (instead, they left a link to a review for a 15.4″ laptop backpack).

If a laptop is getting very old, the operating system will become bogged down with all sorts of stuff. You’ll find that the drive is constantly being used by one service or another, and it’ll take forever to load programs. Something as simple as opening a menu can trigger a search through the registry, which might take a few seconds to complete if things are accessing the drive.
A new netbook (or laptop, or desktop, or even just a fresh install of Windows on your old computer) will be faster, but only for a couple years. Try not to install too many things, and have someone reinstall windows for you every couple of years. A refresh is always good, and might help you clean up old files, too.

In closing: Netbooks are secondary computers, for when you need to grab something light to use around town, and when you need more power than a smart-phone can give. They’ll be fast and responsive with a good SSD, but you should make sure the keyboard layout suits your needs. A long battery life is good to look for.

And for under $400 dollars, it is definitely worth the money.
You can find them for $200. In fact, you can get one for $50 on a two-year contract with a mobile internet provider. Keep an eye out!


Friday, December 25th, 2009

I know; only children excitedly brag about their Christmas gifts. Maybe I’ll do a proper review, instead?

If you’ve been following Swiss Miss, you’ll have seen a bunch of beard-related stuff. I just received a Beard Head, and it’s about as wonderful as I could have imagined. It’s a perfect fit for my head, and the moustache-customization feature is simple ingenuity. Wearing a coat, I can see that the whole of the engineering is planned out: The back of the Beard Head comes down to my jacket’s collar, but isn’t so long that it gets pushed up by it. There’s room at the front-sides so that I can turn my head easily. The moustache can be taken off and buttoned elsewhere into the natural weave of the wool.

I can’t wait to wear it out and about!

I got a Lexar 8GB class-6 microSDHC. I had half-expected it to be a bit slow, from what I’d heard on forums, but it turns out to be faster than the 2GB card I’ve been using this year. I had gotten a 4GB class-4 card last christmas, but the slowness of it ruined my expectations of these cards’s speed and was useless for my every-day use.
In short: The 8GB microSDHC is great. It also seemed to get slightly faster when I filled it up with stuff.

          MAX(µs) AVG(µs)
  512 B -   430 /   235 (Sequential)
    4KB -  1830 /  1820
   16KB -  7280 /  7265
  512 B -   500 /   480 (Random)
    4KB -  1895 /  1875
   16KB -  7335 /  7320

I also got a cheap black-and-red Chinese console with two slots which lets me play NES and SNES games. The S-video is low quality (and plays NES games in greyscale), my mom apparently had to glue together a broken part, and one controller has a faulty R button, but it’s otherwise good enough quality. I spent a couple hours last night (this morning?) playing Super Metroid (which I also just got), and it’s as fun as I remember.
I only have about three or four games, but still.

I saved the best for last: Handcrafted CSS, by Dan Cederholm and Ethan Marcotte; Content Strategy for the Web, by Kristina Halvorson; and Painting the Web, by Shelley Powers. I’ll save those reviews for after I read the books. I think I’m starting with Handcrafted CSS, because the cover is just so tactile. It’s also pretty short, and reads like a blog entry (complete with links to other peoples’ blogs).

It raises a question, which I might later remember and go into in more detail: Are books like really old blogs? I’m reading this book in 2009, but it’ll be as irrelevant as today’s blog entries after a few years.
(That is to say, not entirely irrelevant; but still kind of “What?”)

I’ve still got to get Designing with Web Standards, 3rd Edition. Maybe for my birthday? Is John Resig’s book out, yet? (Never mind, I’ll google it myself. It seems that it’s not quite out, yet.)
Oh, I also want Transcending CSS.

I’m going to have to introduce some of the students at the college to these books. I’ve read so many blogs everything in them will likely seem old-hat to me, but the new students will find them invaluable. Or supervaluable.

What Makes a Fast Computer?

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

I’m sure you’ve all looked at computers or laptops, at some point, and wondered just what made one faster than the other. What are all those numbers? Why is the salesperson spewing gobbledygook at me?

For the past number of years, CPU (the processor) has been touted as the way to measure the power of a machine. The Intel really pushed this for its Pentium IV, which rated at speed of 3 GHz and beyond.
So, what is the processor? Simply put, it does the math needed to calculate where things go, what a program is supposed to do, and what should come out of a program’s operations. It is the part of the computer that Does the Stuff.
Here’s the kicker: Most of the time, the CPU isn’t actually doing anything. Unless you’re playing a new video game, or rendering fractals, or participating in protein-folding experiments, or otherwise doing things involving large amounts of operations, your CPU isn’t all that important. It just needs some overhead for when things do need to be processed, such as when you move windows around or open a new program. I’ve found that 1.6 GHz is perfectly fine for daily use, and doesn’t usually max out.

