Redesigned

redesigned

Felt an urge to redecorate the other day, and so I threw some new paint on this old thing. I trimmed a lot of fat, went all HTML5, completely ignored Internet Explorer, threw in a Google web-font and made the site all responsive and scaling to smartphones. It was liberating. If you’re reading this in a feed-reader, I invite you to jump out of it for a brief gander.

For a while I’ve been working on the be-all end-all WordPress theme, a parent theme framework with all sorts of other buzzwords not including synergy. For this theme, however, I simply threw it all out and started with a mix of TwentyEleven (excellent HTML5 base) and the deprecated fallback theme you’re not actually supposed to use (turns out the fallback comments form was much to my liking; don’t worry, I copied the files to my theme directory).

I also deactivated a bunch of plugins. I’ve been a tremendous fan of Subscribe To Comments ever since I switched from Movable Type almost a decade ago (how time flies), but since the introduction of email subscriptions in Jetpack, that plugin is more-so a must-have for me (not to mention the fact that the stats module is now some of my bread and a lot of my butter). I have a bunch of to-do’s still, mostly related to finding a decent way to make my photos section interesting again.

Then of course, I’ve turned down the lights, something you either love or hate. I’ve found myself reading a lot on my smartphone, and somehow it works for me when the little device emits less light in my face. Black will do that to you, and I’m told it’s always a good choice. Plus, I’m a big fan of feed-readers (not so much Google Reader anymore), so if you prefer a white background you may go right back to your reader of choice and I will harbor no ill will towards you.

Part of my urge to redesign has been my want of going long-form. This blog has gone through a lot of iterations based on my whim at the time. Currently, this quote by Brent Simmons appeals to me:

Twitter and Facebook are great for organizing a revolution. Blogs are for explaining why we need one.

I’m not looking to start a revolution, and the truth is I may blog way less these days now that I’m juggling a toddler and a fantastic job. But what I do write, I want to keep, store, cross-reference and archive.

Hitch

All my heroes are dead now.

This night, Christopher Hitchens passed. He’d been struggling with cancer for a couple of years, yet he’d kept going despite knowing exactly what was in store for him.

A passing always hits a special part of your body, an organ you did not know was there. It’s like losing part of what helped keep your balance. It’s going to take some time to find a new balance in absence of that support.

When Arthur C. Clarke passed, he’d lived a lifetime and written more than one lifetimes worth of work. Knowing that, it was somewhat more easy to celebrate his life and work, knowing he’d more than fulfilled his promise. Douglas Adams life, on the other hand, was cut short like now Hitchens was. Surely both Adams and Hitchens have achieved more in their lives than many of us can ever hope to, but it still makes this no less tragic.

Hitch had a profound impact on me. Through his writing and speaking he logically approached the difficulty of the human condition. In no uncertain terms, Hitch managed to make actual sense of what might not have any sense in the first place. Not believing in God is not as easy as it sounds. The notion that this is it and even if you live a life unfulfilled in the end you’ll return to the void, that is a hard pill to swallow. Somehow it puts the injustice of the world in an even starker contrast.

Through this, Hitch taught me that what I need to strive for in life is to have more good days than bad days. He taught me what I want for my own deathbed; to have made some impact in the lives of the people I spent it with, to hopefully have been an invisible support to give balance. You were that support to me, Hitch, and like walking a staircase missing a step, I expect to stumble in your absence. I will do my best to find a new balance and help others do so. And I will tell my daughter about you.

The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it
— Thucydides

Nitpicky Star Wars Nerds

The Star Wars Blurays are out. I’m not getting them. And not because Darth yells “Nooooooo” or because Greedo shoots first (or whatever). Simply, I’ve seen them enough times now. I’m done. No, not done in that smug, grown-up “Star Wars is for kids” kind of way, trust me I’m as juvenile as ever. I still love lightsabers, I giggle like a schoolgirl whenever someone says “titmouse”, and I listen to the Mega Man 2 soundtrack on repeat. I’m right down with you nerds. I’m just at a point where I’m thinking it’s perhaps time to throw my love on something else.

The amount of energy spent by the Star Wars fan community discussing the Bluray edits is astounding. One fan (or several, I wasn’t paying attention) is taking it upon himself to restore the “non special edition” of Star Wars in HD:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDMDfUB4Mco

Note how R2s hologram is actually white in the original version, vs. slightly bluish in the “enhanced” version. I totally cancelled my Bluray preorder when I saw this. George Lucas, you ruined my childhood!

That would be me if not for the fact that I discovered other sci-fi television. Turns out, if you have 400 hours to spare, instead of restoring the original version of Star Wars to HD, you could watch every episode of Star Trek ever made! Think about that for a moment.

Don’t get me wrong, Star Wars was good. Especially Empire. That whole Cloud City thing was way better than what they did in Star Trek. Here’s Cloud City:

Cloud_City

And this is Stratos from “The Cloud Minders”:

Kirk_and_Spock_view_Stratos_from_surface

Still, once you’ve seen Cloud City, you’ve seen Cloud City (that is to say, once you’ve seen Cloud City in all three four versions, you’ve seen Cloud City — but don’t worry if you haven’t, they’re pretty much the same save for a tibanna gas refinery). And say what you will about Star Trek, but that Kirk got down with the ladies, even green ones. And not one of them were his sister!

