Archive of January 2015

Input (the typeface)

Input, from David Jonathan Ross at Font Bureau, also deserves a shout-out. I haven’t played with it much yet, but it breaks with convention and offers up a font intended for code that isn’t mono-spaced (fixed-width). It also comes in a variety of widths and weights, and has a serif companion style.

Perhaps most impressive of all, it is free for personal coding use, and custom builds can be made to suit your preferred styles of characters like zeros and curly braces.

From Ross’s personal site:

Input came out of a conversation I had with some of my colleagues on this very topic. My boss, David Berlow asked: “Are monospaced fonts really the only solution for presenting computer code in a world with so much type technology?” Input was my response.

Parable of the Polygons

Mentioned in the previous post, but well worth its own link.

All it takes is a change in the perception of what an acceptable environment looks like. So, fellow shapes, remember it’s not about triangles vs squares, it’s about deciding what we want the world to look like, and settling for no less.

Also looks like Nicky Case has a campaign going to do more of these.

Making annoying rainbows and other color cycles in Javascript

Jim Bumgardner has a nice little tutorial on writing code to cycle through colors. It’s a good read to be sure, but I also wanted to link to it because of how I got to it.

First I was revisiting Frank Chimero’s transcript of his talk What Screens Want1, which simultaneously thinking about changes I might make to a site I’m working on right now.

In the talk, Frank talks about how designing for screens can be like designing for what he calls “flux”:

So what does all of this mean? I think the grain of screens has been there since the beginning. It’s not tied to an aesthetic. Screens don’t care what the horses look like. They just want them to move. They want the horses to change.

Designing for screens is managing that change. To put a finer head on it, the grain of screens is something I call flux

Flux is the capacity for change.

Yes, this could be animation, because that’s what I’ve been talking about up until now, but I think it’s a lot more, too. Flux is a generous definition. It encompasses many of the things we take for granted in the digital realm: structural changes, like customization, responsiveness, and variability.

The site which serves as the transcript for the talk, acts as a showcase for this very idea in a rather subtle way: certain portions of the text have a muted background color which, if you pay close attention to it, is changing slowly over time. I didn’t notice this the first time I read through the essay, which I think adds another level of interest to the effect.

This time though, I decided to peak under the hood to get a better idea of what exactly was going on, when I came across a file named fade.js, which begins:

“`js // This JS code comes from Charlie Loyd [ @vruba ], who wrote a wonderful little // missive here: http://basecase.org/2012/11/diadem/ // He’s given me permission to pilfer his codes. Thank you, Charlie.

// BEGIN COLOR-SCHNAZZIE-IFIER.

// Hi. This is not really production-quality code, just something I // patched together for an experimental essay. But if you have // questions, I’d be happy to answer them. “`

Further down, another interesting comment:

js // This is an adaptation of the rainbow function described at // http://basecase.org/env/on-rainbows (K is for @skimbrel, my // buddy who had the central insight that sines work for this). // We lighten and desaturate it a little.

Charlie Lloyd’s ‘missive’ is called Perhaps it is broken, the cover of your diadem […], darkness collar […]?, and indeed looks interesting, but I will have to give it a read later. The background for that essay has a similar slow-morphing color as Chimero’s.

In his post On rainbows, linked to in the second comment, Lloyd provides further interesting context:

(Halfway through writing this I double-checked that the techniques it shows were actually new – and, trying different search terms, found that Jim Bumgardner, a Processing expert, had already explained them perfectly well. With his encouragement I’m publishing this anyway.)

And that’s what led me to the piece I decided to link to above.

I absolutely love reading stuff like this. It’s nerdy in all the ways I like, touching on color theory and basic programming, and illustrated with visual examples of the output.2 And when I came across Bumgardner’s post, I got all excited about this story of how I came across it, and how the web I love is still out there: the one with all the thoughtful independent moving parts, the one where people are free to write what they want and make it available to anyone, where people leave breadcrumbs back to where their ideas come from.

