Archive for January 2010

Writing Break

Published on January 31, 2010

So that all of my regular readers are aware, I am taking a much needed break from blogging during the month of February. I’ve been in a writing funk lately, and I figured that a small break would do me some good. Updates will resume in March.

Whither iPad?

Published on January 31, 2010

What do you think about Apple’s iPad? Will it fly, or will it flop? Here are a few brief thoughts I had on the newest product from Cupertino:

  • The name is absolutely terrible
  • No physical keyboard is a huge minus on something this size
  • Only one connector (Apple proprietary) is a huge mistake
  • Data plans through AT&T are a big negative
  • What does this give me that I can’t do already on my laptop or netbook?
  • No multitasking seems like a poor decision
  • What a terrible name!

Perhaps Apple will prove me wrong, but I can’t see this device catching on the world over. The “cool” factor just isn’t there; the keynote demos consisted of boring stuff like editing spreadsheets and documents, something the “kids” of today aren’t interested in. So what do you think?

MSE Saves the Day

Published on January 26, 2010

Last night, while surfing around for some medical information, one of the sites I stumbled upon through Google’s search results tried to install a Trojan on my computer! This was surprising, seeing as I was using Firefox 3.6 with AdBlock turned on. Thankfully, Microsoft Security Essentials saved the day, alerting me to the fact that a nefarious application was trying to install itself. The tool caught the incursion, alerted me, and successfully removed it from my system. I then did a full scan and it found no other problems.

I’ve read that drive-by attacks like this are becoming more common, but until now I hadn’t ever been affected. Several of my plug-ins were outdated, so I updated them, though I’m not certain any of them were involved in this attack (Java never loaded, and there was no embedded media on the site).

That being said, make sure to surf with protection; there’s some nasty stuff out there.

Firefox 3.6

Published on January 22, 2010

As you have undoubtedly heard by now, Firefox 3.6 has been released. I’ve been using it for a few days now (I picked up the release candidate earlier this week), so I have a few thoughts on it.

Faster Performance
If Firefox 3.6 is faster than 3.5, then it’s not by much. I have yet to see any gains. When I installed Firefox 3.6, I blew away my old installation completely. I’m using a new profile, with a fresh install, and cold starts still take upwards of 15 or 20 seconds on my laptop (Core 2 T7400 at 2.16 GHz, with 2 GB of memory, on Win XP). I only store 14 days of history (versus 90 days by default), I turn off the Awesomebar (which I hate), and I only use 7 extensions (Adblock Plus, CoLT, Console2, Firebug, Googlebar Lite, Linkification, and Web Developer), none of which seem to be the problem. Mozilla had better make significant gains here in the future. Browsers like Chrome are literally miles ahead in this realm (Chrome cold-starts on my system in as little as 5 seconds).
HTML 5
I haven’t played with the HTML 5 stuff, but there’s been plenty of news about websites adding HTML 5 variations of their content (like YouTube and Vimeo). The only problem? Firefox doesn’t support the H.264 encoding being used by these sites! I understand their licensing standpoint, but if the world chooses H.264 over OGG, they had better jump on board pretty quick.
Personas
Do we really need Personas? This feels like something that AOL would have rolled out back in the day, for every grandma computer user. The real-time preview mechanism feels very scary to me; the fact that document-level content can alter the look and feel of my web browser feels like a security nightmare waiting to happen. What kinds of exploits will crop up as a result of this?
Plug-in Checker
This is the one feature of 3.6 that I actually appreciate. A new update mechanism allows you to quickly see if your plug-ins are out of date, which was pretty painful before. Unfortunately, I have a number of plug-ins on my laptop here that aren’t recognized by the updater, but maybe that will improve with time.

I’m hoping that the next release of Firefox, whenever that may be, will be a step in the right direction. Lately, Mozilla really seems to be heading into some strange territory. As much as I love Firefox, I’m growing tired of the bloat, I dislike their possible plans to ditch extensions, and the new UI features seem insipid at best.

