MDEngine Gets Some Love
7 May 2013
I recently spent some much-needed time doing a complete re-write of MDEngine, the software used to translate the Markdown files that make up this site's content into the HTML that is sent to your browser.
It has been optimized in several ways, and now comes with three fresh themes so you can be up and running right away with zero code. Of course, it's easily extendable if custom HTML and CSS are your thing. Check out MDEngine on GitHub for the latest code.
Blue App Icons
26 March 2013
Seriously, what is it about the color blue?
12 December 2012
When iOS was first introduced, it was filled with beautiful, glossy icons with shadowing and reflections. However, there’s been a shift in the UI design as the operating system has matured.
The glass effect does not have to be built into icons, it appears there by default. Perhaps wisely, Apple elected to make the glass effect optional though, by use of a setting when bundling a new app. This resulted in many third-party developers building their own icons pixel for pixel and choosing not to apply the glass effect. Now, icons that do use the glass effect seem far outnumbered by those that don’t.
When I installed the new Gmail app on my iPhone, I was struck by the beauty of the UI. It embodies the shift we’ve seen in icon design in its large, clean buttons and general lack of three-dimensionality. It transforms the device from a faux-3D space to a planar surface that you can interact with.
The iOS UI has gradually been moving in the same direction, but with nothing near as jarringly different. In iOS 6, the status bar lost its gradient, becoming just a solid color that changes contextually.
My guess is that we will continue to see the UI progress toward this new paradigm. Our mobile devices don’t need to be bright and colorful, they need to be functional. What is interesting to note is that Apple, a company championed for its brilliant industrial and UI/UX design, has fallen behind the curve to Google in this regard. I predict that after the release of the Gmail app, we will see Apple accelerate in this direction with its own products.
11 December 2012
23 November 2012
Poorly Designed Highway Sign
16 October 2012
In the car on the way back to school today, I noticed this sign on an overpass.
Imagine trying to understand what the sign meant if you did not speak English. Maybe you would understand RT as an abbreviation for route, but getting North from NB is not the most obvious step.
Even worse, there is no differentiation between words and abbreviations! If “NB” is an abbreviation, it stands to reason that “RAMP” is also an abbreviation.
Since the interstate highway system makes use of well-recognized graphics, it would make sense to use them wherever effective. As a quick example, a much more understandable version of the sign could be created such as below.
When surrounded by generally well-designed (or at least thought about) elements of the highway system, a cryptic “RT 31 NB RAMP” really stands out as an easy improvement.
27 September 2012
The Atlantic’s Jordan Weissmann agrees with me on patent reform.
On Making Computers Think
31 August 2012
Be kind, resourceful, beautiful, friendly, have initiative, have a sense of humor, tell right from wrong, make mistakes, fall in love, enjoy strawberries and cream, make some one fall in love with it, learn from experience, use words properly, be the subject of its own thought, have as much diversity of behaviour as a man, do something really new.
A selection of arguments against the possibility of machine intelligence Alan Turing presents in his paper on the subject. On strawberries and cream: “Possibly a machine might be made to enjoy this delicious dish, but any attempt to make one do so would be idiotic.”
28 August 2012
25 August 2012
On August 24, a jury in San Jose, California awarded $1,049,343,540 to Apple after Samsung was found to be in violation of their software and design patents. This case is monumental not because of the actual damages to be paid by Samsung, but because of the precedent it sets. There is no question that Samsung’s designs were inspired by (perhaps even copied from) the iPhone and iPad. In a statement following the ruling, Apple hailed the ruling “for sending a loud and clear message that stealing isn’t right,” while Samsung stated that the verdict “will lead to fewer choices, less innovation, and potentially higher prices. It is unfortunate that patent law can be manipulated to give one company a monopoly over rectangles with rounded corners.”
While both statements contain convincing rhetoric, there is no direct contradiction, suggesting the possibility that they actually are both true. I am a firm believer in the idea that patents stifle innovation. I also believe that stealing is not right. However, what Samsung did is not “theft.” There is no doubt that they blatantly copied some of Apple’s design elements, so based on our current legal system, Apple certainly had every right to pursue damages.
But to me, and many other consumers, the iPad is still a superior product to Samsung’s tablet. If Samsung was able to create a better product than Apple, perhaps including some of Apple’s design elements, shouldn’t they have every right to profit from it? This is true capitalism. Whoever takes the first step into a new design should not have a monopoly on further developments. As a commenter on a New York Times article on the matter wrote, why are all wheels round? Why do nearly all cars have four of them?
