Michael's Web Blog

This is my Web Blog, which is a weblog about the web. I talk about XHTML, CSS, scripting, web technologies, and a host of other topics. If you use the options panel, you can visit pages about my writing or programming.

Typographic Masturbation

July 31st, 2010

I’ve sometimes said I’m sick with Typography. When I look at type too much, I get that feeling like I’m just doing it too much and it’s working me instead of me working it. Typographic masturbation, is what it is. You just can’t do that too often.

When I was going to the Fringe Festival with my younger brother, he had pointed out a sign somewhere, and I was dissecting the typeface. I think it must have been Clarendon. Then he smacked me, and I realized that the sign was printed in English, and that it was telling me something. It’s like my mind has narrowed to three or four topics: I’ll keep an eye out for typography, logos, and design, and I’ll completely miss all the other stuff around me.
So yes, a return to basics is necessary.

When walking up to the side door of my brother’s house, I noticed a “USE THE SIDE DOOR” note by the front porch, out of the corner of my eye, and knew instantly that it was set in Calibri. The first thing I said to my brother, when I walked in, was to ask if he had recently purchased Microsoft Office 2007.

Yes; he had.

Typographically, it was like blowing my nose and then staring at the damp tissue. I’m an embarrassment to myself.

My Future Computer

July 30th, 2010

I’ve been looking at the new technologies coming out, and I’m making a list of what I expect to see in my next computer, in about 2012:

  • 1.8 GHz “Medfield” Atom (Z7xx?)
  • 2GB DDR2 low-voltage RAM at 800 MHz
  • At least 48 hours standby
  • About 12 hours light work
  • About 8 hours video playback
  • 1080p HD playback with HDMI output
  • 720p HD recording
  • 1366 x 720 screen at 5.5″ or so
  • About 1″ x 3.5″ by 7″
  • Far better graphics power than the Z5xx series
  • One or two USB ports
  • Wireless B/G/N
  • High-definition sound

I’m kind of expecting that they’ll cap the battery life at six or seven hours, and then just scale the battery down, but I hope they don’t. There’s a magical point where you can go an entire day without worrying about the battery, as long as you charge it overnight, and they should bring the battery to that level.

As well, I’m pessimistic about the screen. Most likely, they’ll keep the old 1024 x 600, especially for such a small screen as I’m looking for. The next step up is 1280 x 720, which is HD 720p, but most of these devices have a wide-screen aspect ratio that would put it at 1366 x 720. Meanwhile, some old games allow a step in resolution from 800×600 to 1024 x 768, so I’d want something at least 1280 x 768. And that’s why you don’t hard-code these numbers into your programs, kids: ten years down the road, aspect ratios and such will change and your programs won’t work as well on systems that would otherwise support it. I’d be 48 pixels away from being able to play certain games, if I had a 1280 x 720 or a 1366 x 720 screen.

Another thing about the screen:
Those who know me know I’m excited for OLED technology to make it to the mainstream market; but OLED screens are just light coming out of the diodes, which means you can’t see a thing when bright sunlight (or another source) washes it out. I’m wondering what happened to the screens we saw on the Gameboy Advance and similar systems, where bright sunlight was actually beneficial. I’m also wondering if it’s possible to use a thin reflective LCD, without a backlight, on top of which sits a thin OLED screen, which renders the same view and is visible in darker climes. You’d get the best of both worlds; because you wouldn’t even need the OLEDs’ light when you’re in direct sunshine, and you wouldn’t see the LCD (much) when using the OLED screen in the dark.
There may be engineering problems limiting those LCDs to 16K colours (also, price; also, OLEDs at high densities), so I’ve got to do more research on the matter.

Also, on that note, I’m kind of annoyed that we’re restricted from turning the brightness down to near-zero on these devices. Sure, I wouldn’t do it often, but the option would be appreciated.

