At What Price Progress?

Today (or I guess, yesterday) was the first day in a long while I’ve made real tangible progress with my work, instead of just doing research or clerical and maintenance work. So instead of downloading and installing and re-installing and reading documentation and uninstalling and re-re-installing, I actually wrote a good bit of code.

About 12 hours’ worth of code, by my calculations.

Now, while I’m pleased that I actually have something to show for my work, it would’ve been nice to see some daylight today other than the bits and flashes I got while out smoking. This was pretty much my M.O. at my previous jobs, too โ€” long periods of brainwork (which looked to the casual and ignorant observer like inactivity) followed by a consolidated way-too-long chunk of work time that actually gets results.

Do normal people grow out of their college work schedule, or am I doomed to cram sessions for the rest of my life?

(Incidentally, my friend and once-again-coworker Chris reminded me the other day about my last project at LucasArts, which was a total failure of a scripting language that was supposed to be a combination of lua and C++. Turns out that JavaScript is exactly what I was trying to make, but I didn’t know that at the time. My version was still a failure, but it’s nice to see that I was on kind of the right track at least.)

One of the sites I’ve been reading a lot lately (other than the java online documentation) is Lifehacker. It’s a blog that’s filled with tips and recommendations that will supposedly make your life more organized. For me, though, it always ends up taking up more of my time. They’ll recommend some huge time-saving new application, like Path Finder or Quicksilver or Yojimbo. I’ll download it and install it. I’ll try it out, add my stuff to it, get a feel for how it works.

I’ll invariably fail, and go back to doing things “the old way.” But not just the old way, I’ll go back all the while knowing I could be doing things more efficiently. So every one is like an added weight.

I think what I really need is a true personal organizer โ€” not some PDA or desktop widget or does-everything organizer app, but a real organizer. Somebody who’s really on top of things and can make sense of the 48 hours worth of stuff I want to do in the 12 or so hours I’m actually awake each day. Somebody who’ll pay my bills, get caught up on my e-mails and personal obligations, point me to the internet stuff I’m actually interested in and filter out the rest, who’ll teach me how to play the banjo and speak Japanese and draw, all while I’m playing World of Warcraft or getting caught up with my Netflix queue.

ASIMO, I’m waiting for you, buddy.

Writing Too Much About iWeb

NetNewsWire ScreenshotThere’s a new post on SFist wherein I talk about how iWeb isn’t as cool as HyperCard.

And talk, and talk, and talk — I blame ecto. I liked it enough to pay for it, and now it means I don’t have to use web browser editors for my crucial blogging endeavors. Which means I’ve got even less restrictions on my natural inclination towards long-windedness. It turns out that living in fear of accidentally hitting the back button and losing everything was the only thing helping me towards succinctness.

My other discovery yesterday was RSS readers. I knew of them, of course; I’m not that far out of the loop. But I thought Safari was plenty sufficient — it tells you what sites have been updated, and then you can click on the links to see the full thing as it was intended to be presented.

After trying out the dedicated readers, though, I’m hooked. It actually makes what is essentially a time-wasting activity more efficient. You only see what’s updated, and it checks every site you’re interested in. I decided on NetNewsWire, but PulpFiction was almost as good. The only reason I didn’t choose that one is because it looks too much like Mail, which feels like work. NetNewsWire straddles the line between web browsing and efficiency, plus it just looks better.

This isn’t all just unfocused rambling, for once: the topics actually have something to do with each other. When I was setting up the different news readers, I could check out all the content from websites without ever visiting the page itself; some of the sites I’d never even heard of before. It only took a few minutes to come up with a NetNewsWire theme that I liked better than any of the defaults, and better than most of the source pages (including my own).

