azureabstraction > out of the blue

Starting on Amazon Silk

April 29th, 2012

Two weeks ago I started work at Amazon Web Services. AWS is Amazon's cloud computing platform, which provides processing power to individuals and organizations that don't want to maintain their own server fleets. I'll be working on Amazon Silk, which is the browser for the Kindle Fire, Amazon's tablet device.

That Silk is a part of AWS is both unusual and exciting. Traditionally, the browser would simply be an application on the device. Silk is what we call a split-architecture browser. This means that some of the processing occurs on the device, and some of the processing occurs on the cloud — in this case, AWS. Offloading some of that processing to the cloud, taking advantage of intelligent caching and image optimization, can do a lot to increase battery life, reduce data consumption, and improve performance when browsing the web.

I have a lot to learn. Not only will I be working with new technology, doing Android development and an unprecedented (for me) amount of concurrent programming, but I will also have to learn the Amazon ecosystem of software, libraries, and tools.

Really, it's just what I needed at this stage in my career. I've experienced a number of environments: educational, during my time at college; self-taught, from all the projects I've done on my own; and startup, from my work at Zebigo. Now I'll dive into corporate, and see where it takes me.

Cycling through Photos

April 14th, 2012

I've been puzzling over how best to display photos from Flickr. On my home page, I show my most recent six photos, which helps keep things fresh for search engines and visitors. The problem is that I generally only upload a photoset every month or two, so the same six photos remain up for a couple months, before switching out for a new set of six photos. Furthermore, those final six photos are probably related to each other, so they won't generally represent the variety contained in the photostream. Here are the possibilities I'm considering:

  1. Display the last six photos. This is my current strategy, and has the disadvantages outlined above. Its main advantage is that it is simple, and requires no history.
  2. Display a random six photos from the last X photos. This has the advantage that it will keep changing, and will have a much greater chance of displaying all of the recent photos from time to time, especially if X is large. It is also quite simple. But the chaotic nature of randomness puts me off a little — a visitor can't know what to expect.
  3. Progressively work through new photos. Each is displayed for a period of time. This spreads the freshness out over a longer period of time, but it is quite complicated. It involves keeping track of all photos posted, and having some algorithm to decide when to move on.
  4. Hand-pick favorite photos from each photoset. This has the advantage of displaying a wider variety of photos, of higher quality, but has the disadvantage of not giving them each a chance. It also means I have to write infrastructure to keep track of favorites, or tie into Flickr's favorite mechanism.

Any thoughts?

Yixing Hunt

March 20th, 2012

Sarah and I drink a lot of roasted oolong tea, and we're starting to think we should find a yixing clay teapot to devote to the category. Tea wisdom suggests that brewing the same kind of tea in a clay pot time after time will help bring out aspects of the tea that you don't get brewing in a gaiwan (our preferred method at home). These pots are an investment: they are expensive, and need to be seasoned — a well-used pot is far better than a new pot. Some yixing pots are generations old. Some are Chinese national treasures.

The real difficulty is finding the right one. Shiuwen at Floating Leaves Tea tells us that different pots are suited to different teas. This is due to the shape and size of the pot, and the type of clay used to make it. Furthermore, whenever you devote time to something, you get pickier about everything associated with it. For us, tea is an important part of our lives — most our coffee table is occupied by a lovely tea tray my parents brought back from China as a wedding present. It is not a trivial decision.

We have been looking at pots, and compiling in our heads a list of requirements. The handle should be fairly normal. It shouldn't have undue ornamentation. It shouldn't be too squat. It should be either a classic red, or a dull green-tan color. The spout should be just so. Either we'll find a teapot that meets our standards, or we'll get tired of waiting and get something close.

The Great Email Winnowing

February 26th, 2012

Today and yesterday I tackled my Gmail inbox: at least 6600 messages from the past eight years.

Most mornings when I wake up, I am met by four to ten mass emails. Most of them are from mailing lists, scheduled to be sent at midnight somewhere in the world. These are things that I've signed up for, that I want to be aware of (programming news, social network digests), but that I don't need with any sort of urgency. I can skim through in batches once every week or so without missing anything. So I set up filters to review them at my leisure.

