Archive of November 2014

A Brief History of Graphics in Video Games

I especially enjoy Parts One and Two, but unfortunately from there it feels a little biased toward fairly violent games, with no real discussion of the shift. It feels pretty conspicuous. I mean, what year is this?

How To Scroll

Mike Bostock:

Scroll-based interaction is incredibly popular for interactive storytelling. There are many compelling reasons for this, yet scrolling is surprisingly nuanced and easy to break. So here are five rules for employing scrolling effectively.

I am personally a bit skeptical about these kinds of features. They generally strike me as more style than substance. These are definitely excellent technical notes on avoiding common pitfalls, with so-called “scroll-jacking,”1 but I haven’t yet seen one of these where I felt like the medium was truly appropriate to the story.

I think back to Allen Tan’s piece last year in Stet, Attention, rhythm & weight:

Yet for all the excitement, I can’t help but wish for more thoughtful discussion, both conceptually and practically. Often, I hear people refer to these designs as “intuitive” and “immersive,” but I find those words maddeningly vague. We — designers, developers, readers, writers, publishers — think we know what they mean in the abstract, but when we stoop down to the details, we end up disagreeing with each other on what the problems are and how they can be solved.

And without a common language for describing what works and what doesn’t, our work isn’t being pushed or explored further. I see example after example appearing online, that people have clearly spent time and thought into making, which cover the same ground and also share the same mistakes.

Experimentation is great if you’re learning. If you’re not, it’s just expensive.

Bostock is extremely well-skilled, and his work is invaluable. I also know that we need the kind of experimentation that is going on at the New York Times.2 It must still be early days; we have much to learn.3

  1. I especially agree with Bostock in his second point, that it is preferable to attach events and animations to the browser’s standard scrolling behavior, rather than hijack it completely, as in the case of Apple’s Mac Pro brochure. Visually quite pleasing, but the interaction feels jarring. 

  2. For what it’s worth, both Mike Bostock and Allen Tan are designers at the Times

  3. All this makes me ponder Roger Ebert’s contention that “Video games can never be art.” 

RFC 2397 - The “data” URL scheme

I’ve still been having way too much fun playing around with my self-editing data URL “page”, and wound up finding the original proposal for data URLs from the IETF dated August 1998:

Some applications that use URLs also have a need to embed (small) media type data directly inline. This document defines a new URL scheme that would work like ‘immediate addressing’. The URLs are of the form:


The <mediatype> is an Internet media type specification (with optional parameters.) The appearance of “;base64” means that the data is encoded as base64. Without “;base64”, the data (as a sequence of octets) is represented using ASCII encoding for octets inside the range of safe URL characters and using the standard %xx hex encoding of URLs for octets outside that range. If <mediatype> is omitted, it defaults to text/plain;charset=US-ASCII. As a shorthand, “text/plain” can be omitted but the charset parameter supplied.

And apparently the idea goes back even further:

This idea was originally proposed August 1995. Some versions of the data URL scheme have been used in the definition of VRML, and a version has appeared as part of a proposal for embedded data in HTML. Various changes have been made, based on requests, to elide the media type, pack the indication of the base64 encoding more tightly, and eliminate “quoted printable” as an encoding since it would not easily yield valid URLs without additional %xx encoding, which itself is sufficient. The “data” URL scheme is in use in VRML, new applications of HTML, and various commercial products. It is being used for object parameters in Java and ActiveX applications.

I kind of love looking at older documents like this about the inner workings of the web. I primarily see them used for inlining images, as outlined by Chris Coyier, but the idea of encoding an entire page is just somehow still tripping me out.

Maybe it’ll pass.

Unhosted Web Apps

I stumbled upon this today, as a group that Duck Duck Go1 had given money to. Much of this is either over my head or simply too much work, but these are clearly people who are taking the idea of owning their own space on the web very seriously.2

If you’ve got a little bit of facility with the console in your browser, I recommend taking the 10-15 minutes just to try out An unhosted editor, in which you’ll sort of bootstrap your own in-browser code editor. It’s a little bit trippy, to be honest.

I was especially intrigued by the notion of encoding an entire web app in a data url. For instance, here’s a link to an initial version of the app.3

However intriguing and incredible all this is, I think the site and the ongoing project serve as pretty clear reminders that there is a tradeoff between ownership over something and the amount of work that is required. Their idea is to interact with Facebook and Twitter over their APIs through a “puppet” account, which again is fascinating. But clearly an amount of work that most people can’t be expected to undertake, even if they knew how.