The only thing holding me back from moving to Chrome (which I also enjoy), is the lack of decent extension support. When that feature gets implemented, I just may switch, so consider yourselves on notice Mozilla. The next Firefox release had better be good to win back my respect.

Auto-Saving in Games

Published on January 22, 2010

Earlier this week, I picked up a copy of the 2004 title Thief: Deadly Shadows from Steam. Last night, I found out the hard way that the game doesn’t auto-save your progress; my character fell from a lofty spot, died, and I lost a couple of hours of progress. This got me thinking about the state of auto-saving in video games today, something that I now clearly take for granted.

Back in the day, games never auto-saved your progress. One of the earliest titles I recall using an auto-save feature was the original Far Cry, which (in actuality) used a checkpoint saving system. I’m sure there were titles before that which used an auto-save mechanism (the first Serious Sam might have used one back in 2001). Since that time, nearly every game I’ve played has had some form of an auto-game saving mechanism.

Take one of my current favorite games, Torchlight. With regards to saving your progress, it lies at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from most old games: you cannot, at any point, manually save your progress! In essence, it only auto-saves, nothing more. What a change from having to consciously remember to save every so often.

Going forward in Thief: Deadly Shadows, I’ll have to remind myself to save every so often. Otherwise, I’ll end up wasting more time like I did last night. Live and learn.

Rethinking Photo Organization

Published on January 20, 2010

I’ve recently been thinking about ways to improve the organizational hierarchy of my photos. Specifically, I’d like to change the way photo albums are organized. A number of my albums fall into certain categories: state parks, festivals, zoos & museums, etc. As such, a categorical hierarchy could be very useful. One of my personal goals is to photograph every state park in North Carolina, and having a way of grouping those photo albums together would be terrific.

Two potential implementations for this occur to me. First, and most obviously, I could have a list of categories into which I assign each photo album (similar to the way blog posts are categorized in WordPress). Second is a “tagging” idea, where I simply add the appropriate tags to each photo album, then provide a mechanism to see albums with a given tag. Other solutions undoubtedly exist, and if you have an idea, let me know.

Changing the organization would most likely result in a rewrite of the main photography page. If I go with categories, I may have a page where the newest X photo albums would be shown, along with a few favorite images (that feature would stay), followed by the listing of available categories, rather than a listing of older albums. Perhaps a secondary page would allow you to view all old albums together.

How does that sound? Are there other ways that occur to you for organizing albums? How do you organize your personal collections? Sound off in the comments … I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Navigation Improvements

Published on January 19, 2010

I have made a few navigation improvements to the Toolbar Tutorial. Each chapter now has a link back to the Table of Contents, which should be useful if you land on an interior page via a search engine. The new link appears at the bottom of each chapter in the chapter navigation block.

Would having a copy of this navigation block at the top of each chapter’s page be useful? It’s a bit of a bother to have to scroll to the bottom of each chapter to find a link to the next one. If you think that would be a useful addition, let me know in the comments below.

Thoughts on Garry Shandling’s Show

Published on January 17, 2010

Earlier today, I finished watching the fourth and final season of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. I enjoyed the whole series so much, that I wanted to share a few thoughts on it. For those who don’t already know, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show was a sitcom that ran on the Showtime network between 1986 and 1990. In it, Garry Shandling plays himself, and is fully aware that he is a sitcom character. All of the characters around him also realize that they are a part of a television show, so the whole experience is very “meta.” Garry often involved the studio audience in the story, and each show opened and closed with a monologue. The fourth wall was broken as a rule on the show, not as an exception, so the viewer at home was usually in on every situation and joke.

What I like most about the show is how unique a premise it is, even to this day. Having the characters of the show all realize that they are on television is very clever and made for some great gags. Garry would often exploit this fact to the fullest; whether walking between sets to keep a thread going, or advancing time in silly ways to push the story forward. The supporting cast is all terrific, and the comedy outstanding. There were some episodes where I literally laughed until I cried. You gotta love a show that can do that.