Our patent system should be abolished.
Apologies for the brief hiatus. I was moving into my room at school, and terribly busy the past few days.
21 August 2012
20 August 2012
The United States is finally putting real effort into building a nationwide public safety network with FirstNet, the First Responder Network Authority. FirstNet has been tasked by Congress to build, deploy, and maintain a nationwide broadband network for use by public safety agencies in order to provide completely interoperable communications.
While I applaud this effort, there are several potential issues that should be addressed. To begin with, a centrally controlled network of this scale would present large reliability problems. In numerous occasions, communities that have rolled out digital or trunked radio systems with many system components have had failures due to a tower or controller failing, leaving all users in the affected area with no way to communicate with each other or with users in other parts of the system. This is not only a risk for naturally occurring phenomena, such as a power outage or overheating, but also create centralized targets for terrorist attacks. If an attack was planned, it would be relatively simple to first bring down the local tower, thereby preventing all communication in the area. Therefore, a high degree of redundancy must be implemented, as well as physical infrastructure safeguards, which are both technically complex and expensive.
It is not clear whether the new broadband system would completely replace all existing public safety communication systems, or if it would simply be used to supplement them in situations where inter-agency coordination is required. The question also arises as to which agencies will use the system. In addition to the many public and governmental agencies that would be involved in the response to a major incident, there are also many NGOs, such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army that are often involved. Would they be permitted to use the network?
In my opinion, it is much better to have a simpler but more robust interoperability plan. Steps have already been taken in this direction, such as the implementation of several nationwide interoperability frequencies on each band. On the VHF-high band, there are five channels set aside that all agencies have blanket authorization to use for interoperability purposes. This is the KISS principle in practice. With simple narrowband FM voice modulation that nearly every existing radio supports, there is no need to add infrastructure or purchase additional assets. Additionally, as using a single frequency is directly radio-to-radio, there is no reliance on an outside device for control, and it is no more subject to jamming than the proposed 700 MHz system would be.
Besides all of the technical problems that could (and certainly will) arise during the construction of the system, it almost seems superfluous. After all, we already have a nationwide broadband network of cell phones. The resources that would be allocated to developing the new system could be better utilized in hardening and improving the cellular network. Perhaps a public safety system could piggy-back on existing infrastructure. I also believe that strengthening the established interoperability frequencies with repeaters would be a much cheaper and more effective way to implement the desired outcome. When working with a large incident, it is exceedingly rare that a responder would need to communicate over more than a mile or two, something that is quite feasible with modern handheld radios used by nearly all agencies. If wider coordination is required, a small number of individuals would need to communicate over longer distances, but this could be done just as well by telephone, cellular, or VoIP.
Perhaps the network will be more useful than it currently seems. However, it is not clear to me at the present time that it will properly address a bona fide need in a cost-effective and reliable manner. As a system increases in complexity, more points of failure are introduced, and the less reliable it becomes, all other factors being equal. And speaking from personal experience, reliability is the number one highest priority for first responders, followed closely by simplicity. The tools we use in the field need to “just work.”
19 August 2012
As I was skimming a list of observations on art versus design, I was struck by one entry in particular:
Genuinely honest art is created without the market in mind — you are simply creating. Design is created with the market in mind — and the medium does not matter. If you’re a musician or painter, and purposefully crafting your work in order to sell, you’ve become a designer.
This particular explanation, unlike some, seems to be quite specific and leave no question as to which category a given work falls under. (There are several other excellent quotes on the list; I highly recommend reading it through.)
This particular line, though, made me wonder why we still call some things art. Immediately, the music industry popped into my mind. There are certainly many musicians who are truly artists, but they aren’t the ones that get rich off their music. The people who get rich off their music, more often than not, are simply writing songs (and if you’re lucky, they’ll be the ones actually writing them) about things that people will buy. These so-called “artists” slave away in recording studios, repeating each line over and over until its delivery is approved by the marketing team. Hollywood faces the same situation. This commercialization of art is not in fact art at all, but design. Hearing popular musicians revered as “artists” always sounded a little wonky to me.
There several other entries on the list comparing the subjectivity of art to the objectivity of design. This is another of the fundamental differences. As one quote states, in art, “red” can never be wrong, while in design, “red” can be wrong and specific reasons for its being so can be enumerated.