That’s, I think, the potentially ugly opposing force. Many of these open source projects and indie web types of things are actually much less accessible to the majority of people, and so can be problematic in a different sort of way than the centralized and controlled platforms. I tend to think that it’s the kind of work that can eventually be made more accessible over time, as everything needs to start somewhere. But when our big changes finally happen from small seeds, we end up with a new elite in charge made up entirely of people who had the resources, leisure time, and privilege, to create the new world that we’re all living in.4

  1. Duck Duck Go is a search engine that I tried off and on for the past few years, which I now use full time, especially thanks to their recent integration in Safari and iOS. Highly recommended if you’ve never looked into it. 

  2. Clearly, this is something that’s really on my mind

  3. And here’s a fun little version I did up in which you can quickly make changes to the page itself and “Save” them back to the data url. 

  4. Mandy’s essay on the so-called meritocracy, “You keep using that word” is definitely worth a read. 

Week 13: Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See

Extraordinary bravery from José Vilson:

“Today, ladies and gentlemen, you’ll notice that there’s an objective and a Do Now in front of you, but I need to say this: if anyone wants to talk about what happened last night, whether now or one-on-one, I’m available to do this.” They didn’t seem to understand. “After last night’s lack of indictment of Darren Wilson and the murder of Michael Brown, maybe you have something to say or get off your chest, and if so, I’ve dedicated this time right now for you to say your piece.”

With that, I opened the floor with little moderation from me. Students asked what happened, and I presented what facts I knew.  Students felt angered and hurt by the typical timeline of things: cop shoots child of color and the cop gets away with it. One student asked for my personal opinion, and I couldn’t help but tell them as carefully as I could how outraged I was, and why it matters that I would do this.

They’re so used to their lives not mattering in the eyes of authorities.

Go read the whole thing.

Practical Advice on Interface Design

Erik D. Kennedy offers up 7 Rules for Creating Gorgeous UI (Part 1) & Part 2. Good and practical advice throughout, but I especially like this from the Introduction:

If you went to art school or consider yourself a UI designer already, you will likely find this guide some combination of a.) boring, b.) wrong, and c.) irritating. That’s fine. All your criticisms are right. Close the tab, move along.

I immediately went from reading with a grain of salt to disarming and digging in. Well done.

The methods for laying text over an image strike me as especially useful.

“American Homeowner”

I’m on my break between classes right now, so I’ve been feeling especially reflective, leading me to get this site back up again, catch up some on my reading, lose my train of thought on a couple of other projects, and of course start re-watching all of Boston Legal.

If you haven’t seen it, Boston Legal is a really fun and usually gripping show, somewhere between farce and melodrama. William Shatner plays the head honcho lawyer at a Boston firm, and in one episode his character Denny Crane opts to represent a man who equipped his home with a security system that electrocuted a prospective invader to the point that he became paralyzed from the waist down. The show is too inane to get into all of the details, but the case winds up being tried in the media, and Denny taints the jury pool by working with a marketing firm to brand the man as an “American homeowner”— a phrase subsequently on the lips of every member up for selection to the jury. So they settle.

I’m not a homeowner myself, although I have been having some landlord troubles lately which have gotten thinking quite a bit about what it means to have a safe space to call a home, whether owned or not. As is so often the case on Boston Legal, the show starts us off feeling indignant about the very idea of someone rigging their home to electrocute an intruder, seeps us even further in that indignation by making the man clearly racist and small-minded, and then hits us with a montage of prospective jury members who we can relate to: “I’m a renter, but I still consider myself an American homeowner;” “If it were me, I’d have done the same thing.”

Why am I even thinking about this? Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about safety and safe spaces when it comes to the internet lately, mostly from reading about other people’s experiences with online attacks through some of the web’s more prominent current “social” platforms, like Twitter and Tumblr. The evidence is too exhaustive to detail, but here’s a bit from a recent talk given by Audrey Watters:

I started to make a list of all the women I know who’ve experienced online harassment in the last year or so. Adria. Sarah. Another Sarah. A different Sarah. Brianna. Shanley. Suey. Tressie. Julie. Another Julie. Rose. Ariel. Anita. Kathy. Zoe. Amanda. Ashe. Catherine. Felicia. Mikki. Mia. Molly. Lauren. Jenn. A different Jen. Jessica. Jessie. Jess. Caroline. Katie. Sadie. Bridget. Alyssa. Lyndy. Rebecca. Roxane. I could go on, but I have to stop. I should be clear: for many of these women, this harassment has moved offline as well. They’ve been doxxed, for example — that is where your address and phone number and other identifiable information are posted online in forums like 4chan for the specific purpose to offline harassment.

I mean, it’s just crazy and sad, really, how common it is for women in particular to be harassed online.

So I’ve been asking myself, where are the safe spaces? Where can we make homes that protect ourselves against this kind of abuse?

