azureabstraction > out of the blue

e-Books and the Future

September 13th, 2011

Much as the concept of e-readers appeals to me, I haven't bought one. One of my biggest complaints about them is that they lack the crispness of the printed page. Fonts that look reasonable on a backlit screen because we expect it seem harsh and ragged on a Kindle. Perhaps by the time e-ink can achieve "retina" resolutions and reasonable redraw speeds they'll have smoothed out some of the other edges, such as clunky UI and ugly keyboards. Then I will gladly give in.

What else do you lose in the transition from the printed page to the digital page? Professional typesetters cannot apply many techniques they relied upon when the dimensions of the page were known. Perhaps they'll be able to fall back on responsive design or its successors. Typography has gained a lot of traction in the web design world in recent years, so this could mean a lot more crossover between the two disciplines.

In any event, printed books will be around for a long time yet — there's too much momentum there for them to fizzle out in an evening, even if the competing formats were entirely mature. e-books are harder to sell in your brick-and-mortar store. You can lend your paperback copy of Dune a friend, or donate it to a library, or even burn it if you're so inclined. There are many tangible benefits, so to speak.

As for me, I only buy books that I plan to re-read, or that I want to refer to later. If I can't find a package that pleases me (well-designed cover, reasonable condition, no "Now a major motion picture" blurbs) I tend to postpone buying even my favorite books. If I find a better version, I'm very tempted to upgrade. My shelves, though extensive, are a slim selection of the books I've enjoyed reading and would recommend to others. I hope that small press editions like those of Subterranean Press will remain popular even as e-books consume more of the market, so that my gradual accumulation of my favorite books can continue long into the future.

Note that these are all my thoughts as a web designer and a lover of books; I possess only a passing familiarity with typography and that whole industry.

Living with an iPhone

January 30th, 2011

I was really excited when Mark, the CEO of our startup, asked me to get an iPhone and start delving into the mindset of a smartphone user — the company would pay for it. I have often wondered what it would be like, and now I get to experiment without having to commit myself to a 2-year contract. Here are my thoughts after the first month (I got it on December 30).

The iPhone has changed my habits somewhat. It is a phone, an mp3 player, a camera. It is a browser with a small form factor. It is a wizard-worthy map with a built-in compass (you still have to pull over to use it when driving). This multiplicity of function is perhaps transformative: it becomes more than the sum of its functions. A camera that can place your photos on a map? A phone that takes pictures of your contacts, or saves a link to that restaurant's web site? An oracle which can tell you what popular restaurants are open nearby, no matter where you are? I have known about all of these things conceptually for years, but experiencing them myself is really cool.

The most trite observation about camera phones, and one that I feel obliged to repeat, is that the best camera is the one that is with you. Last night I took a video of dry ice steaming in the rain. Last weekend we went to the zoo and all I brought was my iPhone. After a fancy dinner a couple weeks ago we stopped by Kerry Park on the way home, where I was able to take a picture of the Space Needle with its head in the clouds (the picture isn't that great due to the low light and inadequate zoom, but it's a good memory-jogger). My d90, while truly beautiful and amazing, was not ideal for any of those trips (though if I hadn't had a smartphone I would have brought it on the walk). I will enjoy seeing how far improvements of lens and CCD technology can go in eliminating the need for mid-range cameras (cf. Olympus Stylus, my old digital camera).

It is a great thing to have at hand while reading a book — unlike a laptop, I don't have to set my book aside when I look up a term on the iPhone. I reach for my laptop less often these days. In addition, I have actually started using Twitter. Previously it was a pain to get on Twitter to see updates; now I can check multiple times a day in a brief bored moment. I don't know that this is entirely a good thing, though. Perhaps I would instead have started thinking about something interesting, or started in on a creative endeavor. Then again, maybe I would just have been bored and unproductive for a few minutes. In any event, it's a habit that deserves to be questioned, and reigned in if it proves detrimental.

There are a few limitations of the device that I find frustrating. One is the number of steps required to do anything on a screen this small. Menus are sparse: if you want a slightly less common function, you have to go to a "More" menu or hint for it. It is decidedly non-obvious what features a phone will support. Features exposed by gestures such as click-and-hold are non-standardized and spotty. Apple has done a lot to standardize their UI conventions, but developers do not always follow these recommendations (and when they do, they do not do so either perfectly or uniformly).

The second limitation is typing. Typing makes browsing on an iPhone a less pleasant experience. I am used to popping open new tabs to look up a term, keeping a queue of things to read, and easily searching the current page for words. It makes passwords a pain-and-a-half, because strong passwords require a good mix of characters from different keyboards (for the uninitiated, iPhones have different keyboards optimized for words, numbers, punctuation, even email addresses and urls; the phone cannot fit a full keyboard at anything like a usable size). If I need to do anything involving serious browsing or content creation, I switch to my laptop.

That's the first round. I'm still forming my conclusions, so expect more updates as the months go by.

Google Docs Monster

September 19th, 2010

I made my first drawing in Google Docs. It's nothing much, but I had fun making it.