Viliv N5 Review

July 21st, 2010

I received my new Viliv N5 at about 10:30 Monday morning. I was excited!

After days of installing stuff and trying it all out, I’ve gotten a handle on what I’ve just bought. Originally, I was looking for something to replace my netbook and my DS as “the thing I carry around.” As it turns out, the netbook is simply better at some things—Keyboard, ethernet cables (LAN), and touch-pad navigation (I’ve gotten good enough to play Diablo II on it).

It turns out there’s also a really big difference: Wi-Fi range. The N5 can’t see access points my HP Mini can, which is a breaking-point.

Long story short, the N5 simply cannot replace my netbook. I’ll use the Mini at home and pack it in my bags when I go places.
Meanwhile, I’m finally able to carry a PC in my pocket wherever I go, no matter where that might be (besides the sea-floor).

Since 2008, I’ve been carrying a Nintendo DS as my pocket-thing. It’s served me well, and it has let me play music, view re-encoded video, or play a couple games while I was on the go. It’s fairly limited, however, and has no good text-editing capabilities. Its touch screen is only 256 x 192, and the second screen isn’t touch-sensitive. It has only 4 MB of RAM, and the two processors are 33 MHz and 66 MHz.

All in all, the N5 blows the DS out of the water. Not only does it emulate most of the games I’d play on the DS (though DS games play a bit slow on an emulator), it doesn’t require me to re-transcode video and will play 720p. The storage space is tremendously larger, too. I’ve found a program called GMapCatcher that lets me save Google Maps offline, so that replaces the mapping program I’d used in my DS.
The DS is slightly smaller and has controls suited to gaming, but that’s about it. I can make due.

A good netbook can, for all intents and purposes, replace a desktop machine. The Viliv N5, though, can’t replace your main system. The wi-fi is too weak, the keyboard is borderline crappy, and the navigation methods slow you down too much (unless you’ve got a good stylus).

So, my original intent was to replace my DS and my netbook. What would I need?
Basically: something about two inches longer (the real killer is that some keys are smaller than others, because they couldn’t fit everything), with slightly-better battery life, strong wi-fi, and a more responsive touch screen.

I’m disappointed that the Viliv N5 isn’t absolutely perfect, but it’s still a good machine. I’ll be using it a lot in the next few years (until Medfield devices start coming out)!

There are a few things the N5 does fantastically:

  • An infra-red nub for mousing, rather than some sort of capacitive bit. Also, resistive-touch screen. Those two combined means I’ll be able to use the device perfectly while wearing gloves in the winter.
  • Deliciously high resolution. I’m getting iPhone 4 syndrome, where I look at my regular monitor and do a double-take at all the blocks everywhere.
  • Those tiny keys are actually almost perfect for playing games. I can nearly use the W/A/S/D keys as a directional pad, with my thumbs. I’ve been playing NES games.
  • The form factor is a joy to hold. It’s not glossy, so you need to be pretty greasy before fingerprints start showing up. The screen is sheer plastic, though, so I have to keep my hands off the front of it. (I usually use a fingernail for the touch-screen.)

There are a couple things I’d have changed, if I were them. First, there’s no ‘context menu’ button on the keyboard, so you have to get the cursor to an item and right-click. The rest of the keyboard makes enough sense. Also, the thing cost over $700, so does it really have to come with Windows 7 Starter? You can’t even change the desktop wallpaper. I futzed around with the settings and services and performance options enough that I somehow ended up with a much-more-compact classic look (Win98-ish).

Final recommendation: It’s a nice device, but it competes more with smartphones than with laptops and netbooks. It can do nearly everything you want, but it’s weaker in some areas. Meanwhile, it also has far less battery life than a smartphone, and doesn’t generally take calls, so you’ve got to carry some sort of phone around anyway.
This is best for someone who’s out and about a lot. There’s nothing better than being out of the office and still being able to do everything you’d usually do with a laptop (albeit more slowly).

