Thursday, May 22, 2003

Scorpion Monkey.

Some family came to visit recently, and brought a gift for our baby girl. It's a plush monkey with crinkly parts, a mirror, and a nose that plays music when you press it. It's a great toy, and our baby seems to love it.

However, every time I look at it, I can't help but think it looks like a scorpion. The fact that there's a big smiley face on its back (and that one of its claws is a banana) just seems to make it creepier.

Oh well. Scorpio-phobia is just one of many traumas that come from living in Texas for too long. And it really is a great toy.

Saturday, May 17, 2003

This seems like a perfect spot.

A couple weeks ago I noticed some strange skidmarks on the freeway near here. They're dark, as if some serious rubber was burned, and they loop all around, changing directions, spanning several lanes, going both with and against the direction of (legal) travel. It looks, at first glance, as if an 18-wheeler fishtailed and spun around madly for a while, but it's hard to imagine how a legitimate accident could have achieved such a complicated skid pattern.

Today I saw another skid pattern, a half mile west of the first one. This one is more straightforward: it's a spiral about the radius of a car, looping over itself several times, with one tail leading off to the side of the road.

I assume this means someone's doing doughnuts on the freeway at night. Is that, like, a thing that people do?

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Silly Serpent.

I sort of wish I hadn't seen this. Now all of you get to wish you hadn't seen it.

Anybody heard of tongue splitting? I hadn't. Maybe I'm just out of the loop.

Monday, May 12, 2003

Sucking on a magnet.

I don't know why I find this strip so funny. (Every once in a while, Red Meat adopts drawn-by-child style for a strip or two. That's not the part I find funny here, though I do like the words "shavve" and "stubely".)

Friday, May 9, 2003

Powered by!

I'm curious about people's views on website clutter. I'm thinking specifically about weblogs, the vast majority of which have multiple columns, their sidebars filled with gadgets and logos and links. Often, it seems, people design their weblogs to double as their own homepages, and so they include calendars, weather reports, syndicated newsfeeds--all irrelevant to the vast majority of visitors. Why don't people make a separate page for themselves, filled with all their favorite gadgets, and leave the main page for content?

Even those sites that show restraint still tend to litter their front pages with links to other weblogs. I don't see this as a bad thing--it's part of how we network, and how we find new material to read. Hey, my ego is fed by inbound links as much as the next guy's. But I'm curious--how many people think that peer links need to be on the front page, taking screen real estate away from the primary content?

Part of my problem, I suppose, is I'm so hostile towards advertising in general. The modus operandi of advertising is to lurk near content; when people seek out the content, they're exposed to ads. Sidebar links and logos aren't really part of a site's interface--they're advertising. They're not what visitors seek out, but they're exposed to them anyway.

The beauty of the web is that it's primarily "pull", not "push". Readers seek out what they want, when they want it. But every bit of secondary information you cram on a page is being pushed on users who pulled on something else. Is it necessary? Is it healthy?

Of course, many sites offer XML-based syndication, which means you can make your own interface out of other people's content. I think that's wonderful. But a front page still serves an important role: it's what draws and engages new readers who have no reason (yet) to syndicate your site.

I recently ran across a CSS example site that shows how to make a 3-column layout in CSS. They call this layout "The Holy Grail", which boggles my mind. Does this make sense to everybody but me?

ADDENDUM (17:12 PM): I know advertising is not always bad: when it gives you information you're happy to have, everybody wins. And of all the things to advertise, friend-blogs are possibly the least intrusive and most likely to benefit visitors. Mainly, I'm curious how many people think it's worth the screen real estate to put these on the front page. (At first glance, the answer appears to be "everybody".)

Dude, it's a <i>metaphor</i>.

It seems somebody got a grant to let several monkeys type at a keyboard for a month. The monkeys (being monkeys) mostly attacked it and defacated on it, and the researchers (being researchers) still found high-falutin things to say about it.

Thursday, May 8, 2003

Picasa 1.5 Review

This entry documents my experience with the Windows photo management app, Picasa. The one-line summary: incredible interface: "good"; proprietary data storage: "bad". Upcoming version 2.0 promises to fix the latter while retaining the former. Read on for details.