Well, Mandy has been trying an interesting approach to this with her newsletter1, which has been a fantastic read. I know many other people have been experimenting with email newsletters as well, but Mandy’s sticks out as being motivated by a desire to carve out a safer space to share ideas in.

I think in some ways it comes down to control versus access: a newsletter offers a way to give potentially anyone access to what you have to say, but offers control over how readers can respond—by email. Readers who abuse their ability to write back can be blocked, even removed from the list, all out of the public eye. When the content is in an email and not on the web, there’s not the same kind of public record to link to.

For me, for now, I am privileged enough to feel safe to stick to the web, as I am here. But I don’t like giving up as much control as posting my own thoughts to someplace like Facebook or Twitter or even Tumblr would entail. I control the conversation here, and anyone else can set up their own little homestead on the web to respond if they like.

We’ll see how this goes.

  1. You can sign up in the footer of the A Working Library website. 

The Skeptic’s Horoscope

I really should just read these on a daily basis:

Today is a good day for romance. Or travel. Or jelly doughnuts. In other words, it’s pretty much like every day.

Putting Thought Into Things

Oliver Reichenstein:

What happens when we create an interface: one mind builds a way for other minds to interact with a thing. To lay the foundation of human-machine interaction you need to put thought into things and that requires that you put things into thought. This is why most interfaces suck, and most interfaces will continue to suck. No model, method, or tool will change that. Thinking is painful.

And there is no best practice, no tip or technique to sort thoughts, to build knowledge systems, and to structure human interaction except for a curious, conscious, vivid mind, guided by a strong will, that resists the temptation to fall back onto fast-thought stereotypes.

This is one of the things I find to be the most difficult about teaching. It’s one thing to try to convey a reasonably identifiable skill to someone else: show them how you do it, explain what’s going on as you work, let them try, give them feedback, have them continue to practice.1

And there is no best practice, no tip or technique to sort thoughts, to build knowledge systems, and to structure human interaction except for a curious, conscious, vivid mind, guided by a strong will, that resists the temptation to fall back onto fast-thought stereotypes. How do we go about teaching those things?

  1. Yes, I realize even this is a simplification, and I certainly don’t mean to belittle the work of teaching skills. But there’s often a higher level of understanding that I hope my students work toward. Which leads to my first guess on this issue: start with the basic and the relatable to make a foundation, then question those basics and so build complexity from there. 

Piles of Ideas

Jason Santa Maria on sketching:

I want a big sprawling mass of ugly ideas because it helps get past the most obvious ones, and improves the chance for something really interesting to reveal itself.

Horror Vacui

Lukas Mathis on our impulse to fill emptiness:

This is something I hear a lot. People tend to dislike empty space. It’s wasted! Can we put some kind of widget in there?

Letters in Wonderhand

Beautiful work by Martina Flor in crafting a systematic and flexible lettering font without losing all of the human touch:

My aim was to create a type system that could accommodate handwriting. Therefore, I began by looking for rules or constants within handwriting’s plethora of variations. First, I defined those parameters of handwriting that I could use to create a type system.

The results are really lovely.

Your App Is Good And You Should Feel Good

William Van Hecke:

So much of a design role is in how much other people believe that you know what you’re talking about. You can’t quantify what makes someone a good designer. And this unquantifiability can cause tension. Passing is a sociology term for whether the way that you identify yourself matches with how other people see you.

Nobody Passes by Mattilda is a pretty intense compilation on the concept of passing, specifically focused on gender.

Here’s my dear friend Nikki talking about identity. “People don’t react to who you are, they react to who they perceive you to be.”

Incidentally, I really like this style of presenting a talk online, with slides beside notes. Van Hecke calls out Maciej Cegłowski’s The Internet With A Human Face, which uses the same style. I also like Jonathan Corum’s use of the style for his talks on information and data visualization, such as The Weight of Rain. I enjoy reading these much more than trying to flip through a deck, and I think I might even prefer it to a video of a talk.

Why Is American Teaching So Bad?

Jonathan Zimmerman:

During the buildup to the Iraq invasion in 2003, an Indiana teacher lost her job for telling her class (in response to a student question) that she had driven by an antiwar rally and honked her horn in support. A few years later, an Ohio teacher was dismissed for asking her students to select and read one of the American Library Association’s one hundred most commonly banned books. Most of Green’s examples of great classroom instruction come from math, where teachers are free to pursue a problem wherever it leads. Try doing that in social studies or English, and you might find yourself looking for a new line of work.

