December 2002


Feast your eyes, hungry readers. I’ve blown a few hours that I shouldn’t have redoing this site. The page you see now uses nothing but CSS for layout–no tables, except for the calendar (which is tabular by nature). I still need to re-do some of the static pages, and I may want to rejigger the structure and the appearance a touch, but I’m pretty happy with it. Let me know what you think (if you care).

Although he probably doesn’t know if, I am in debt to Derek Powazek, from whose page I lifted an extremely obscure, but apparently critical modification. Technical details follow:

I had attempted to use XHTML for my page in the past, but was having a hard time getting the date to line up on the left of the main text. There are some positioning tricks you can use to get it to look right, but those depend on knowing the height of the left-hand slab in advance, which is inelegant at the least. In turns out that by switching to HTML 4.01 Transitional, the float: left/float: left trick would work. If anyone can explain why this makes a difference (and if there’s a way to make the trick work in XHTML), I’d love to hear it.

Interface uniformity

Steven Berliner Johnson writes on the contrast between Apple’s trend towards using specialized apps–iApps–to handle different media types, and Microsoft’s rumored move towards integrating everything into one do-it-all file manager. This sounds a lot like the BeOS file system, actually.

This is a false distinction, in a way. While iTunes (for example) provides a certain lens onto the files it manages, and a handy one at that, it doesn’t eliminate the value of a good file manager. Indeed, the current version of iTunes can help keep your music directory organized in the Finder–as long as you like it’s organization scheme–and there are scripts that can let you organize different, if you don’t. iPhoto is a program I don’t use at all because it doesn’t leave my photos in their original JPEG format–it merges a bunch of photos into a single monolithic file, which I don’t like. (Many people choose their e-mail client based on how it manages files as well.) I can certainly see how iPhoto would be useful, but I don’t like being locked in–it makes it easy, as long as you do things its way. (It only communicates with one photo-hosting website, also.) Umberto Eco once wrote that the Mac is “Catholic” in its insistence that there is one way to do things. This isn’t always true on the Mac (though with the Unix underpinnings, in some ways it is moreso now), but iPhoto is definitely “Catholic.”

Johnson writes

Consider the default layout of iPhoto, which shows you a broad mosaic of all your digital photos scaled to fit the size of your screen. If you have more than a couple hundred pictures, this means each image is the size of a thumbtack, but Apple includes a handy zoom tool that lets you instantly zoom in and out to focus on a particular batch of images. It’s much easier to find the photo you’re looking for by scanning iPhoto’s mosaic than it is to pore over document names in a directory overview. (It also happens to look very cool, particularly the zooming effect.)

Now, you could conceivably apply the iPhoto zoom to all your data: Turn on your computer, and you see a list of document titles and tiny icons; zoom in on one section, and a spreadsheet comes into focus or a Web page; zoom all the way in, and the document appears on your screen at normal size, ready to be manipulated. This would be an innovative approach to file management, but also a spectacularly inefficient one because a spreadsheet or a text document reduced to 5 percent of its usual size is indistinguishable from any other spreadsheet or text document. But it works great for photos.

Arguably, Apple did just that with the zooming Dock, which is supposed to act as a holding-pen for any document we want to keep handy but not active. And Apple has been justifiably criticized for this feature, for exactly the reasons Johnson mentions.

Johnson quotes Bill Gates, who says:

Right now when you use Windows, the way that you step through your photos, the way you step through your music, the way you step through e-mail or files, they’re all different. You have to learn different user interfaces, different search commands. … The idea of Longhorn is to have one approach, one set of commands that work for everything, including all of those things. And so the number of concepts you have to learn is dramatically less.

Gates is missing the point. If I want to find something, regardless of what program I’m in, there will usually be a text field with a Search button next to it. The problem isn’t so much that users need to learn different applications as it is that different applications may not implement common features (like Search) in a predictable, understandable way. There’s no user advantage to one massive application that provides all the lenses I could want onto my e-mail, my music, my photos, and my calendar. And there can be an advantage to applications that narrow the context.

Dumb or arrogant?