One of the first things I did after installing XP was look for photo management software. I wasn't looking for a system for presenting photos on the web; that's the sort of thing I can write myself, and would want to incorporate into my existing site infrastructure. Instead, I was looking for something to make importing, organizing, annotating, searching, and printing easy on my local machine.
Importing and printing, in particular, are awful in Linux. USB and PCMCIA, the two main ways to get pictures onto my computer, have always been flaky. USB devices never seem to hot-swap gracefully, and PCMCIA devices frequently hang my laptop. As for printing, I have an excellent Canon S900 photo printer, and have had nothing but grief trying to get it to work in Linux. All of the above work flawlessly in Windows.
(Okay, now I'm sounding like a Linux detractor. In fact, I very much prefer living in Linux; it's just device support that's lacking. And to be fair, it's not Linux's fault. Devices work in Windows only because companies write device drivers for Windows.)
So I knew that in Windows the digital photo experience would be better. But I can't claim to have done an exhaustive survey of photo management software, because I fell in love with the first one I tried. A friend of mine, Mike Herf, works on a product called Picasa. There are good and bad points about it, and I'd like to share them both.
Picasa is a slick little program, very tightly coded, very fast. It does all sorts of gratuitous scaling, swooshing, shadowing and fading--the sort of thing I usually hate because it wastes CPU cycles for no good reason. However, it never seems to slow Picasa down, and it doesn't actually take away from the experience, so I'll forgive it for swooshing.
Picasa is an entire photo management system, from importing all the way to emailing and printing. A crucial feature (and one I hadn't seen before, though I wouldn't be surprised if it's common) is the "tray". The tray sits below the main interface, and lets you hold onto a group of photos destined for some operation. The photos can come from anywhere in your collection, so you can search or browse at will, populating the tray as you go. This is distinct from the standard shift-click/control-click selection mechanism in Windows, which gets blown away any time you click on anything.
Picasa groups images by "album" (usually a Windows folder), but provides a single, scrollable view containing all your photos in chronological order. This lets you whip rapidly through thousands of photos, all thumbnailed, all gratuitously drop-shadowed, with no delay. Very nice.
You can also assign any number of keywords to an image, and then search by keyword later. The search is obscenely fast; all matches appear the moment you hit Enter. If you're missing the theme here, it's "speed".
If you use a Windows mail client, Picasa will happily open up a new message and attach (optionally scaled) versions of what's in the tray. This simple, obvious feature is a big deal for our family: it lets us pore through the hundreds of pictures of our baby, choose several, and send appropriately scaled versions off to family without going through several apps in the process.
Despite its graphical gratuity, Picasa's interface is near-perfect for my needs. Unfortunately, the program has one serious flaw. It considers the image files on disk off-limits, and so stores all of its data in a proprietary database (not in the original files). This includes search keywords that you assign, image operations that you perform (like rotations or red-eye reduction), and album reorganization. (This last one means that your Picasa albums can diverge from the actual organization of files on disk. It gets confusing fast.)
To be fair, some people would consider this a feature. Some people believe their image files are "sacrosanct" (as Mike put it), and so don't want Picasa to mess with them. But I'm convinced that proprietary databases are the Root of All Evil, particularly when the app won't let you export the data. (Picasa won't.) If, someday, I choose to switch to another app or another platform, I can bring the pixels over, but not all the organizational data.
This flaw makes me hesitate to recommend Picasa. As it is, I've held off annotating my own images, unwilling to commit the results to the Proprietary Database Abyss. The good news: Mike tells me that Picasa 2.0 (in the works) is willing to actually modify image files. It'll let you reorganize the files on disk, and will store search keywords in the JPEG headers (where they belong). He also says it will be able to convert over your existing keywords and other data, so perhaps I should stop worrying and start annotating.
All in all, an excellent program. As long as I'm in Windows Land, I plan to keep using Picasa, and I eagerly await version 2.0.

Wednesday, May 7, 2003

The Blessed Zalman.

Dan posted a link to Overclocked Jesus performs miracles faster, he says, with me specifically in mind. I didn't find the headline funny, but once I saw the little processor fan strapped to Jesus' head, I was won over.

Once more into the Confessional.

Okay, deep breath. I can do this.

So. I've been running Linux on my laptop for the last couple years, but a couple weeks ago I bought a copy of Windows XP to replace it. I know, I know. There's nothing you can say that I haven't already said to myself in fits of self-loathing. But I have two good excuses.

  1. Linux runs fine on my laptop, but power management support is just not there. I've never been able to, for example, suspend the laptop while in Linux. Support for CPU throttling and LCD dimming (both important for battery life) are also sketchy. I finally decided I wanted my laptop to behave like a laptop, with useful little features like an on-screen battery meter and power profiles that switch when I unplug the AC adaptor.

  2. Our growing collection of digital photos is becoming a pain to manage in the few questionable open source programs I've found. I've written my own scripts to do a lot of what I want, but I really need a setup that's pleasant for my wife to use as well. Windows offers such programs; Linux does not.

Having heard great things about XP from almost everyone I'd asked, I'd actually been planning to buy XP for a while, but had kept putting it off for fear of Product Activation. That's the feature of XP that says "If you don't contact our servers soon, this product will stop working, mwahahaha." On principle I refuse to give my personal information to companies who don't really need it, and Microsoft is at the head of that list.

Microsoft insists that Product Activation (unlike registration) doesn't require any personal information--it's just a cryptographic handshake thingy--but I'd read somewhere that reactivation (which is necessary when you change your computer's hardware) does require personal information.

After some more digging, it looks like I was mislead, and reactivation appears to be anonymous as well. At least, I think it is. In the end, I decided that, if Microsoft wants to store an integer in a database saying my CD is being used, that's fine with me.

So I bought a copy, and I'm running it. And what's worse: I'm enjoying it.

There. I've said it. I like XP. 'Course, whenever I want to do programming-type things, I find Windows just gets in the way. That's what telnet and ssh are for. But otherwise, it's nice to have an OS that actually supports all the hardware I own.

I feel so dirty.

Monday, May 5, 2003

If only there were standards for this sort of thing.

Yuck. In IE, the green background of the title logo above renders as a slightly different shade of green than the page background, even though they're given the same value. Mozilla and its kin all get it right.

Meanwhile, several of the page templates on this site are still the default Movable Type ones, including some that IE gets completely wrong. (Like, the text doesn't show up unless you sweep-select it.) I'll get around to fixing those as time permits.

Also, all the old entries have now been imported along with all relevant images from the old site. Some intra-site links are broken. Again, will fix when I can.

Reefer Madness.

Via Flutterby, what Grand Theft Auto would be like if it took place in San Francisco.

Finally back!

After a physical move down the street, two virtual moves (from a server in my living room to a hosting service, then to another hosting service), and endless procrastination due to an in-progress overhaul of MonkeySpeak's codebase, I caved in and decided to switch to Movable Type. (Previously, the site was based on my own PHP/MySQL code.) All in all, I'm happy to be using a solid and complete codebase, and one which is not subject to my own fleeting spare time.

So, welcome back. Please forgive the bland decor--I'm working on it. In the meantime, I wanted to get the site back up, as a symbol of progress and as evidence that I haven't given up completely.

Oh--and once I figure out the format Movable Type wants, I'll import the entries from the old codebase.