But along the way, I got to thinking what was kicking around my head: that this was evidence of “the web I love” — as I was calling it in my head. And I don’t know why but that thought as it accumulated invited another darker thought, one about comfort and familiarity and safety. And it occurred to me that this idea of mine, of “the web I love” had more to do with comfort and familiarity and safety that I might have let on to myself at first. What did it mean that these writers were all white and male like me? I don’t want to presume anything about anyone, and I certainly don’t want to claim that these thoughts haven’t occurred to any of them, but it strikes me that we all fit a certain kind of profile, with earlier access to more of the tools of computing and the internet, and more leisure time at an earlier age which we could use to pursue our interests, and a physiological makeup that was always culturally considered compatible with obsessive study and possibly some quirky asocial tendencies.

I have more thinking to do on all of this, which I’ll leave for another day. But my trail of surfing ultimately led me to the Parable of the Polygons3, which I had never seen before and is simply awesome. Which got me relatively safely back to my good feelings about the web that I love. Give it a read-through, and I think you’ll see what I mean.


  1. It’s a great read, highly recommended. 

  2. Perhaps my favorite example of this type of post is Mike Bostock’s explanation of the Fisher-Yates Shuffle. Then again, there’s always Bret Victor’s Learnable Programming diatribe. 

  3. I had never heard of Nicky Case, but I absolutely love the work of Vi Hart

“Better” is the enemy of “good”

I’m really glad that this page is still available online. Andy Ihnatko:

Trust me, I know of which I speak. “Why haven’t you finished moving the redesigned site to its new servers” you ask? Because Voltaire died about a thousand years before he could tell me the above bit of wisdom and as a result, I had to pick it up on the streets.

Practical Example: Website design, specifically, taking a largish personal site and eliminating the unweildy and unworkable design you hate, transmogrifying and updating it, and putting it on a new server.

How about I create the pages in BBEdit, like I did years ago when I began Andy Ihnatko’s Colossal Waste Of Bandwidth? Great idea. But hey, now there are great visual content-design tools out there. Why not re-do it all in PageMill? Done.

But boy, now that GoLive is out, I think I’d be better off with a package that offers full-blown site management features. Well, I redid it once…what’s the harm in re-doing it again? I’ll be actually saving time in the long run.

Oh, yeah, Dreamweaver.

As best I can tell, this dates back to at least 2000.

And here I sit, having just jumped out of my browser to edit this entry in BBEdit.

Video Games & Making Math More Like Things Students Like

Great new talk from Dan Meyer looking at what we can learn from video games. Lessons learned:

  1. Video games get to the point.
  2. The real world is overrated.
  3. Video games have an open middle.
  4. The middle grows more challenging and more interesting at the same time.
  5. Instruction is visual, embedded in practice, and only as needed.
  6. Video games lower the cost of failure.

As usual, Dan takes something that could go in a really simplistic direction and breathes a lot of life into it.

I’d also say it’s worth taking a look at this presentation as a model for lecturing and presenting ideas persuasively. He brings in his in-laws in a great way as testers of the games he investigates, using video and humor to great effect. He also has quick ways to involve the audience by having them make guesses at big numbers before he shows them on the slides, or tackle a quick mental math problem and share their strategy with a neighbor.

Definitely worth a watch.

Of One’s Own

I wrote this yesterday for the Midnight Breakfast newsletter.

This past year, I have been simply blown away by the massive amount of quality work that Audrey Watters has published in the neighborhood of “ed-tech”.

If you don’t pay much attention to ed-tech, I think I can roughly sum up by describing it as a growing trend toward integrating more and more technology into the classroom. Sometimes it’s getting iPads into schools, sometimes launching new Facebook-like software platforms to track students and their progress, sometimes teachers sharing strategies with each other for better uses of video in their classrooms, sometimes working to incorporate more code into curriculum, sometimes building more standards across schools in America, sometimes “flipping” classrooms so that instruction happens in videos and teachers run practice workshops instead of introducing new content, sometimes transmitting lectures from big-name colleges and universities to far-flung corners of the country and globe, sometimes opening up internet access in parts of the world that haven’t had it, and so on. As you can imagine, it is a wide-ranging and complex area, touching on all of our complicated values around educating the next generation(s) as well as ourselves, and the role technology can or should play which forces a lot of questions about the role of technology in our own lives and work.

