Yearly Archives: 2002

Awaiting The Two Towers

A couple of hours from now I should be firmly planted in my seat with popcorn and drink for The Two Towers. I didn’t get to finish re-reading the book this week as I had planned, but from what I’m hearing there are enough differences that maybe it wouldn’t have mattered. These films have a way of intruding on our own version of the story. After seeing the film, it’s sometimes hard to remember how you first imagined things.

Not to mention the plot changes. There was one subtle change that annoyed me about Fellowship, and as far as I can tell there was no reason for it. In the last chapter of Fellowship and the opening of Two Towers, Aragorn is busy running around and makes a crucial decision as the Orcs attack to not continue to find Frodo, and so Frodo and Sam leave unnoticed with the ring. By the time Aragorn realizes what has happened, he admits to himself that it’s probably best for Frodo to go the rest of the journey alone, and he can focus on rescuing the other hobbits.

But in the film, Aragorn and Frodo have a little talk, and Aragorn lets Frodo go to Mordor alone. This is definitely wrong for Aragorn’s character, since after Gandalf disappeared he was responsible for seeing the journey to it’s conclusion. He would never have willingly let Frodo go alone, and my guess is that Tolkien spent some time crafting the right situation that would allow Frodo to go by himself.

Meg: “I’m most looking forward to seeing the Ents.”

I’m both looking forward to and dreading the Ents. In the early trailers, there was no sign of Treebeard or his friends, so I assumed they had been given the ol’ Tom Bombadil (cut). Of course it will be computer animation, but I wonder if they can pull it off in a believable way.

Apple’s UI playground

Steven Johnson for Slate, “Is the Computer Desktop an Antique?”

“Now that Microsoft has largely caught up to the Mac in terms of basic file manipulation tools — thanks to Windows XP’s elegant user interface — the iApps have become a key differentiator for Apple. They are also an implicit acknowledgement that the desktop metaphor has its limits. Apple is moving toward a Swiss-army-knife approach to user interfaces: You need different tools to keep track of different kinds of files.”

While Apple has moved to many small, focused apps to get the job done, they have also attempted to build a new suite of interface components so that each app is easy to use right out of the box.

One such nifty widget they have invented is the rounded search box. Most of the iApps use it, and so does the Finder. It’s got a little “x” that clears the search text, and rounded edges so the search box is easy to find. (“Which of these text fields do I type to search? Oh yeah — the round one.”)

Splasm Software’s Checkbook is the first app I’ve seen to copy Apple’s search box. Unfortunately they didn’t get it quite right. (Psst: The “x” is supposed to be inside the box.)

Checkbook search box

Metadata seven years later

Aaron Swartz talks at the Creative Commons launch party:

“Right now you can only ask a search engine one question: ‘What pages have these words in them?’ When pages include RDF metadata, you will be able to ask more advanced questions like ‘What’s the current temperature in California?'”

Aaron, thank you for being optimistic. Someone still needs to be.

Back in 1996, when RDF was more an idea than an acronym, I worked on a side-project with my friend Travis Weller. It was based on RV Guha’s MCF and hosted at the domain metacontent.org. We demoed the first part of the software at Mactivity/Web, and I still have the slides for the presentation (click the logo to advance). It was a web server plug-in that served a site from an object database (the prototype used an embedded version of Userland’s Frontier database, but the idea was to eventually provide object-relational mappings to other more common databases). We called the web server portion Rendezvous, because it gathered pieces of content and metadata and assembled them together to serve a page. Apple likes that name too.

We also designed parts of the admin interface, which was to be the killer app to enable thousands of web designers to make metadata an integral part of their web site. You sell users on the product by providing a great interface for managing an entire site’s content, and then handle organizing the metadata behind the scenes.

Somewhere along the way, we realized the magnitude of our goals and grew disillusioned. Or maybe we just found better day jobs. Either way, the metacontent.org domain expired and was taken by someone else, we never shipped any software (although I still have the code on a backup disk somewhere), and the W3C’s Semantic Web effort eventually emerged with a ton of smart people trying to solve this problem.

Yesterday I noticed that the metacontent.org domain was available again, so we took it back. Maybe I still have some optimism left in me after all.

Reading and typography

The weather turned cold here yesterday, and that just contributes to my blogging apathy after the Thanksgiving weekend. I’m just too lazy to blog, and the backlog of unread items in NetNewsWire was over 150 this morning. Time to trim the subscriptions again. There’s too much to read, and hardly any of it really matters.