After stopping in the neighborhood hardware store, I was unlocking my bike when I saw the following scene unfold: an inexpertly piloted minivan is backing out of a space, and visibly scrapes the car to its right, leaving a big green mark on the white polyurethane bumper. Once out, the driver stops to look at the other car (without getting out), apparently decides “oh, that’s no big deal,” and drives off.

I was amazed–despite this being a busy parking lot, the motorist either figured “nobody saw,” “nobody cares,” or “I am immune.” Sorry, buddy. I wrote down your tag number on a scrap of paper, along with my own info, and left it under the windshield wiper. Expect a call from Officer Friendly.

Politicians for hire

Here’s an interesting project for a wealthy philanthropist with an interest in political reform:

Set up two shell organizations that claim to have opposite goals regarding some aspect of public policy. Call them “Citizens for X” and “Citizens against X”–whatever. Target one member of Congress, and have Citizens for X lobby him intensively. Get him to introduce legislation favorable to their position. Document this process internally. Then have Citizens for X withdraw support, but have Citizens against X step in. Repeat. Once the two sides have demonstrated how completely this member of Congress is willing to be the bitch of whoever will pay, publicize the whole thing.

It would be interesting to see how/whether this affected the career of the Congresscritter in question, whether it led to broader reforms, and whether the public gave a damn.

Big Night of Comedy

The Texas Freedom Network held an annual fundraising event last night, the Big Night of Comedy. Well, not that big. There were two comedians–local Kerry Awn (of Esther’s Follies) opened, with Will Durst headlining. At one point, Durst mentioned Willie Brown, mayor of Durst’s town, San Francisco. Apparently Willie Brown is actually from Texas–“Minneola, is that right?” Durst asked. A few people called something back to the stage, and after a moment of silence, a voice that everyone instantly recognized called up “He’s from Mineral Wells.” That was Ann Richards. We all got a good laugh, and were glad to know she was there with us.

The show was pretty good, but not great. I’ve seen Kerry Awn’s schtick before. Will Durst seemed to be at a bit of a loss for material. Perhaps this isn’t surprising. It was easy to joke about Clinton. And when Bush was just a priviliged buffoon whose tongue had two left feet, he was too. But what the Bush administration is doing is so grave that it may be hard to make it funny. I saw a lot of friends at the show. In fact, a sizable fraction of the audience members were people I know. It bothers me that, at an event for progressives, I’m going to see all the usual suspects. That there aren’t enough here for my circle to get lost in the crowd.

In the Bedroom

Rented In the Bedroom recently. Interesting movie, especially in that the storytelling style mimicked the story. The main characters in the story are incredibly uptight New England types who never say what they really think or feel. The movie itself never quite depicts any of the key action that takes place, cutting away or looking elsewhere at the critical moment.

Die Another Day

Saw Die Another Day yesterday. I’m ambivalent about this movie. I enjoyed most of the action sequences and gadget-porn (although some people have criticized the invisible car as going beyond their suspension of disbelief, it’s not as far-fetched as you might think. There were a few subtle (or not-so-subtle) bows to earlier Bond flicks–Berry emerging from the surf with a huge knife-belt on her bikini is obviously evoking Ursula Andress in Dr No, for example. Inexplicably, Michael Madsen seemed to have on the same suit he wore in Reservoir Dogs.

But the plot had holes–nay, chasms–that any viewer smarter than a tuna salad couldn’t help but notice, even with the distraction of top-flight action sequences, and apart from those, it just muddled along without a clear direction or good pace. Some of the dialog between Pierce Brosnan and Halle Berry was just awful.

Far From Heaven

Saw Far From Heaven a few days ago. Good movie. I’ve only seen one other movie by the director, Todd Haynes. That was Velvet Goldmine, which, in most respects, is completely different, but both have a lush, colorful, and contrived visual style, both are recent-vintage period pieces, and both deal, in some way, with sexual ambiguity.

The story in Far From Heaven has nice symmetries and contrasts, appropriate considering the themes of closeted homosexuality and unpleasant racial attitudes under a veneer of perfect Eisenhower-era America.