What do the other things do, then?

RAM is the computer’s short-term memory, which can be likened to a desk it uses to spread out its papers and work on things. When you open a file, the computer will put that file in RAM so that you can change bits of that file without having to wait for the hard-drive.
Your computer doesn’t actually use much RAM. If you have a lot of programs in the background (such as email, instant messengers, and various option panels), it can load up almost 1 GB of RAM. Windows XP and Windows 7 need about 1GB to function well, and 2GB is about all you’ll really need, if you open a lot of images or programs or internet tabs.

In case you’re wondering, DDR3 is faster than DDR2, and uses less power (a plus for laptops), but isn’t strictly necessary for you.

Hard-Disk Drives (HDDs) hold your data. HDDs today hold anywhere from 160GB to 2000GB (2TB). The biggest users of disk space are movies, some of which are so big they won’t even fit on two DVDs. Music takes less, but even a small library of music can take up 5GB of room. If you have a tremendous music collection, or have a handful of TV shows or movies, you’ll need a large hard-drive. If you don’t keep many videos and only have a small collection of music, you’ll be perfectly fine with 160GB. I’d recommend an external hard-drive for those sharable movies, music, and pictures.

The main bottle-neck on your system, though, is probably your hard-drive. The newer hard-drives can handle 80 MB of data every second, which means it takes over ten seconds to fill up 1GB of RAM with data from the hard-drive. If you’ve got an older computer, it could take ten times that length of time, and you’ll be waiting a few minutes for your computer to come out of Hibernation mode.
Worse yet, because disks have to spin around to find bits of data, trying to find two things at once ruins the speed of the disk. Considering that the computer writes little bits of data every few seconds, you almost never get the full speed of the drive.

So how do I speed this up?

The answer is Solid-State Drives (SSDs). These drives hold a lot less for their price, but they’ll give you a fantastic experience. They are:

  • Up to four times faster
  • A lot quicker at finding data
  • Shake-proof
  • More power-efficient
  • Lighter (for you laptop owners out there)
  • A few other things you won’t find interesting

An SSD will completely take away those little starts and stops you get with HDDs, because it doesn’t have to move an arm across a spinning disk to find data. Because there are no magnets or spinning plates of metal in an SSD, it’s not as heavy and uses less power. It’s got chips, instead, which can get data from different places a lot easier, and is limited by the speed of electrons instead of the speed of a metal arm.

SSDs are only just reaching maturity. The new Intel SSDs are 80GB for $250, but that’s the top quality. Kingston has an easy kit for only a little more than a hundred dollars. It doesn’t have the sheer speed, but it still beats any hard-disk.

Expect the pricing to come down over the next year. Let the old stock quietly file out of the retailer’s shelves, and the other brands pick up the newest technologies, and we’ll see some wide-spread use in the next little while.

Browser Size&The Fold

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

I don’t have to say much more. Look at that and make sure your elements are arranged by importance. It’s useless to have everything above the smallest fold, but weigh the pieces of your site against the percentage of users who’ll see it.

Also, they’ll scroll for something like content. It’s those first-impression things you have to put near the top.
What they won’t scroll for, really, is stuff to the right of their viewport. Be careful when things are beside the fold.

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!

Designing with JavaScript

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

If you’re building your site with JavaScript, don’t just throw it all in there. If someone with JS disabled visits your site, they’ll be greeted by a bunch of things that don’t work.
“But only a few people have scripting disabled!” you’d shout.
Remember this: JavaScript has the ability to remodel the page completely. You can change anything.

How to go about some Business

Build the page as if you didn’t have JavaScript. Remove the cleverly-scripted slideshows, the dead links that use AJAX calls, and any other little piece of the site that relies on scripting to achieve a satisfactory effect.
For forms and links, try using PHP and putting in links to proper pages. Maybe try an image with a hyperlink to your slides. make the site work as well as possible without any scripting at all.

The Magic

Now here’s where the magic comes in. In your script, use DOM scripting to add those AJAX calls, strip off anything superfluous, cancel default PHP-based events, and create those dynamic controls. You can change styles, add new elements, and alter the data.
Now, when someone visits the site and the script isn’t working, they’ll have the ability to use the site. The rest will still get the same scripted experience they would otherwise have enjoyed.


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.