Reading text on the screen continues to be a challenge for most people. A recent newsletter article from Human Factors discusses optimal line length:

“What can we conclude when users are reading prose text from monitors? Users tend to read faster if the line lengths are longer (up to 10 inches). If the line lengths are too short (2.5 inches or less) it may impede rapid reading. Finally, users tend to prefer lines that are moderately long (4 to 5 inches).”

Aaron Swartz reviews “The Elements of Typographic Style”:

“What I’ve realized since reading it is that publishing documents on the Web, no less than preparing them for publication as a book, is typography and deserves the same care as that noble craft. There are some differences, to be sure, but the core it’s about making the meaning of the text shine through the words, a craft that has been practiced for ages.”

He’s also put some excerpts from the book online.

Being a generalist

John Lim of PHP Everywhere:

“I’m actually a generalist. I can code a bit in Javascript, I know some C++, PHP and a thousand other useless languages. A generalist is pretty good thing to be in technology, because computers and software changes so fast and if you spend too much time specializing you’re already a dinosaur before you turn 40.”

Personalization vs. customization

Adrian Holovaty describes the BBC’s ‘intelligent’ design personalization. By keeping track of what links you follow, sections of the home page are given darker backgrounds to draw your attention to those you visit most often. Sounds like a great idea, but I wonder if it is too subtle to work well in practice. Is it better than increasing the number of news items I see on the home page if I always click on the “News” section? How long before every major web site is as personalized as Amazon?

Either way, it’s good news. Web sites that automatically adapt to the user’s browsing habits will succeed over those that need manual customization. Remember the my.yahoo.com and my.netscape.com portals? The personalization burden was placed on the user, and the UI was awkward and limited at best. Those sites need to be smarter. When I go to tv.yahoo.com, the only thing I ever do is click on “show me what’s playing now”. Why not save me a click and put the current TV schedule on the home page, plus a list of shows that I frequently see the detailed descriptions for.

A related article from 1998: Jakob Nielsen’s “Personalization is Over-Rated”.

Amazon usability

Odd that I had never heard of Good Experience, a newsletter by Mark Hurst. Just discovered it today via Tomalak’s Realm. Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Maryam Mohit of Amazon:

“For example, quite awhile ago we developed the ‘similarities’ feature – the one that says ‘people who bought this also bought that.’ In focus groups, no customer ever specifically requested that feature. But if you listened to customers talk about how they buy things, they’d say, my friend bought this, and I like what they like. In other words, they get recommendations from people they trust. There was a cognitive leap, based on those comments, to realizing that we could create something like that based on the data we had.”

Peter on IA

Peter Merholz, “Thoughts on AIfIA and Information Architecture”:

“As information architects know, explaining what they do, even to smart people in related fields, is difficult. Once given a clue as to what user experience is, folks can understand that improving the user experience of a product will be valuable. That will never be true of information architecture, which, by nature, is more abstract and subtle.”

Late night with user interface web sites

Best of chi-web and sigia-l: “Using the archives for each mailing list, I’ve compiled a list of the summary postings from useful threads, and a few personally selected favorite postings.” [via WebWord]

Also on UIWEB, Reasons ease of use doesn’t happen on engineering projects: “The focus on features for features sake typically results in mediocre features, and a product that is difficult for people to use.”

While re-reading parts of Joel Spolsky’s User Interface Design for Programmers, it occurred to me that I had never actually used any Windows software written by Joel’s team. So I downloaded a copy of CityDesk and started clicking. Although it was mostly straightforward to use, there were a few glaring problems. First, some of the windows support control-W for File -> Close, some do not. There’s no obvious reason for this inconsistency. Second, when I went to publish my new site, I expected to be prompted to enter FTP info so that CityDesk could contact my server. Instead, previewing on the local machine was the only option available. It took a trip to the documentation to realize I had to turn on “Designer Mode” to show the FTP settings. Whoops.

Morality for and against war

From the BBC: “The international community has a ‘moral responsibility’ to avoid war with Iraq, the Catholic Church has warned.”

Meanwhile, Bob Kerrey (former Democratic senator) makes the moral case for war in Iraq:

“We know what a terrible thing we did after the Gulf War to encourage Iraqis to rise up and then not follow through in helping them. But you can’t take the worst America has done and then cite it as reason not to try and do anything good.”

