From the archives: January 2010

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Tablets and tablature

Wednesday, 27 January 2010 — 9:40pm | Computing, Music

Many are rightly wondering if Apple’s iPad really does fill a niche that isn’t already better served by a laptop and a phone (specifically, Apple laptops and Apple phones). I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve long desired a device that allows me to do two things:

  • Read full-size PDFs and websites in bed;
  • Prop up music books on the piano in digital form, complete with gestural page-turns and sheets that don’t blow this way and that.

The iPhone and iPod Touch can’t do this because the screen is too small.

Laptops can’t do this because they go practically anywhere but on your lap, you can’t set them on the bed because they’ll set your house on fire, and the keyboard juts out and gets in your way. The screen orientation is also unsuitable for most PDFs. If you use a laptop, you are practically tethered to a desk. (I have, incidentally, seen a few musicians who put their laptops on the piano as a substitute for lugging a bagful of Real Books around. The form factor leaves much to be desired.)

What about e-readers? I’m astonished at how poorly existing e-readers have handled PDF support. The Kindle, last I heard, allows you to convert PDFs into its proprietary format so you can interact with the text the way you do with any of the books available for the device, but this completely fails to handle the kind of documents I tend to read as PDFs in the first place: music, articles in academic journals (often with diagrams, footnotes, and figures all over the place), and other scans that are sensitive to their original layouts. While the iPad can’t hope to match the battery life and screen texture of dedicated e-book readers for, well, reading books, a bright full-colour screen is exactly what I need for the kind of documents that wind up on my drive as PDFs.

The iPad is perfect for both of these tasks. By the looks of it, I can hold it in any orientation in the laziest of postures without strain, and it will sit nicely on any music stand. It’s an absolute dream for musicians, and the ideal device for someone who needs to pack a lot of stray documents on the go. Who knows—it may even save The New York Times, and I wouldn’t be in the least surprised if this was a major reason why the Times had the gumption to announce it would move its online edition to a paid subscription model next year.

What’s odd, then, is that Apple is falling short of its usual marketing savvy in promoting the features of the iPad as if it were merely an iPod Touch with a bigger screen. The company is clearly expecting the revolution to come from third-party application developers, as was the case with the iPhone, and banking to a lesser extent on the massive content push of its iBooks store, but this seriously undersells the potential of the device.

Combined with a keyboard dock, the iPad is potentially a complete computer replacement for everything I do except a few heavy design/development applications, World of Warcraft, and Civilization—essentially, every reason I have a MacBook Pro instead of the lightweight standard line. And as comfortable as I have become with using LaTeX for all of my document preparation, I am even willing to go back to a word processor like Pages if someone develops a good implementation of speech-to-text, so I can try the Richard Powers method of prose composition. Most people don’t use their computers for any of these tasks, and so long as there is an adequate file management system—something we have yet to see—the iPad could be viable as a standalone device. Keyboards are around to stay, but it’s only a matter of time before the mouse paradigm is dead.

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Suggested reading, sophomoric edition

Monday, 25 January 2010 — 4:30pm | Animation, Assorted links, Computing, Film, Literature, Science

Here’s your grab bag for the week:

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An old sweet serif

Friday, 22 January 2010 — 8:16am | Computing, Journalism

This just in: I can’t believe I crapped out a thousand words on a niche issue that might have mattered to half a dozen of my acquaintances three or four years ago, when I have academic work to do and a deadline coming up fast. It bothers me. It is costing me sleep.

But I know why I did it. It was Georgia.

You won’t have noticed it if you only read my site on Facebook or your RSS reader, but this week I made some minor tweaks to my layout, and it got me thinking about web design again for the first time in many moons. It began innocently enough. I’d fallen in love with Georgia again, thanks to the online edition of the The New York Times. This is what happens when you read the Times as much as I do: the typesetting becomes inseparable from the text, the text indivisible from the Web; and so daintily, transitively, your memories of other faces slip away like dingbats in the cold, long night.

I’m usually cautious around these upstart fonts for the screen—Georgia is practically an infant, designed in 1993—and ever since I brought my site into its present incarnation I’d stuck with old, reliable Garamond the whole way through. Garamond the Wise, Garamond of Many Colours! How soon had I forgotten that in my former locale, Georgia was once my face of choice. Maybe this is why typographic fashion has borrowed the language of haute couture: one look at the Times and you tell yourself, I want to look like that. Those curves, those stately majuscules.