Which raises the question: does all the attention to CSS and webpage design even matter all that much anymore? Artistically-challenged people like myself should be excited at a world where substance is more important than style, and poor graphic design skillz aren’t a barrier to entry. But it’s kind of disappointing, too — there’s always the potential for a full website to have more functionality than a simple newsfeed, but I like the idea of a site’s just being attractive enough that you’re encouraged to see it, just for looks.

iWeb is on the other end of the spectrum from RSS feeds. It’s all about presentation, and the back-end support is pretty weak. It’s not even featured enough for a blog as simple as this one. But it makes it relatively easy to make a page that’s pretty damn slick; I imagine that people more artistically inclined could do really nice stuff with it. I just wonder if it’s doomed to irrelevance. Do people even care how a website looks anymore? Livejournal is one of the most popular blogging engines out there, and I’ve never seen a livejournal entry that didn’t look like ass.

I never thought I’d be arguing for style over substance, but there it is: I want the intarweb to look better. And before anyone points out that charity begins at home: I’m working on it.

Face for Radio, Voice for Print

My copy of iLife ’06 was waiting for me when I got back from the southland, so I spent last night and most of today playing with it. Early impressions: GarageBand seems like it’d be cool if it’d work, but I get no sound and no preferences pane, so until that bug is fixed, I can’t use it. Everything else in the existing apps is pretty much a point upgrade; all the remarkable new features require a .Mac account.

I was most looking forward to iWeb, after gushing about it on SFist and on here, and I’m still evaluating it. My first impression is that it’s neat but limited. I’m using it to finally put together my pictures from Japan, even though I’ve mostly forgotten that trip, and anyone who would’ve been interested in seeing those pictures has already seen them in different formats and heard me repeat the same stories over the past 2 years. It’s more to see how flexible iWeb is, and to finally be able to check that off instead of having it feel like a big project that I’ve left unfinished.

Apple is really pushing podcasting and videocasting with its new stuff. So just for yuks, I tried playing around with iMovie and my iSight camera. Wow, that was a mistake. Technically, it worked fine, but there’s nothing that blows the self-image quite like seeing yourself how others see you.

Few people like hearing their own voice, because it never quite comes out as good as it sounds in your head. And I’m vain enough to have spent some time playing around with the iSight to try and get a good picture of myself, so I’ve got a pretty realistic idea of what I look like. But I always kind of imagined that in practice, the voice and the face kind of cancelled each other out and reached a reasonable compromise. What I saw in the video was more like a surprisingly fey version of Frankenstein’s monster.

I guess if it proves anything, it’s that Apple’s web-publishing and podcasting revolution isn’t going to change the world anymore than its desktop publishing revolution did. Some people just don’t have any business being in the broadcasting realm. Whether or not I have any business in the writing realm remains to be seen, but I’m sticking with it for now — better to have a lower-bandwidth assault on my self esteem.

So Much For My Pulitzer

MacBook ProYesterday’s post on SFist was about the MacWorld Expo. I only got to see it one day, because I’m in LA for business the rest of the week, but I think one day was plenty.

I actually got up early enough yesterday to make the morning keynote address, but I’d assumed that my exhibits-only pass wouldn’t give me access. I didn’t bother verifying that the thing was open to all attendees until yesterday morning around 8, and by that time, it was already too late. When I got to the Moscone Center, there were hundreds if not thousands of people lined up outside the building trying to get in for the keynote. (According to reports on the web, I didn’t miss much. It’s all on video from Apple’s site anyway, but I would’ve liked to see the crowd reaction to having Their Lord And Master in the same room as them).

So instead I had breakfast at Mel’s and then dicked around at the Metreon until the exhibit hall opened. I was very tempted to get Guitar Hero for the PS2, but some unseen calming force convinced me that it would be an even bigger waste of money than what I’m used to. Instead I just hung out at the Sony Style store and watched the video to La Tortura by Shakira and Alejandro Sanz that they had running on a constant loop. I watched it about five times and let me just say: daaaaaammmn. They’re both astoundingly hot. (And I like the song, too).