The fourth season is definitely the weakest of them all. I listened to a number of episode commentaries, and it was interesting to learn that many of the writers felt the show went in the wrong direction in the fourth season. Showtime had a fairly small audience, so the show’s ratings were never terrific (even though it was nominated for, and won, a number of awards). After Fox picked up the last two seasons, ratings tanked, mostly because the show was never meant to air with commercials. Upon debuting on Fox, the show came in at number 99 out of 100 shows; only The Tracey Ullman Show was worse. Interestingly enough, during the fourth season, many of the writers from It’s Garry Shandling’s Show also went to work on a little television show called The Simpsons, which debuted in the top 5 of the ratings. It’s ironic, then, that the same writing staff would garner a top 5 rating and a 99th rating in the same year.

If you get a chance to check out this show, I highly recommend it. In some ways the show may be dated, but the humor is clever, and there are some very ground-breaking ideas. I’m greatly looking forward to checking out Garry’s subsequent show, The Larry Sanders Show.

Drop Shadows With CSS

Published on January 11, 2010

Over the holiday break, I stumbled upon a wonderful article describing several CSS tricks to add eye-candy without images. I’ve been using rounded corners here at the site since the last theme update, and thanks to this article, I’m now employing drop shadows. The effect is subtle, but adds a lot to the design; in short, I like it.

The style rules for adding drop shadows are very simple, though proprietary; it’s a shame this stuff can’t be standardized properly. Here’s the code to use a drop shadow (the values shown are the ones I’m using on the site):

#myelement {
    -moz-box-shadow: 1px 1px 3px rgba(0, 0, 0, 0.5); /* Firefox */
    -webkit-box-shadow: 1px 1px 3px rgba(0, 0, 0, 0.5); /* Webkit */
    box-shadow: 1px 1px 3px rgba(0, 0, 0, 0.5); /* Standards way */
}

The article even details the appropriate style code for Internet Explorer, but I haven’t included it here, mainly because it’s ugly. Other effects that the article explains are glow (the opposite of drop shadow, essentially), gradients, rotating images with CSS, transparency, and a few more advanced tricks. It’s great that this support is built-in to most standards compliant browsers. So long to those annoying images that try so desperately to do the same thing!

Update: So it turns out that adding this eye candy significantly reduces scrolling performance in Firefox (quite an annoyance). Chrome doesn’t have this issue, so it’s clearly a Firefox problem. Should I keep the shadows and suffer the performance hit? Or should I chuck them and keep things snappy?

Also, Webkit browsers don’t support the inset modifier for shadows, which means you see even less eye candy in Chrome, et al.

Update 2: I’ve removed the drop shadows for the time being. After all, this stuff is experimental.

Advertising Time Machine

Published on January 8, 2010

I recently stumbled on an incredibly wonderful website; one that threatens my productivity just as much as Wikipedia does. The Vintage Ad Browser is a trip down memory lane, showcasing magazine advertisements from as far back as 1800. All kinds of categories are available to peruse: from Airlines & Aircraft, to Gender (some of which, today, are quite sexist), to Transportation. This site is one of those black holes on the internet, where you can get lost down a trail of links. I highly recommend checking it out; definitely worth bookmarking.

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The News That People Read

Published on January 7, 2010

For better or worse, my online news site of choice is CNN.com. Last year, when they rolled out their new look, they also introduced a feature (which is still in “beta”) called NewsPulse. It’s essentially a look at what stories are being viewed most by site visitors during a given time period. For quite some time now, I’ve found the feature amusing, so I try to check it every once in a while. The most popular stories (over a longer period of time) typically fall into one of the following three categories:

  1. Celebrity stories
  2. Stories involving sex
  3. “Big News” stories

In general, the popularity of any given story follows the order above. Celebrity news, especially celebrity death stories, seem to be very popular. The recent death of Casey Johnson, the Johnson & Johnson heiress, was particularly popular because it fit both of the first two categories: she was a ‘celebrity’ and very openly gay.

I’ve always enjoyed looking at statistics like this. Google’s year-end zeitgeist is equally as enjoyable to peruse (though, it’s obvious that it’s filtered to be family friendly). This kind of data paints an interesting picture into our culture’s interests.

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