Viliv N5

July 7th, 2010

After reading a review, I decided to buy Viliv’s new N5. It was released today (or was it yesterday), and there’s currently a promotion where you get a free extra battery worth $50.

I’m normally the most thrifty person ever, so $760 is a lot. Really, though, it’s better in almost every way (except where it’s equal [except for the keyboard]) and fits some of my other requirements: It’s small enough to fit into my pockets, the battery lasts six hours or more (I’ll see how much I can squeeze out of it), and the SSD is fast enough that I’ll probably see some good speed from it.

I’ll also be able to sell two other devices for a total of $500, if I want to, so that lowers the price.

It’ll probably arrive in two weeks, so I’ll look at it thoroughly when I get it!

XHTML vs HTML

July 6th, 2010

XHTML is barely more than a clone of HTML written in XML. To put it in other words, XHTML is the XML serialization of HTML. There should be no differences in the Document Object Model between two documents written respectively in HTML and XHTML, if both are well-written. There are several polyglot issues, such as XML namespaces, which HTML5 allows for the sake of intercompatibility between the two serializations.

What are the differences, then? What should you use?
As with most things, it depends entirely on your circumstances and goals. I’m a programmer, so cleanliness and predictability is more important than ease-of-writing. When you mark your pages up in XML, you gain certain benefits: the ability to add MathML, SVG, RDF, and other XML technologies (though MathML and SVG are included in HTML5); the ability to use XSL transformations; and the ability to read your files into the browser with JavaScript to parse and display certain pieces.
When writing in plain HTML the browser is watching over you, and your code will work even if something is a bit wrong. You rarely need to test, and can throw whatever garbage you want into your page. In short, you can do the kind of stuff that gives programmers nightmares (and also funds quite a bit of their work).

So that’s where it is. People with no experience can still create content for the web, while anyone who wants to say they know how to code (even if they only code markup, rather than program) must adopt proper coding standards.

Essentially, XHTML is HTML. If a ‘programmer’ is learning HTML, the X can be assumed. There is no reason to even mention XHTML anymore, because (beyond a few quibbles) the markup a programmer writes and the markup someone else writes should build the same DOM.
They are learning to mark up hypertext. The serialization is only a detail, for advanced usage. Even the new doctype is the same for both HTML5 and the XHTML serialization of HTML5. (I’d say XHTML5; but that’s a misnomer, as it is actually XHTML 1.0.)

Now, the argument between text/html and application/text+xhtml is another story (and is XHTML 1.1 rather than 1.0), and one that I should delve deeper into in a later post. But as far as naming goes, for standard code being served to a browser with no special headers being changed, the X in XHTML is little more than a name.

Christmas!

June 25th, 2010

This is my current Christmas List, updated as of October 19, 2010.

  1. Hyperactivitypography is pure type candy, and I want need it.
  2. Wacom Bamboo Pen+Touch looks to be smaller, sleeker, and better overall than my old Graphire. I want pen and touch, even though the one-or-the-other packages cost less. You can get a Pen+Touch on sale for $80, if you keep your eyes open.
  3. Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, which is awesome.
  4. Hard-Boiled Web Design, by Andy “Malarkey” Clarke, which has a limited run of 2500 prints. This is going to be the best book on this subject all year.
  5. Mots d’Heures: Gousses, Rames is Mother Goose rhymes transliterated to pseudo-French.
  6. Kingston DataTraveller Ultimate 3.0 flash drive, 32GB (or 16, I guess). Follow the links to Amazon or NewEgg.
  7. I’d really love a 160-lumen version of the flashlight I have now, but it seems nearly impossible to find something like that.
  8. Windy31 USB Router is actually more of a ‘maybe’ item for me, but I’ll include it here anyway.

On Curation

June 22nd, 2010

As website owners and content creators, we have a duty toward the users of our content. When we blog about something, the information we throw to the world could very well become dated and wrong.

What Can We Do?