Garret Keizer is an English teacher, and a great one at that. In 2010, after a fourteen-year hiatus from the classroom, Keizer returned to the same rural Vermont high school where he had started his teaching career thirty years earlier. He soon put up in his classroom a poster about banned books of the kind that got the Ohio teacher fired. Keizer has more freedom to explore ideas than many other communities allow. But he is hamstrung anyway, not by book-burning censors but by the mind-numbing “accountability” regime that arose in the years following his first period as a teacher. As Goldstein and Green explain, No Child Left Behind and its spin-offs are premised on the grim notion that teachers will work harder—and better—if we can somehow pinpoint their performance and connect it to rewards and punishments.

Convivial Tools in an Age of Surveillance

Another must-read from Audrey Watters:

In Papert’s vision, and in Kay’s as well, “the child programs the computer, and in doing so, both acquires a sense of mastery over a piece of the most modern and powerful technology and establishes an intense contact with some of the deepest ideas from science, from mathematics, and from the art of intellectual model building.” But as Papert wrote in his 1980 book Mindstorms, “In most contemporary educational situations where children come into contact with computers the computer is used to put children through their paces, to provide exercises of an appropriate level of difficulty, to provide feedback, and to dispense information. The computer programming the child.”

The computer programming the child.

The computer isn’t some self-aware agent here, of course. This is the textbook industry programming the child. This is the testing industry programming the child. This is the technology industry, the education technology industry programming the child.

Despite Kay and Papert’s visions for self-directed exploration — powerful ideas and powerful machines and powerful networks — ed-tech hasn’t really changed much in schools. Instead, you might argue, it’s reinforcing more traditional powerful forces, powerful markets, powerful ideologies. Education technology is used to prop up traditional school practices, ostensibly to make them more efficient (whatever that means). Drill and kill. Flash cards. Just with push notifications and better graphics. Now in your pocket and not just on your desk.

Substitution (…and Continued Fractions)

Sam Shah, with a great mechanism for substituting an expression with an equivalent variable: use a note card with the expression on one side and the variable on the other.

I emphasized that that card itself represented the value of that fraction. The front and back are both different ways to express the same (unknown) quantity we were looking for.


THAT FLIP IS THE COOLEST THING EVER FOR A MATH TEACHER. That flip was the single thing that made me want to blog about this.

Love it.

Thinking about the math education blogosphere

I’ve never really been a blogger, despite trying my hand at it on various occasions over the years, but I have been very interested to see the recent crop of new attention to blogging in what I think of as the “meta” blogosphere.

All of these folks are compelling to me in various ways, although I don’t read every word that each of them writes. They all fall in the camp that is meta-focused on the web itself—folks who work on and depend on the web for their livelihoods, who contribute to its well-being, have a strong vested-interest in various foundational aspects of the web, and who correspondingly tend to have strong opinions about how things are going.

I even think all of this is incredibly important to worry about, but it’s not exactly a club that I want to be a part of.

No, I want to be part of the club of math education bloggers. (Even though I can’t because I don’t teach math.)

Years ago, a friend recommended to me Dan Meyer’s TED Talk, Math class needs a makeover. It’s a great and short presentation, where Dan makes a compelling argument about being less helpful and giving students more room to pave their own path to a solution to a problem rather than spelling out the steps. When was the last time you encountered a problem worth solving, where the process for solving it was all completely laid out for you anyway?

Dan, it turned out, has a blog. And over the years, he’s grown in popularity, and through his site I’ve started keeping up with more and more bloggers in this math & education community—folks like Audrey Watters and Michael Pershan and José Vilson. Meanwhile, my career has taken its own turn from focusing my time primarily on making websites to teaching people how to make websites.

And this is really the point isn’t it? I mean, I want to protect the health of the web as much as the next nerd, but to be honest, I’m not sure I ever really see a lot of new thoughts in the “Let’s talk about the web and publishing and technology” circles beyond what I recall from the days of Webmonkey, or A List Apart. Focus on the content, the web is for sharing, writing and linking are the native building blocks of the medium, we all should probably figure out how to write and how to make type work.

Let me be clear: I’m glad that folks are still making those points, and I’m sure that I will continue to try to hammer those things home myself, especially given that I’m now in a role where I’m regularly shepherding new folks toward working increasingly with the web as their means of making ends meet. If I have anything to add to the conversation from the past 15 years, it’s that currency matters and the idea of a stream or a river feels pretty apt when it comes to the web. In other words, the web is living, and it matters that the important pieces are revisited and freshened up for folks who are coming to these ways of thinking about the web now. (Maybe they’ve been doing something more interesting with their lives for the past 15 years.)

But I also want things that are new to me, that I feel like I can engage in. Streams I can jump into and splash around, where people aren’t focused on the nature of water or how it’s flowing.

I want to jump in with the people who are looking for the fish, and are still excited every time they catch another.