Friday, September 24, 2010

Great early morning reading

Sontag believed that it was up to novelists to create “a stipulated shrinking of the world as it really is — both in space and in time.” I think it’s journalists who need to take up that challenge — to learn how to spin something coherent and absorbing and contained and in-the-moment and satisfying from the chaos of the world around us. Think of it as a New Urbanism for news: a retrenchment from endless sprawl, the construction of concentrated experiences, a new consciousness of how we obtain and consume. A new shrinking of the world.
I used to suffer from content overload until I stopped logging in to my rss reader. All I read these days is news from the bbc and the nytimes, and I listen to the radio every night before passing into the nether world. And yes, the economist. How many news sources do you consume daily?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Nifty extension for Firefox: Link Target Display

I hate every browser's Status Bar. That's right, I said it. Give me back my screen real estate. Why show the status of things like, "Hey dude, the page you wanted to see is done loading", in the status bar when I am smart enough to see that the "Reload" button is now visible? Well, I'll give you at least one reason why we still need the status bar: to get a quick look at the URL that you're about to visit when clicking on a link.

I scratched my head for a long time (and no, that's not why I am bald) to find another reason for the Status Bar; I couldn't conjure one up. Yet, Firefox and IE persist with the decision to have a Status Bar occupy valuable screen real estate. If I could figure out that the bar is superfluous, why couldn't their crack team of designers? Browser users everywhere continued to put with their screen being occupied by something they needed only momentarily and not that often - come on now, I'm not always hovering over links! And then, we all got a reprieve...

The folks building Chrome blazed a trail - like they were reading my mind, they figured that the Status Bar was useless and did away with it all together. To satisfy my desire to view URLs before I click on a link, they came up with a nifty solution - URLs appeared in a small toaster like window at the bottom-left corner of the screen. If I moved my mouse away, the toaster disappeared. Q.E.D. I tried to build an extension that did this myself, but got sidetracked by Elasticfox. Then I got busy with the .NET SDK. Yet, like a loyal dog, I didn't quit using Firefox; the browser had been good to me through the years that IE languished. I commented and voted on the bug to bring Chrome-like functionality to Firefox to no avail. Finally, someone out there heard the requests of the masses and built an extension that did just what I wanted.

It is: Link Target Display, built by Dão G. He's the man. Everyone, give this man the praise he deserves. And of course, install the extension so that you can "Take Back Your Screen!"

Friday, September 17, 2010

Sacrifices made at the altar of the bottom line

It was my younger brother's birthday yesterday, and all my attempts at getting in touch with him came to naught. Being away from family to be employed overseas has started to take its toll on me, and though the cracks aren't apparent, I get maudlin around this time of year. It eventually passes, but a part of me doesn't recover from the enveloping sadness of being quasi-orphaned.

Since I couldn't reach out to him, I wrote him a letter. I was sad when I started writing it, but the act of putting my thoughts down transformed my mood and gave me hope for the future. I hope this letter helps you somehow:

My dear Nikhil,

Today is the first day of the 31st year of your life. I wasn't thinking about this specifically, but it dawned on me this evening that it was 15 years ago that I left for Pilani. That's half your life! It has been that long since I celebrated your birthday with you. Of course, I am not counting that first trip you made to Pilani as a birthday surprise for me, and the one time I came back home and we had a party at Karma. I do wish that some day, hopefully soon, we'll live near each other and can celebrate some joyous occasions together. But this isn't a time for regrets or remonstrations; instead, this is a time for celebration, so let me banish such pointless thoughts and get on with what I wanted to say to you.

In the interest of being transparent, I want to admit - there was a time when I was worried about what you would do with yourself. Don't get me wrong - I always knew you to be a standout person of good character. Where I thought you were lacking was in your willingness to succeed, to persevere and see a task to completion. I make long-term bets, and I was hoping that you would be one of those late bloomers - start slow, but finish strong. And I can say with a measure of confidence that you have just about hit your stride; couldn't have been better timing...

Nikhil, it has brought me immense satisfaction and filled me with pride to see you become the man you have. I saw the transition take place before my very eyes, and it vindicated the faith everyone had bestowed in your innate abilities. I have said, and I maintain, that you're the better man among the two of us. You are loyal, trusting and honest, and if you believe your best interests are taken care of, you endeavor selflessly. These qualities are the mark of a dying breed of men - gentlemanly yet worldly. Stay on this path; you might not get as far ahead as some of your contemporaries, but you'll be happy when you arrive at your destination, as will be the souls you have touched along the way.