A vast majority of the work entailed purging old mailing lists, followed by labeling and archiving emails with "Friends" or "Family", "School" or "Jobs", among others. My taxonomy evolved as I sorted, and eventually I was left with a solid core of emails that were more difficult to categorize. Some of them prompted new labels (or the broader application of an existing label), while others simply didn't belong in Gmail. The most numerous of these were assorted messages to myself. I moved a few links to Evernote. I typed up a scan of a passage from a book that I liked. I merged a couple college essays into my school archive directory.

All but three emails have been either archived or deleted. Success!

Vancouver 2012

February 19th, 2012

This year, instead of buying each other Christmas presents, Sarah and I decided to plan a trip to Vancouver. We found a Groupon for a nice hotel, and bought round-trip train tickets, and the night before leaving, we packed. The train up was lovely. It was an overcast morning, with all manner of birds out the window: ducks, seagulls and crows, and a few bald eagles. The ducks were my favorite. You'd see a solitary duck sitting serenely on the waters, and then, like magic, it would be a pair of ducks. When they dove there was some warning, the flip of a tail and a flash of feet, followed by a slight ripple; but when they returned it was as if they rose like sudden bubbles from deep underwater. Each time it happened I had to laugh. Soon I was trying to watch all the ducks at once to see them re-emerge — a losing proposition. Altogether it was quite a pleasant ride, with islands across the water and mountains in the distance.

When we got to Vancouver we went to The Chinese Tea Shop, which sells excellent Chinese teas. Daniel, the proprietor, had us try a few: a Liuan tea, a raw puerh from 2005, and a 20-year aged roasted tieguanyin. The tieguanyin was fantastic, and had considerable life to it, so we bought a couple ounces. We also bought some Liuan, since it was new to us and we wanted to share some with our tea friends. I have decided that I need to start my own personal tea glossary to define the various tea terms that I come across. That way, if I mention something that might be unfamiliar, I can just link to my own definition of the term.

My favorite new experiences from this trip were wandering through Gastown, a charming district of small shops and restaurants; taking pictures of the float planes taking off and landing, the floating Chevron station and the mountains behind them; and seeing a little bit of Stanley Park, the enormous park in the Northwest end of the downtown peninsula.

Here is a rundown of our food experience in Vancouver. On Friday we got Dim Sum at Jade Dynasty, a place we discovered on our honeymoon. It was good, though their Xiao Long Bao wasn't as contained as it should have been. That night we ate at the Alibi Room, a great little pub/bistro in Gastown. Both mornings we got croissants (and other delicacies) from Cho Pain, a French bakery near our hotel. On Saturday we took a train ride down to Richmond to have a late lunch at Kirin, which we'd heard was better than their location in downtown Vancouver, but from what we ordered it seemed pretty comparable (the pot stickers weren't quite as amazing, but the Chinese broccoli was perfection). Richmond itself was suburban and a bit bland, crammed with malls both large and small. That night, after wandering around looking at various possibilities, we ate at Hapa Izakaya. An izakaya is a Japanese-style bar with lots of small plates; the West End is simply packed with them. Afterwards we went to Market for dessert. We were a tad underdressed, but the crackling key lime pie was amazing. Crackling in this case means sprinkling pop rocks on top, which makes for an interesting experience if you're not expecting it. The next day, on our meandering way to Stanley Park, we ate lunch at Kingyo Izakaya — their special bento is excellent. I didn't recognize half of the items, but I enjoyed all of them.

We resolved next trip to spend less time at restaurants.

The New Design Is Live

January 31st, 2012

My redesign is live. I spent quite a bit of time with this design as a showcase of my knowledge of modern web design. The previous design was around 6 years old, so it was well past time for a facelift. Let me know what you think!

Here is a summary of the features of the new design:

  • HTML5 — I used header, sectioning elements and an IE8 shim.
  • Typekit — This is for the fancy web fonts.
  • OOCSS grids — This is Nicole Sullivan's CSS framework.
  • Responsive design — The basic scheme is closely related to the grid system.
  • Advanced CSS — Take a look at the Flickr stream; it was tricky.

Interestingly, the old design used an early technique similar to responsive design: the horizontal columns collapsed into one vertical column depending on the page width. This was accomplished using floats, percentage widths and something to cause overflow. The new design goes much farther with responsive design, and applies subtle changes to the layout to fit any size screen. Unfortunately, I was unable to use responsive image techniques for my Flickr stream, due to the complicated css to center the square images. I may revisit that, although the technique is impressive in its own right.