Futurama, Oscars, and Ward Kimball

I haven’t seen Futurama since it first aired — the time slot doesn’t work for me, but I wonder why I haven’t been taping it. The fourth (and final) season started last night, so I finally made time to watch it again. What a great show. It was especially funny that the Al Gore character was voiced by the former Vice President himself. I guess it helped that one of his daughters was on the Futurama writing staff.

Associated Press:

“Gore’s head is introduced at a global-warming convention as ‘the inventor of the environment and first emperor of the moon.’ He’s also known as the author of ‘Earth in the Balance,’ and the ‘much more popular Harry Potter and the Balance of Earth.'”

And on the big screen… Disney has submitted Spirited Away (in addition to Lilo & Stitch, and the upcoming Treasure Planet) for Oscar consideration, but only in the Best Animated Feature category, not for Best Picture. This increases my concern that it will be difficult for animated features to ever compete with live-action films for best picture, now that they’ve been relegated to a separate category. Other likely contenders will be Dreamworks’ Spirit and Fox’s Ice Age. It’s not clear yet whether there will be enough films to trigger five nominees or just three, but either way I’d be surprized if Lilo didn’t take the win.

And finally… Animation Blast unveils their tribute to Ward Kimball:

“Ward Kimball has always struck me as being the quintessential animator. When I read about artists who played gags on each other and the crazy studio atmosphere of the Golden Age, I can’t help but conjure up the image of the impish bushy-eyebrowed Kimball running amok and causing all sorts of mayhem.”

Election Day

Today is the big day, and you should vote. Even though you can’t stand all the negative ads. Even though it’s hard to tell who’s the Democrat and who’s the Republican because they all move to the center for their campaign. Even though they just give us the buzzwords we want to hear (“education”, “health care”, “drugs for seniors”, “social security”) without telling us what they plan to do about it. Even though it doesn’t appear that half of them truly believe in anything anymore.

Even so, you should vote.

I voted last week on the eSlate, the replacement for the paper ballot in this county. It’s not a perfect interface, but good enough, and there was one convenient feature that I wasn’t expecting: when you vote straight party, it automatically marks all the candidates of that party and you can just page through the ballot reviewing and making changes as needed.

The only real concern I have is that people who have little or no experience with computers will be scared away from the polls, even though the system is easy to use. Luckily they had a demo station dedicated to showing people how it worked while we waited in line. I saw at least one person take them up on the offer.

Apparently the turnout this year has been higher than usual. The line was conveniently positioned along the donuts in the bakery (it was at a grocery store), and everyone joked about how tempting it was to grab a dozen glazed and make a party out of it.

Houston Chronicle: “Stakes high for eSlate voting”.

Associated Press: “Scrutiny of High-Tech Voting System”.

Austin American-Statesman: “Travis GOP reports problems at polls”.

Crufty interfaces and file paths

Matthew Thomas’ “When good interfaces go crufty” is a fun read. It’s nothing we don’t already know, but sometimes it’s helpful to be reminded that some of the interfaces that we are so used to are still confusing for new users. His talk on the evils of using file paths to reference files and applications is resurfacing in the Mac world, as a new crop of Cocoa-based applications generally ignore using aliases (not alias files in the Finder but the AliasHandle toolbox type to keep track of files that might be moved or renamed out from under the application). Try this test in BBEdit, then in Apple’s TextEdit:

  1. Make a new document and save it on the desktop.
  2. While the document is still open, rename it in the Finder.
  3. Go back to the open document, type some more text, and click save again.

When I tried this with OmniOutliner, I expected it to perform as poorly as TextEdit. Instead, OmniOutliner does recognize the change and updates the document’s title bar with the new name. But then it ruins this intelligence by asking the user whether they are sure they want to save with the new name. It’s as if OmniOutliner is bragging — “Hey look at me, I’m so smart I noticed that you renamed my file”. Applications shouldn’t need to show off, and the ones that just work as expected will usually be more enjoyable to use.

There and back again

footprint

Out all last week, vacationing around the Gulf coast. It was good to unplug for a week and forget about the email, the blogs, and the constant hum of a noisy FireWire drive. I think we went three whole days without hearing the word “sniper”.

Cocoa/Carbon opinions from Applelust

Brent Simmons responds point by point to the misinformation in the Applelust.com article, “Going Native: The Attraction of the Cocoa Interface.”