You could also get into Buck Rogers (just pretend season 2 never happened). Listen to them crunchy grooves:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VmxXIS2ot8w

But wait, there’s more. Here’s Erin Grey as Col. Wilma Deering:

erin_gray

… and let’s not forget Pamela Hensley as the evil Princess Ardala. Always trying to score with Buck. Silly girl, didn’t she know Buck preferred good girls? And damsels in distress? And Amazon Women? Occasionally bad girls. But not Ardala! Except of course when he was brainwashed, but that’s another story:

ardala

That may not be a metal bikini, but it sure deserves being restored in HD more than the original Star Wars does.

Next time you get an irresistable urge to spend 400 hours on restoring Star Wars to the way it was meant to be, consider if maybe that time was better spent watching Star Trek or Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (season 1). You could also watch Space 1999. Or UFO. Or even the original Battlestar Galactica — heck, any Glen A. Larson show. You could even watch Patrick Duffy as The Man From Atlantis! Patrick Duffy! (It’s all in this pamphlet).

You must do what you feel is right, of course. But sometimes we must let go of our pride and do what is requested of us. It all starts with a choice. A choice to spend your credits not on more Star Wars. Instead, roll up your blinds and let in the light! Then roll them down again and put on Buck Rogers. Season 1.

The Cupcake Is A Lie

The wife bought cupcakes the other day. Four of them. Really pretty ones from Agnes Cupcakes. “They were delicious”, you’d think this blog post would end with, but no. It only begins with “the top half was delicious”.

I consider the cupcake a fundamentally flawed design. It’s basically a lavishly frosted and decorated muffin. The end result is a messy eat that gets dull as soon as you’ve devoured the top. It’s like starting with the dessert and once you’re full you’re given dinner. And not even a good dinner. Sure you can try to improve the cupcake design by carving chunks out of the cupcake-bottom, filling them with interesting curds and whatnot. The Wife tried, and as usual she succeeded. But that still means cutting chunks out of a muffin. Muffins deserve better.

The problem is not the muffin itself. The problem is the stark juxtaposition of the brilliantly inviting cupcake-adornment on the one hand, and the muffin on the other hand, which benumbs the latter into a damp, dreary affair. By focusing on beautiful swirls and delicious embellishments, the cupcake design turns the phrase “icing on the cake” on its head. Instead of being the glorious enrichment of an already delicious treat, the icing on the cupcake has become its sole raison d’être. I doubt even a cherry on top would help. To make matters worse, once you’re done eating that which you’re so obviously meant to eat first, your sugar intake is likely to be at a point where you’ll consider simply throwing the cupcake bottom away. A tragic fate in its own right, but an indictment of the cupcake design if there ever was one.

The cupcake design follows a pattern I see all too often these days. It’s the razor focus on presentation and appearance over substance and structure. As soon as you scratch the surface, you’ll see it’s all a thin veneer, a set piece hiding a lack of usability, functionality or even nutritional value. The prettified product may vastly outsell the more substantial, more usable, more functional, more nutritional alternative, but somehow people will not only not notice they’re being fooled, when their error becomes apparent they’ll pretend their decision was for the better. It’s like a cupcake reality distortion field.

I don’t readily have an alternative to the cupcake. I don’t have a design handy which alleviates the structural issues with said chow. No, I don’t have all the answers. Does that mean I shouldn’t be allowed to point out apparent problems? I criticise because I love. That’s how it’s always been. And even if The Cupcake Defence Brigade comes out in full force, it’ll still not change the fact that the cupcake is a fundamentally flawed design.

The donut, on the other hand, is an absolutely brilliant design. I wouldn’t be surprised if it follows the basic shape of the universe itself.

The Tip Economy

Celebrating the sale of our previous apartment, The Wife and I had dinner at a restaurant yesterday. It was a mid-range price place — not shawarma cheap, not Noma expensive. We were seated and I had a look at the menu. Everything looked good, so when the waiter came, I asked if he could recommend me something. I was surprised to get a snarky response back, as though my indecision not only annoying but offensive.

I like to ask the waiter for recommendations. I have flexible tastebuds, so I can eat and enjoy the weirdest of meals, and when I go to a restaurant I like to eat something new. I’ve had great success with this strategy during my US travels earlier this year. The waiters have been almost universally accommodating, and my inquiries met with the opposite reaction to the Danish waiter. After all, who better to know what’s good than those that serve the menu on a daily basis.

Denmark is not big on tips. For example, tips are already included in taxi-cab fares, so you’re not expected to give extra. Dinners at restaurants are marked up so that even if you don’t give a tip, no-one will look at you with an evil eye (though you are thanked for an extra tip). In fact, you could live a perfectly normal, not-frowned-upon, life in Denmark, not ever giving anyone a tip.