This is not all to say that art is pure and design is evil. They are similar expressions with different intentions. As a designer, I find fascination in poring over every detail of a project and making sure it is perfect. I like to build things, then tear them apart and make them better. Reason must be applied to the creative process. If something won’t make sense to the user, it can’t be part of the project. Design is the implementation of subconscious communication.
Based upon all I’ve discussed and read about the differences between art and design, here is a short list of my distillation:
- Art makes you think; design makes you do.
- Design is making things simple, while art is making them complex.
- Art can’t be wrong, but design can.
- Design is creating the world; art is interpreting it.
- Design is consistent; art is spontaneous.
- Art is for the artist; design is for the user.
18 August 2012
This was going to be a snarky piece on how good typographic practice is rarely found outside of the professional realm, but nobody would want to read that. Except, perhaps, for other typography nerds. And that is part of what I have to say. But a small part.
Our public education system has declined in effectiveness to the point of being nearly worthless. The basic subjects—writing, reading, arithmetic, history, and geography—have remained static for a century while the world around us has changed immensely.
It is time to introduce new subjects into the basic collection that every child learns. We must teach electronics, robotics, and programming starting early on. It is absolutely essential that every child have some basic understanding of these in the modern world. (There is research to suggest that POGIL may be especially relevant and effective in STEM education.) We must expand our education in the arts and music, inspiring creativity and aesthetic sensibilities.
But not only must we vary our subject matter; we must be prepared to accept sub-stellar performance in one or two areas in compromise for truly great understanding in others. In short, we need to expose children to a wider variety of material so as to determine their natural abilities and focus their education in those areas. By lowering the bar in some areas, we can raise it in others. So, for instance, instead of requiring a 60 to pass on each of five tests, we allow a 50 to pass on one of them so long as all the others are above a 75.
This is not to say that a student who excels in historical recollection and analysis should not also learn arithmetic. They should simply not be forced to perform at as high a level as a student whose gifts are in that field. The purpose of elementary education should be primarily to inspire creativity and a passion for knowledge in a generation of innovators in whatever field they choose. Additionally, students must gain at least basic knowledge in all fields of study.
Now for my shameless typographical education spiel: it is rather a silly thing that students are being required to use computers to write papers but are not being instructed in their proper use. Papers handed in to English teachers (or any teacher, for that matter) should be graded not only on structure, spelling, and grammar, but also on typographical style. There are correct and incorrect ways to set type, and in an age where it is so easy to do it correctly, it is shameful that we don’t inform students of what the proper way is.
I have focused on the elementary education system because it is the component I have the most distance from. I would find it difficult, as a college student, to write objectively about college education. The topics I have discussed apply, to some extent, to high school education as well.
N.B. The ideas presented here do not represent a fully functional plan (obviously). Rather, they are intended to be food for thought. Let me know what you think @bburwell.
16 August 2012
I recently learned of a device that is designed to offer deals to customers by recognizing their faces and querying Facebook for their name. While this might sound a little creepy on the surface, its implications are much deeper. No longer do we live in a world where we can be assured any privacy whatsoever. By this point, we’ve pretty much accepted that cameras are all around and here to stay, but a deeper problem presents itself when the cameras are attached to biometric databases.
In ten years time, the simple action of walking down a street will be recorded into any number of databases. Anybody who so chooses will be able to create his or her own personal record of passers by and do with it whatever they like.
A somewhat surprising phenomenon is our willingness to provide information about ourselves to large data brokers. Take the classic example of Facebook: we deliberately fill in information on our profiles. On the surface, it’s a way to inform our friends of things that they probably already know. But to Facebook, it’s an easy way to build a complete record of every aspect of our lives. Perhaps this comes of our desire to be known.
If you have been scared into purging your online existence, don’t move so quickly. The Internet never forgets. Even if you delete your social media accounts, the companies will still retain all the information they’ve collected about you. And you’re not the only one who can provide information about yourself. Friends can give out your information without your permission. You don’t need to create an account on a site for a profile to be built. Your friends can do all of that work for you.
It’s not a comforting thought, but there is nothing you can do to prevent this information harvesting entirely. Sure, you can make it more challenging by inventing aliases, providing the occasional false piece of information, or outright refusing to provide it. But unless you plan to never leave a box, never open a bank account or pay taxes, never place a phone call (even on a pay phone), never send an email, you will be known. And even if you do all that, we’ll still know you’re in that box.