Although the article is a mess, there are a couple of valid observations in it:

“Still, at this point in the evolution of Mac OS X, it is quite possible, as an end user, to perceive a very real difference between Cocoa and Carbon applications with respect to their interfaces and the way they interact with their users.”

Sadly, I agree. I think one of the reasons is this: most Carbon developers still support Mac OS 9, which makes adopting X-only features (drawers, toolbars, and sheets) more difficult because of the need to maintain two separate pieces of code. But as more users move away from OS 9, Carbon developers will give their apps a good facelift and release X-only versions, possibly even Jaguar-only versions in some cases.

Spirited Away

Last night I saw Spirited Away. I first heard about the film shortly before its release in Japan, and finally it is getting a limited release here. It opened in Austin at 3 theaters, which is more than I expected. Our showing had a good attendance, and one earlier in the day had even sold out.

That Spirited Away is original and brilliant shouldn’t surprize anyone who has seen Miyazaki’s previous films. I have only seen 3 others (Kiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, and Princess Mononoke). There is a lot to take in from this one. In fact, after a few failed attempts at writing a critique where you see this sentence, I’m going to wait on giving my personal interpretation and instead just say: go see it.

From an Animation World Network profile of Miyazaki:

“With Spirited Away he had noticed that some of his granddaughter’s friends, girls about 10 years old, seemed very apathetic, only interested in passively watching modern popular culture, unaware of Japan’s rich cultural past. He felt that he should make a film for 10-year-old girls that would both introduce them to their heritage and encourage them to develop a sense of self-reliance and responsibility.”

AWN also has an interview with husband-and-wife writing team Cindy Davis Hewitt and Donald H. Hewitt on adapting Spirited Away to English.

Cocoa, Carbon, and iDVD

The comments for Slashdot’s “Which Coding Framework for Mac OS X?” are frustrating. I have been experimenting with Cocoa lately, and I really like it. Objective-C is slick and the UI frameworks are good. But I’m so tired of seeing Carbon discounted as just a transitional technology and not as “native” as Cocoa. Now that it is possible to mix-and-match Cocoa and Carbon windows in the same application, hopefully we will see both technologies used where appropriate.

As big a Carbon fan as I am, though, I would probably recommend Cocoa for first-time programmers looking to write a simple X-only app. But it’s not appropriate for all apps. Photoshop and similar cross-platform apps will stay Carbon and C++ for some time to come, and many have their own internal frameworks to make life easier between the two platforms.

Unsanity.org has a good Cocoa vs. Carbon article that discusses the speed issue. Many people have noticed that recent Cocoa apps from Apple such as iPhoto and iCal are sometimes painfully slow, while iTunes and iMovie (both Carbon apps) have always been speedy even on Mac OS 9.

And then there’s iDVD. I used it for the first time last week, and it’s a great piece of software.

It took me a little while to figure this out, but the DVD Enabler that used to be distributed with OWC’s DVD-R drives does not work under Mac OS 10.2. I had to install 10.1.5 on a second drive and boot from that to use iDVD on my TiBook. But it’s well worth the trouble. iDVD is one of those rare apps that takes something that was impossible to do before (mastering DVDs for home movies and pictures on the cheap), and not only makes it possible but makes it easy. That iDVD is a Cocoa app speaks to the power in the Cocoa frameworks when used effectively.

Nobel Prize to Carter

The first thing I saw when I woke up this morning, from the BBC News: Former US President Jimmy Carter wins the Nobel Peace Prize for “decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.”

The Nobel site has a long history on the Nobel Peace Prize, including this bit on the first award to a US president:

“[Roosevelt] received the prize for his successful mediation to end the Russo-Japanese war and for his interest in arbitration, having provided the Hague arbitration court with its very first case. Internationally, however, he was best known for a rather bellicose posture, which certainly included the use of force. It is known that both the secretary and the relevant adviser of the Nobel Committee at that time were highly critical of an award to Roosevelt.”

And the second, to Woodrow Wilson:

“In 1919, the Peace Prize was awarded to the President of the United States, Thomas Woodrow Wilson for his crucial role in establishing the League [of Nations]. Wilson had been nominated by many, including Venstre Prime Minister Gunnar Knudsen. In a certain sense the prize to Wilson was obvious; what still made it controversial, also among committee members, was that the League was part of the Versailles Treaty, which was regarded as diverging from the president’s own ideal of ‘peace without victory.'”