Anyway, the show was okay but kind of a disappointment. Not just because the new Apple stuff wasn’t all that spectacular, but because like I said in the article, I was hoping to see more of the Apple Thuggee Cult. The people were kind of clap-happy, but not to a particularly embarrassing degree; I’m guessing (and hoping) that most of that went on during Jobs’ presentation. The new iMac and not-Powerbook-anymore are impressive, sure, but there’s not the same kind of holy-shit-I-have-to-buy-that-right-now compulsion to them like there is with the new iPods.

But I admit I did buy the new iLife as soon as I got home. It was pretty standard stuff, there Apple goes again charging almost 100 bucks for a point upgrade, until they got to the iWeb demo. It does exactly the kind of stuff I’ve wished a million times over the year that somebody had already written. I’m sure that there are going to be all kinds of limitations with it that are only going to become apparent after I’ve played with it a while, but it made a great first impression.

Of course, GarageBand made a great first impression as well, and I used it for about a week and then never touched it again. But that was before I could make a podcast! Actually, I’ve got to say that the podcasting stuff in GB was the next most impressive part of the demo. I’m about as un-interested in podcasting as anybody (at least anybody self-absorbed enough to have an internet blog), but the support they have in there is pretty neat. For instance: if you set up a vocal track and a background music track, it automatically fades out the background music as soon as the voice starts, all NPR style.

10,000 Pixels In Your Pocket

I wrote another article for SFist, this one about Apple’s announcement and the new video iPod. The comments section is pretty funny. As angry and bitter about computers that I am, I’ve got to laugh at being called an Apple-hater, as I’m sitting here using Safari on my Mac mini hooked up to the second iPod I’ve bought and an iSight camera and an Apple wireless keyboard and two variations of Apple mice sitting next to my second PowerBook and knowing that I sold a PowerBook to one friend and convinced another friend to buy an iBook. Part of me wonders what you’ve got to do to be a real Apple devotee, but then the rest of me doesn’t want to know because I’m not sure I could afford it.

Oh yeah, and the guy who said that the obsession with expensive gadgets is a manifestation of a greater socialogical (sic) ill of consumerist excess and social withdrawal? Well, no shit, Brainiac.

Anyway, the new iPod. No, it’s not that big a deal, just a thinner version of the iPod with a wider screen. It’s actually really nice, from what I’ve seen, and the best design of an iPod yet. It’s just not the big “video iPod” that all the blogs were leading up to. Great product by all accounts, just nothing astounding. Not even I can justify getting one, unless something… happens… to my existing iPod.

I was never convinced that any mobile device could play video worth seeing, until I saw the Sony PSP. I said it before, but including Spider-man 2 with the thing was a great move on Sony’s part. I don’t think it sold people on the idea of buying movies on UMD — it didn’t sell me on the idea, anyway. But it did show that it’s actually practical to watch an entire movie on a handheld. The problems, as I’ve said enough times now that I’m already sick of hearing myself saying it, are that UMDs suck and memory sticks don’t hold enough. It’s going to take a real video iPod, with a hard drive and everything, before you see people getting excited about mobile video.

Just for yuks, and to see what the video quality was, I did download a couple of videos from the iTunes Music Store. They’re nothing to get all excited about — they didn’t draw much attention to it in the press releases, but did mention it at the actual presentation, but the video is only 320×240. (And I’ll admit that the two videos were “Limp” by Fiona Apple, and “Least Complicated” by the Indigo Girls.)

Browsing through the video store was kind of neat, because at this point it’s still mostly old, old stuff that makes you say, “Oh yeah, I remember that video!” I’m having to flashbacks to sitting in the living room watching “Night Tracks” on TBS waiting for them to play “One Thing Leads to Another” by the Fixx again. As soon as they have “The Warrior” by Scandal Featuring Patty Smythe, I’m totally buying the hell out of that.

As for the TV shows, I’m skeptical I’ll ever use it. If I were using something like an iMac as my whole home media center, I could see how it would be cool — but then if you’re using an iMac instead of a bigger TV, then are you in the market to pay two bucks a pop for episodes of TV shows that were broadcast the night before? All the shows are DRM’ed with Fairplay, so it’s not as if I could copy the video file to a PSP, either. Or burn it on a DVD. They’ve still got to work that part out, I think.