The first 15 years of your life were spent in school. The next 15 in becoming a man. I am not going to ask you to invest the next 15 in any pursuits that anyone else believes you should undertake. Instead, I suggest you use the upcoming years to chart a map of the rest of your life. I believe the time has come for Nikhil to decide what he wants to become. It's time he asked himself some difficult questions because the answers will inform the decisions he makes going forward. Why? Because you're at a crossroads Nikhil; where you go from here is entirely up to you. You're not going to be alone though. Rest assured that I will be there for you, in all the ways I have been in the past, and in every conceivable way I can be in the future.

All my love,

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Change is hard

Whenever I embark on a new journey or try something I didn't think I could do, something I learned years ago fills me with hope and inspiration: "Human beings have the unique trait of being infinitely adaptable." Sometime later whilst experimenting and experiencing, I realize that the truth is far from that ideal. In no part of my job is that realization brought to bear more often than in User Interface Design.

Firefox was the first mainstream browser to introduce Tabs in its interface. The innovation is credited to Opera, but with its infinitesimal market share... The Internet Explorer 9 team posits that the average number of tabs used by a customer is 8; they get this number by crunching a lot of user information. Hmm, I wonder if I signed up for my information to be relayed back to Microsoft! Back to the User Interface - IE9's new interface is beautiful and minimal. Microsoft has taken a page out of Apple's playbook and removed UI features while adding tons of under the covers functionality that makes IE a viable browser again.

At the other end of the spectrum, Firefox is in a quagmire of its own creation. It's no longer seen as the browser at the cutting edge, but rather viewed as an example of what bureaucracy can do to innovation. I think Firefox 4 is the company's last chance at redemption, but they might have bitten off more than they can chew with 4. For example, a lot of basic user interactions have changed. One that bites me to the day - and I've been using the beta release for a month - is the *new* position of the "Open in New Tab" entry in the right-click context-menu. The Firefox team has prioritized all Tab activities over Window activities. Ergo, Tabs are front and centre in this release; existential question - can a Tab exist without a Window? But I digress. Here is why this is a problem. Over four years, I've grown accustomed to the following flow:

1. Find a link on a page that piques my interest
2. Right-Click
3. Scroll to the 2nd entry in the list, Left-Click
4. Link opens in a new tab.

Today, the 2nd entry is - "Open in New Window". Muscle memory is a bad thing - I don't even read the contents of the menu any more. But now that the Firefox team has changed the ordering of the menu, I have to teach my programmed muscles something new. What's even more annoying is that all the other browsers order the entries like the old Firefox did, adding yet another inconsistency between browsers. Geez!

Away from User Interface complaints, I am proud to say that after trying to change my sleep schedule for a few years now, I finally succeeded this past week. By making an effort to get into bed a few minutes earlier every night, I finally got my conscious brain to switch off around 11:30 last night. Getting out of bed at 7am this morning wasn't hard any more, and staying awake didn't require an infusion of caffeine. We'll see how long this lasts, but as the adage goes, I have adapted. Eventually, I'll adapt to the browsers as well. Or, I'll switch to IE9 on my Mac. Wait...

Sunday, September 12, 2010

In the battle between Movies and TV shows, why the latter is winning

Look back over the past decade. How many films have approached the moral complexity and sociological density of “The Sopranos” or “The Wire”? Engaged recent American history with the verve and insight of “Mad Men”? Turned indeterminacy and ambiguity into high entertainment with the conviction of “Lost”? Addressed modern families with the sharp humor and sly warmth of “Modern Family”? Look at “Glee,” and then try to think of any big-screen teen comedy or musical — or, for that matter, movie set in Ohio — that manages to be so madly satirical with so little mean-spiritedness.

I swear, I’m not trying to horn in on my colleagues’ territory. But the traditional relationship between film and television has reversed, as American movies have become conservative and cautious, while scripted series, on both broadcast networks and cable, are often more daring, topical and willing to risk giving offense.
I agree wholeheartedly. Besides Inception and The Dark Knight, both Chris Nolan blockbusters, I can't remember the last time I went to a movie theatre and enjoyed what I was watching. For all of you thinking Avatar should be in this distinguished list, I disagree. My review: movie - too long, story - threadbare.