Let me be clear, I do tip when I’m at restaurants. 10% universally, which due to the already marked up prices is a good tip. When I’m in the US I always ask the locals what the comme il faut for tipping is, and I tip the highest percentage I’m told, usually 20%. I tip the Starbucks lady, I tip the taxi driver, I tip the waitress. I do this because I’m told the US is a tip economy, that wages in many walks of the US life are based on the generosity of the clientele. Minimum wage might be viable simply by virtue of the tip. I suppose the master plan of this system is to reward great service with great tips and not so great service with a not so great or no tip at all.

I’ve never been a fan of this system, not because great service doesn’t deserve a good tip, but because I feel it adds a needless amount of complexity to life. And it feels like an institutional form of reward and punishment, on both sides of the fence. Instead of explaining to your Starbucks-barista-with-an-attitude that in fact everyone has bad days but that’s no reason to let it out on you, you just omit the tip. Instead of the tip being the icing on the cake, something you give for extraordinary service, the tip is expected and not giving a tip becomes a negative signal.

On the other hand, I can’t recall having received anything but great service during american adventures, and yesterday I do wish my missing tip would’ve said “hey, dear waiter, next time I ask for a recommendation, please don’t look at me like I peed in your pool”.

Okay I switched, are you happy now?

A couple of weeks ago, I backed up all my data to the cloud and then turned off my PC. One day I’ll turn it on again, but it will be to format it, reinstall it and give it to my mom. For you see, I have switched to The Mac, something readers of this blog — tech savvies you might call at least some of them — have been clamoring for for a decade.

aboutthismac

So yes. I switched to The Mac, and I’ve found a setup I’m happy with. Yes, I said it, I’m very happy with The Mac. Go on, have your moment. No, please, point at me and laugh because it took me so long to “see the light”. Remind me how long I criticized the OS, the ecosystem and the mere culture of The Mac. Get it out of your system.

But why did I switch? In short: the commandline. In my dayjob, I need to know Linux. Which is pretty much like Unix. Which is pretty much what’s at the core of OSX. Which means, if I’m on this ecosystem, there’s less to learn — and that which I do learn has broader applicability in what I do today. Because webdesigners should code.

Now then. Here’s what I had to do to tweak the system to be satisfying for an ex-Windows user:

  • Enable form element tabbing. System Preferences > Keyboard > Keyboard Shortcuts > “All controls”. I can’t believe this is not enabled by default.
  • Install Cinch. It’s on the Mac App Store, and it does what “Aero Snap” does on Windows 7. It’s the closest to fullscreen I can get. Update: there’s also “Better Snap Tool” from the App Store.
  • Move the dock to the right side of the screen and make it auto-hide. It makes it less jumpy there as compared to the bottom, and whenever I need to drag a file into an app or the trash, the distance to drag is short.
  • Install ClipMenu. It does what CLCL does for Windows, i.e. it’s a clipboard manager. My clipboard history shortcut is ALT + V.
  • Install CloudApp. Windows users, see: FluffyApp.
  • Configure the screensaver to require a password, and create a shortcut to the screensaver in the dock so I can quickly lock the computer if I have to leave for a moment. Update: Today I use Alfred app to invoke the “Screensaver” command as opposed to a dock shortcut.
  • Learn the shortcots CMD + L for “locationbar” in browsers, ALT + Left for “move caret to previous word” and CMD + Left is the equivalent of “Home” (these shortcuts work in the other direction as well, ALT + Right and CMD + Right). Also CMD + H for “hide current window” — which is almost as useful as the “minimize” feature is useless.
  • Remove the CMD + ALT + Space and CMD + Space shortcuts for Spotlight, and remap Spotlight to CMD + $ (on a Danish keyboard, $ is the button right below escape). Yeah I’ve been recommended AlfredApp. I’ll get to it, but for now Spotlight is fine. Update: I now use Alfred, with the same suggested shortcut remapping.
  • Configure the hot corners: bottom left is desktop, top right is Exposé. Update: today I don’t use the hot corners anymore, I use F3 for Expose, and CMD + F3 for Desktop.

Stuff that still bugs me to no end:

  • No fullscreen feature and a totally inconsistent stoplight behavior. Yep, Cinch in combination with CMD + H gives me the window management I need, but I really think it’s embarrassing for a modern operating system that all three core window management buttons are near useless.
  • The selection model is so broken, George W. Bush’s anthropomorphized foreign policy took a look at it and said DAAAYM!
  • I can only resize a window in the bottom right corner. Combine this with a dock that pops out when you don’t want it, and you’ve got a recipe for headaches. I hear this is fixed in the next OSX, but as they said when Krusty the Clown retired: “Why now? Why not ten years ago?” Update: Fixed in Lion/Mountain Lion.
  • The topmost filemenu feels so dated. Why not make it a context toolbar instead of a labyrinth of dropdown menus? When was the list time you clicked “Window > Minimize”? Be honest.

Yup. Have your say.