Docs Monster

Never Say Never

August 6th, 2010

I've got a bet on with Andrew that a particular piece of our code will never get into an infinite loop. The code is intended to generate a unique random string of characters. The only way the loop can happen is if it randomly chooses a preexisting value every time. This seems relatively unlikely, since there are 14776336 possible values. The record of our wager is on the office wall, right below the National Pen Company advertisement. (I'll have to tell you about that one sometime.)

Of course, neither of us will ever win: there's a never on both sides of the equation.


May 20th, 2010

Seattle is still shining, the towers lit up by sunlight across the Sound. It's dusk here at the apartment, but Seattle has a straight shot to the West, past the Olympics. Our view of the Sound is blocked by the hill. We got engagement photos shot in a park there on Queen Anne Hill as the clouds burst over the Sound. The sheets of rain came closer, and the wind tossed our hair out behind us. It is a beautiful park, looking down at a surprising angle into the heart of downtown, with the Space Needle out in front. Whenever at dusk the city still holds the red glow of sunset I think of that park, and the hidden geography made visible by light.

Award Winners

February 16th, 2010

I finally finished the last of the novels that have won both the Hugo award and the Nebula award. I have considered someday collecting all of them and putting them on a bookshelf together, but that's not generally how I organize my books. Also, it would be problematic since some of the award winning books are part of the series (like the last one I read: Startide Rising by David Brin)…. But it would still be fun. Another problem is that the nominees would be worth getting as well, not just the winners, and many of them are out of print.

Someone somewhere probably has a collection of all the short stories, novelettes and novellas that have won. I'll have to gather those myself someday, maybe scan them all and OCR them. Sarah would probably help me build a book-scanner. Of course these days many of the short stories are put online before the awards so that they'll be accessible to all voters. So all I have to do is collect the old ones that are hard to find and out of print, and then it will be far less work from year to year…. Keeping up with a field is difficult.

Please excuse my rambling. I wanted to post something, but this was all that was on my mind.

Mountainous Thoughts

January 13th, 2010

One of the great things about our apartment is that we have an excellent view of Mt. Rainier. On clear days it provides a nice backdrop to the skyscrapers. Even on cloudy days we can often see the snowy lower slopes beneath the overcast.

I was wondering to myself why this was possible in Seattle, where Mt. Rainier is in the vicinity of 50 miles away, but not in Portland, where Mt. Hood is a mere 30 miles away. (These are straight line distances estimated using Google Maps.) Rainier is about 3000 feet taller than Hood, but I wouldn't think that would affect the visibility of the slopes. Both cities are at approximately the same elevation.

The only explanation that I can come up with is that since Rainier rises much more quickly out of the surrounding landscape, the clouds have the opportunity to bunch right up against it. In Portland you have foothills for quite a ways, and the clouds bunch up against hills that are much farther away from the mountain. Nice and simple, at least.

Really, I'm not sure. I would like to know, but I wouldn't know who to ask. It could even be that I just have more experience with Mt. Rainier, because of the location of our apartment. So, anyone remember whether the same effect occurs in Portland? Can anyone offer validity to my interpretation, or an alternate explanation?

Faith in Humanity —

December 14th, 2009

Okay, this just pisses me off. At the Arboretum in Seattle, a large park filled with rare trees from around the world, some imbecile came in the night and chopped down a rare south Asian conifer. The tree is worth $10,000 simply because of its rarity: the region it comes from is under significant ecological threat through habitat loss. It was a transplant meant to safeguard a rare species from extinction. This was not a shady collector plotting his heist, carefully digging up the specimen to hide in his secret greenhouse. It was cut down. Officials believe someone was looking for a free Christmas tree.

It is painful to me that such dedication and care can be undone by one idiot with a saw.

Want Google Wave?

November 23rd, 2009

I have some Google Wave invites left. I'm happy to present the opportunity for 7 of them to be given out to friends via this blog. The first 7 comments left by people I know will receive them.


November 9th, 2009

As of October 25th, 2009, Sarah and I are engaged to be married.

We proposed to each other early in the morning on a beach on Puget Sound, and exchanged simple hammered bands of sterling silver. This was the culmination of a camping trip to Deception Pass State Park, a beautiful landscape of rugged cliffs and wind-blown fir trees, rocky beaches tucked in between headlands.

We celebrated that day by exploring Seattle: we shared a tea service at Remedy Teas; we wandered the streets of Chinatown and peeked into the busy markets; we explored the nooks and crannies at Elliott Bay Book Co; we visited Discovery Park for the first time, and looked out over the Sound towards the Olympics; we dined at Brad's Swingside Cafe; finally, we returned home to sit by a crackling fire and read, snuggled up in blankets.

It has long been our desire to honeymoon in the Canadian Rockies. Since next summer is already incredibly busy for a time most of a year away, we are planning the wedding ceremony for late July of 2011. This will hopefully give us time to reduce (though by no means eliminate!) the hectic nature of wedding planning, and allow our friends and family time to plan around it.

We think of our wedding as a time to celebrate with the community and proclaim our commitment to each other. It is a symbol of our futures entwined.

Our love goes out to all of you (but most of all to each other).