This is a screenshot of the old design, for comparison:

Screenshot of the previous design for my home page.

Redesign Teaser

January 29th, 2012

I've been working hard on a redesign of my home page for a couple weeks. I started with a few quick sketches, then created wireframes in Fireworks. I've now built a functional page, which I will push live as soon as I'm done revising the copy and making a few other small refinements. As a teaser, here is the wireframe image.

azureabstraction redesign

Snow in Seattle

January 20th, 2012

I had almost despaired of getting any good snow this winter. Saturday teased us with a brief flurry in Wallingford, which dropped about an inch on the plastic chairs outside of Irwin's Bakery. Monday sent more snow at us, and for a day the tantalizing possibility of "Snowmageddon" hung in the air, before being downgraded. But after the snow began to fall early Wednesday morning, it just didn't want to stop. Here in Fremont it never reached a full-on blizzard, but the snow remained steady most of the day.

Sarah and I walked around the neighborhood that afternoon, taking pictures and enjoying the change of pace. There were only a few cars on the streets; people brought out whatever makeshift sleds they could find — we saw garbage can lids, plastic bags — even a cookie sheet was pressed into service. People were friendly, perhaps because the only ones out wandering the streets were those who were determined to enjoy it. We devoted the rest of our day to drinking tea, and watching the snow accumulate outside our windows. After night fell it grew even more peaceful. The snowflakes fell past the streetlights in endless succession.

Early Thursday morning the freezing rain hit. This is hardly a positive thing from a practical standpoint — a snowy road merely wants to impede your uphill progress, whereas an icy road actively tries to kill you. It causes power outages and property damage from ice-clad tree limbs breaking. However, from a photographic perspective, the thin layer of ice adds a new vibrancy to everything, refracting light at the edges of all the plants, preserving the delicate forms in clear amber. Against the white of the snow, and the shadows of trees and buildings, it's perfectly irresistible.

So I went on a meandering walk to our local tea haunt, Teahouse Kuan Yin. On the way there, I stood beneath a large cedar tree, trying to find a picture of ice on its leaves. At the time, the major precipitation was small, light ice pellets instead of snow, and I noticed that the tree gave no protection against them. Unlike rain and snow, which change their character as they fall against a tree, accumulating on the edges, or coalescing into bigger drops, the ice pellets just bounced through it like a giant rain stick. They made a sound, too, a light rattle, a little like falling grains of sand. I thought of the tree as an hourglass, slowing time for the ice crystals on their way toward the ground, and it was strange and otherworldly.

The one thing I regret is that I didn't have skis. When I walked up near Fremont Peak Park, I felt that the most amazing thing would be to ski the backstreets of Upper Fremont, to glide past parked cars and around the traffic circles, and then fly down the slopes of Fremont's ridgeline. I hope I'm prepared the next time we get snow like this.

Tea Lights

January 18th, 2012

I like candles. I like their bright dot of flame, not overwhelming like an exposed lightbulb, but small and flickering, uncertain and alive. They evoke elemental forces, powers that both threaten and comfort.

Large candles bother me. They always seem to demand: consume me. I start to light them out of obligation rather than to create ambiance. I think, "When will this be over?" When the flame is hidden deep inside tall walls of wax, it's hard to tell if there's anything still alive down there.

Give me a tea light or a taper over a pillar or jar candle any day.

Shift in Focus

January 16th, 2012

I've been thinking about the focus of this blog for some time now. My website is a combination of personal and professional, but this blog has remained solidly personal. In the past I've put off writing technical articles on here. I wanted to wait until I had some method of segregating the content so that people who didn't want to hear about my personal life wouldn't, and people who didn't want to hear about programming and design would be spared the horror. That's not realistic.

At work (and off work) I think a lot about web design, api design, information architecture, and complementary subjects. If I don't write about any of that, there is no way I will be able to write consistently. If I don't write consistently, I won't write at all. Most importantly, there are ideas in my head that need to be recorded in order to critically examine them. There are small javascript projects that should be out there for others to learn from or critique. This blog, at least for now, is the best chance for that to happen.

So I'm going to try an experiment. I'm going to mix articles about my life with articles about design. Maybe it'll take us somewhere new and exciting.