I Did Not Have Sexual Relations With That Input Device

I’ve grown to realize that my Microsoft Intellimouse Optical is the Hilary Rodham-Clinton of input devices.

I will admit that I’ve strayed. I’ve tried the newer, flashier versions. The sleek green one that came with my PC — oh, it looks nice, and at first grasp it seems a perfect fit for my hand. Form-fitting. Yielding, even. And oh, the buttons! Sitting up high, pert and perky in an unfamiliar and exotic location. But I soon realized that it was too exotic, too form-fitting. And too yielding — the scroll wheel just rolls over with no response, no interplay, a mushy, cursory movement that suggests it would roll over for anyone.

I tried the wireless version, with its big promises of the future and a life browsing with nothing tying me down or holding me back. But it was a short-lived passion. The affair lasted only as long as the supplied AA batteries, and when those died I realized how plastic the whole thing was.

And of course recently, my very public affair which many of you have no doubt read about, down to my lurid descriptions of the scroll nipple. I’m not proud of it, but yes I did try it. I breathed deep of the promise of Apple innovation, and oh yes I did inhale. But it ultimately failed me, refusing to turn around properly in World of Warcraft because I wouldn’t play by its rules and take my index finger off the mouse when right-clicking.

And standing beside me through the whole ordeal was my Intellimouse. It’s not the flashiest of the bunch — you could even call it “plain.” But she and I have a rapport built up over the years; we just work and play well together. And I’m starting to realize that it isn’t just the trusty workhorse that stands behind me throughout any Republican-led assault. It actually does an excellent job, and I just never noticed because it does it so well. After installing the Microsoft drivers for OS X, I can actually go back and forth through web pages using the left and right buttons, and it takes me back to when we first met and I first took her out of the package.

Also, my mouse was in charge of an ill-conceived and ultimately doomed plan for national health care.

Not so Mighty

In other news, my Apple Mighty Mouse came in the mail today, while I was comatose. I’m starting to think the love affair is over between me and Apple, because I just don’t like it.

Apple’s strengths have always been industrial design and integration — stuff just works, and it all works together. This just feels like it’s missed out on the last 10 years of computer mouse development. It doesn’t feel right to my hand, for one thing; their pill-shaped mouse design may look great in their ad photos, but isn’t so great for ergonomics (unless, I suppose, you’re left-handed).

They’ve finally added the right mouse button functionality, but it’s faked and it feels faked. Because it’s touch-sensitive, I have to take my index finger completely off the mouse for it to register a right mouse click. While knowing that there’s a touch sensor inside does appeal to the inner geek in me, it’s pretty damn impractical and I can’t see how that’s actually better than having an actual, physical second button. There’s no tactile feedback.

The “scroll ball” is their other big selling point, and I’m not impressed. Rubbing a nipple on my mouse just doesn’t feel right. The mouse itself is optical, which should be a requirement, but the scroll ball feels every bit as flimsy and gunk-up-able as the mouse balls of old. And it’s just not as good for actual scrolling — I never need to scroll in “any direction” as the ads claim I do, so I’d rather have something that is more responsive at just scrolling up and down.

And another problem with tactile feedback — the “buttons” on the sides are actually more like squeeze points; they don’t depress. So you still can’t use the left and right buttons to go back and forward through web pages on your browser (Safari, in my case), which is the biggest thing I miss since I switched from Windows. Instead, you squeeze them both at the same time, and it registers as a single input — by default, that brings up Expose, but I turned that off immediately after inadvertently triggering it the third time.

I realize it’s an exaggeration, but I have to say that this mouse sums up every complaint that people have about Apple. It’s overpriced, to start with — for $50 I could’ve gotten a top-of-the-line Microsoft mouse. It’s form over functon — it looks nice, but simply doesn’t feel comfortable. And it’s gratutitous technology over practicality — touch sensors are neat, but again, why not just make a real button?