So I opened up my stylesheet and changed the type. Before I knew it I was fiddling with a margin here, a colour there—minor cosmetic obsessions, nothing big. Then the title image; then a plank for recent comments along the starboard side. It’s not perfect, but it’s tidier now and I felt an overpowering urge to write some copy just to give myself an excuse to look at it.

Don’t worry, though—I’ve not cast away my classical tastes. Jenson remains the champion of the page.

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WordPress for happy campers

Friday, 22 January 2010 — 3:59am | Computing

Sometime ago I worked at a rather well-regarded summer camp for children interested in science, technology, and engineering. It was by and large a positive experience, and none of what I am about to raise pertains to that programme alone. Any camp run by university students will undergo a lot of staff turnover year to year, with comparably less turnover in the boys and girls who show up every summer because (as their parents attest) they don’t want to go outside. At DiscoverE, the instructors had an instrumental role in planning the day camps on offer, but broadly speaking the schemes were adapted from the successes of previous years with minor modifications.

For computer camps, that sense of inherited continuity can be crippling in ways that aren’t obvious at first sight. Consider a standard offering of computer instruction today: an introduction to building websites. When kids look at websites, they dream about making their own—and they pattern their imaginations after what they see, not what is practical. The instructors have to teach them how to do this, in a rudimentary sense, in a severely limited timeframe with a minimum of confusion and drudgery.

Most quick-and-dirty website instruction, right up to the community-college level, will adopt one of two solutions. Both of them are holdovers from a decade ago. On one hand you can teach hand-coded HTML, which is how we grizzled warriors learned the ropes when we braved the jungles of GeoCities to hang our(selves on) <marquee> lights. But you don’t do that to kids today, certainly not within a week; it’s demoralizing to start with an empty canvas, teaching it ends up in a mire of copy-and-paste, and the youngsters don’t value minimalism like we do. Besides, you’ll only end up showing them how to write bad code that doesn’t validate, since there’s no way in holy hell you’re covering CSS.

Introductory website courses thus swing to the other extreme: proprietary WYSIWYG site-builders like Dreamweaver. This is a terrible idea, for two major reasons (among others):

  • Campers want to take their work home with them when the week is through and continue chipping away. To do this, they have to pressure their parents to obtain a product that isn’t priced for individual amateurs and certainly not for kids, a fraction of which will ever see use. As much as I love Adobe, I have an ethical problem with this, especially as I do not consider piracy a legitimate workaround to the high cost of software licenses. It ends up being either a de facto endorsement of a commercial product or a de facto endorsement of piracy.

  • These tools are not for beginner sites. Years ago, nobody serious about websites used WYSIWYG editors; they had a dreadful reputation for generating messy code, non-compliant with standards and a pain to fine-tune. Dreamweaver has improved considerably, but it is a professional tool for business purposes more than personal use, best left to the people who know the nuts and bolts of web design and use it for mock-ups or speeding up their workflow. If you don’t know what you’re doing, the interface is bewildering and problems are hard to spot and fix—and children break things in the most fascinating and creative ways.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think Dreamweaver wrecked my camp. The kids had fun, the parents offered their compliments, the instructors didn’t go too crazy, and whoever planned the course that year did an admirable job considering how they stuck to what I think is a fundamentally broken orthodoxy of how to introduce 9-to-11-year-olds to making websites. I’m saying computer camps can do better.

I propose that crash courses in website building teach WordPress. Here’s why.

Continued »

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Suggested reading, cork-popping edition

Monday, 18 January 2010 — 9:24pm | Assorted links, Classical, Jazz, Literature, Mathematics, Music, Science

I read too much and write too little. This has made it difficult to keep this space current and engaging, something that I sought to remedy with a weekly book review until other commitments started getting in the way. The book feature will return as soon as I can manage it and for as long as I can help it; but until then and going forward, I will content myself with regularly sharing some links to pieces that may fascinate the sort of people who come here in the first place, as they certainly fascinated me.

Up to this point I have typically refrained from aggregating news and commentary from elsewhere without any reply of my own, but I would rather pass on insightful reading material free of comment than never have it reach you at all. At the very least I hope to introduce some of you to the many excellent blogs and journals I follow.

Some recent highlights:

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