When you write about a modern topic, that post is almost guaranteed to become stale and useless, if it sits the way it is. As such, there are a few things you might do:

  • Keep a clear separation between posts you’re willing to curate, and those that are simply snapshots of life (real blog posts)
  • Set a kill-time for each (curated) post when you create it; after which it is no longer viewable by the public, and becomes hidden until you can revisit it and freshen it up
  • Allow errata to be submitted to curated pieces, so that readers can help you improve the article
  • Keep a list of the curated pieces, possibly by listing links to those pieces on a separate page

I’m thinking of doing the above with this blog. Some of the posts I’ve written won’t be useful in the near future, and others should be upkept so they always provide correct information. Perhaps I’ll implement these steps in the next iteration of my design.

Notifications

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?
No?
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.

The Awesome Foundation

June 18th, 2010

I’ve started the wheels turning on this, so it’s time I talked here at length about my ideas.

The Awesome Foundation is an organization founded in Boston in 2009 to make things awesome. The idea is simple and powerful: Ten people come together, each donates $100/month, and the resulting $1000 grant goes to whichever applicant was judged to have the most awesome project.

To date, there have been grants given for microbial laser tractor-beams, a materials petting-zoo, bio-inks, peer-to-peer cellphone networks, grassroots mapping, and more, from chapters created in San Francisco, Providence, New York City, Boston, Ottawa, and London.

Now: I want to create one in Winnipeg. I’ve notified the Foundation, I’ve created a Twitter account, I’ve talked to the local creatives, and I’m writing this here. Things are falling into place, and I hope we’ll be able to give our first grant within the next two months.
There’s lots to do!

Netbooks are Great!

June 17th, 2010

I’ve said similar things before, but it wasn’t until today that I realized how much I love netbooks. Someone showed a bit of interest, so I threw up a great tirade of excited chatter.

Netbooks are good for nearly everything you do on a computer. If you want to do high-level rendering or leading-edge gaming (by which I mean something made in the last ten years), you can get a desktop system with a powerful CPU for only a few hundred dollars.

If you really need a lot of storage, well, that’s not what a netbook is for. You can very well get a two-terabyte external USB drive, and either lug it around or not. With the netbook itself, 40 GB is plenty (16GB SSD + 16GB SD + 8GB USB Drive).

It has a great keyboard, it has a powerful wireless card, and its—to use Steve Job’s favourite word—magical to tilt and flip in your hands. And for $200? You’re getting more than you paid for, certainly.

A couple things:

  • The battery isn’t perfect. I’ve come to realize that the power cord really holds me down, like an anchor on a boat. It’s also kind of long and gangly, and isn’t a joy to pack up between plug-ins. The battery should last about sixteen hours, in a perfect world; then I could just plug it in at night.
  • I got it at such a low clearance price because the tech is kind of old. The SSD performs a bit worse than a hard-disk drive, which is really saying something. An upgrade would only cost $100, and it’ll be zippy as hell, but I have to find the right offering, first, and get it shipped to me (PATA ZIF SSDs are relatively uncommon, and slower than the newer interfaces). Then I’d have to reinstall Windows.
  • It’s great to have with you, but… no-one has yet thought about how to carry it? I need some sort of Netbook Holster. Backpacks are unwieldy, and I want both hands free. My custom-made extra-pocket is kind of crappy, and rips too often to walk around with it like I want to.

Those are minor complaints. SSDs are incredibly young, and I can just upgrade the drive. I can make a better holster within a few days, with the proper materials. I can get an extended battery, which would last six hours, at least, and that number would increase if I installed a power-smart OS.

There are two things the iPad did that seems to completely fly over everyone else’s heads: The battery life is all-day, so there’s no power cord tying you down; and the entire experience is snappy and smooth, due to its speed.
Netbooks could do those things, and then they would be awesome. Plus, you’d be able to use all your Windows executables; that’s something the iPad can’t do.