From the archives: Computing

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Suggested reading, recollected edition

Monday, 8 March 2010 — 12:01pm | Assorted links, Classical, Computing, Harry Potter, Hockey, Literature, Music, Pianism, Science, Video games

Fall away from the Internet for a week or two and the Internet falls on you. Here’s some of what I saw when I succumbed to its gelatinous reach:

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Suggested reading, bowled-over edition

Monday, 8 February 2010 — 11:23pm | Assorted links, Comics, Computing, Jazz, Literature, Music, Science, Video games

I don’t follow American football whatsoever and would probably be unable to name any former or current NFL player that hasn’t been involved in a highly publicized criminal investigation, but you don’t need to know football to enjoy the Super Bowl pieces in McSweeney’s. The two that stuck out for me, both from a few years back: “NFL Players Whose Names Sound Vaguely Dickensian, and the Characters They Would Be in an Actual Dickens Novel” and “Famous Authors Predict the Winner of Super Bowl XLII”.

This week’s bag of links:

  • In a rare sighting of the man behind Calvin and Hobbes, Cleveland newspaper The Plain Dealer interviews Bill Watterson fifteen years after the legendary comic strip ended its run.

  • Peter Hum ruminates on the “ugly beauty” of avant-garde jazz.

  • The big news coming out of Barack Obama’s 2011 budget was the abandonment of NASA’s plan for the resumption of manned spaceflight to the moon. has the analysis.

  • Jonathan McCalmont, caught between the debate over high/low culture and his vehement dislike of the popular video game Bayonetta (“a game so dumb that it makes a weekend spent masturbating and sniffing glue seem like an animated discussion of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921)”), spun it all into a compelling essay on hypnotism and lowbrow art.

  • This Charles Petersen piece in The New York Review of Books is one of the better histories you will find of where Facebook came from and how it has transformed, and offers a thorough look at the content-pushing pressures facing the social-network model of a nominally private Internet.

  • Mark Sarvas identifies some common problems of debut novels from the perspective of a prize-committee veteran.

  • In The Guardian, Darrel Ince implores scientists who rely on internally developed software to publish their source code.

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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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