Cards v0.1

A while ago, Rain was saying that she didn’t have a version of solitaire for the Macintosh I made her buy. So I offered to write one. There are plenty of versions already out there, but I have my reasons. I’ll list them, in fact:

  1. I’ve never seen a freeware one that’s as lightweight and simple as the versions that come free with Windows.
  2. I need practice with Java and still need to learn Mac OS X programming.
  3. I can mess around with the images.
  4. I believe that all game programmers are required by law to have written a version of solitaire or Tetris at one point.
  5. Just felt like it, okay?

So here it is. (That’s a direct link to the zip file). It only runs on Mac OS X, and it’s very simple but still kinda large and slow what with the images and with its being written in Java and all. I think it works; I tested it until I got sick of playing Klondike. One thing: double-clicking on a card or stack of cards will immediately move it to the first location where it fits.

Plans for future improvement, if I ever get around to it:

  • Add FreeCell.
  • Animate the cards moving into place instead of just popping them there.
  • Save the state of the game when you shut down the app.
  • Add Blackjack and maybe Poker.

Also note that the card back images of Vincent D’onofrio and Mark Ruffalo (no, I can’t tell them apart, either) were at the request of my patron.

PowerPC and the Apocalypse

I’m only breaking my temporary blog hiatus because I got a notice saying everyone who’s got a blog website has to put up something about Apple’s move to Intel chips. It’s fair that all of us who’ve bought PowerPC-based Macs recently will be concerned that our machines will be made obselete when developers move over to the Intel-based architecture, especially considering Apple’s kludgey OS 9 support, in the long run it can only mean…

Ah, who am I trying to kid? I don’t care. I couldn’t be more Apple’s bitch, and I’m going to buy whatever they come out with. Unless my mail and web browser suddenly stop working, my machine(s) work fine and will continue to work fine. And as for development, I realized a while back that I’m about as technology-ignorant as you can get while still being a computer programmer; I neither know nor care much about what happens after I hit the “compile” button.

Well, there goes any hope of my writing for Wired magazine.

BOOOOM! Slideshow! KA-POW! Pictures of my Cat!

Here’s another neat Mac OS X app. It’s called ComicLife, a page-layout and editing program to make digital comics. The ingenious bit is that it integrates with your iPhoto library, making it a natural for presenting travelogues and home pictures in a more interesting way than just a slideshow. And like the best Mac applications, it’s a fairly simple idea done extremely well.

Of course, with great power comes great potential for abuse. And that’s already evident from some of the abominations people have made from baby and pet pictures. But I’m seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Some users are doing cool stuff with it; check out his travelogues from Korea. I can see myself shamelessly stealing his idea and going the Harvey Pekar route with some of the pictures I keep meaning to put up on the internet, which means some day soon the links from my home page might actually work!

For starters, check out this incredibly dull collection of pictures I’ve taken around San Francisco.

Delicious Library

This is kind of neat. There’s a really slick app for the Mac OS X called Delicious Library that catalogs your books, DVDs, CDs, and videogames. You can use a webcam (like the iSight) to scan in the UPC codes from your collection, it’ll look up the info for it on Amazon, and file it all away. It’s a boon for anal-retentive people like myself, and I’m embarrassed to admit that it’s kind of fun to scan all the stuff in, just for the nerdy “gee-whiz” element of it.

Of course, it’s pretty useless as is; once you’ve scanned everything in, it starts to sink in that you’ve just got a list of all your books and movies and not much to do with it. (It has gimmicky features like a lender check-out that syncs up with your Address Book in case you’re always lending stuff out to friends, and it’ll download the info to your iPod, which would be useful if I carried my iPod with me everywhere.)

Well, somebody finally wrote a somewhat useful add-on for it, the DeliciousExporter, which takes your library info and outputs it to half slick, half cheesy HTML format. So now everyone can take a look at my collection. (Disclaimer: I’ve only scanned in my bedside bookshelf so far, where I keep all the comic books and cheesy science fiction. I swear I do own real books and will enter them at some point.)