There are a lot of publications on the web dedicated to these concerns, not the least of which may be The Chronicle of Higher Education, which I expect many of you reading this will be familiar with. But I think Audrey Watters is the kind of person we need looking at education and technology critically, and she has done that fiercely and personally all year long, giving talks and writing at her site Hack Education.

With that, I want to endorse her picks for the end of the year:

Despite the mythology of “disruptive innovation,” the most innovative initiatives in education technology aren’t coming from startups. They aren’t incubated in Silicon Valley. They don’t emerge from the tech industry. In fact, many of the ed-tech startup ideas that are developed there are at best laughable, at worst horrifying.

What I like instead: the Digital Public Library of America, Reclaim Hosting, A Domain of One’s Own, P2PU, and Lumen Learning, for example.

The trend that she identifies each of these as more or less a part of is usually called The Indie Web, and it’s something that’s been kicking around for a bit and is near and dear to my own heart.

At Midnight Breakfast, we are trying to build something independent and as universally accessible as possible – both qualities that I think speak to the good of the web. We are also trying to make something beautiful, with great writing and great illustrations and photography, something that you can enjoy reading in the evening or on the weekend, or when you have some spare time at work.

We’ve had 20 years now with the web as an ever more present part of our lives, 20 years to see how the web affects publishing. Existing print newspapers and magazines have had to find ways to adapt, first by unbundling their archives and making them searchable and shareable on the web, and now by trying to find ways to keep their best work well-funded in a less-than-ideal scenario with ever-diminishing rates for ad-sales and drives for increased page views leading to “listicle”-style consumer-friendly content and eminently shareable “linkbait” headlines. I don’t even want to get into what’s been going on with books and e-readers and Amazon and bookstores and the iPad and Hachette, and whatever else. Suffice it to say that it’s been interesting.

But there’s also always been another strand in the growth of the web, an independent spirit fighting to build new things and bring them to new audiences, giving voice to people who might not have otherwise had a platform. My favorite early experiments were sites like Fray.com and Suck.com, and later The Morning News, still later The Bygone Bureau. And there were the independent personal sites and blogs, like Jason Kottke’s kottke.org and later Mandy Brown’s A Working Library. This part of the web feels to me, to this very day, like the “real” web – and I know how snobby or immature that must sound. But that part of the web is important not for its technology, but for its humanity. It’s the web that does like to share, but likes to have control over how things are shared, for things to be shared with individuals and real human beings, not centralized, owned, and sold to the highest bidder by 20-somthings in Silicon Valley. A lot of smart people have worked to build that part of the web, and I honestly still think it is strong, even if there are changes still needed. That spirit is important.

And I think it’s that spirit that Audrey Watters thinks is needed to have great voice in education, and I think it’s the spirit that Midnight Breakfast and so many other publications are trying to bring to the literary community.

I’ll let her take it from here:

I repeat this often: one of the most important initiatives in education technology is the University of Mary Washington’s Domain of One’s Own. The Domain of One’s Own gives students and faculty their own Web domain – not simply a bit of Web space at the university’s dot-edu, but their own domain. UMW facilitates the purchase of the domain; it helps with installation of WordPress (and other open source software); it offers support – technical and instructional; it hosts the site until graduation. And then, contrary to what happens with the LMS, the domain and its content is the student’s to take.

Maybe it sounds small, and maybe everyone is tired of hearing from people in the tech industry like me who seem to have opinions on how everyone else can do things better, but if I’m going to leave our readers with any seed for the new year, it’s this: Get yourself a domain name of your very own and tinker with it a bit just so you can have your own public space that you control that isn’t owned by someone else. Maybe it won’t take, and maybe hardly anyone will ever look there but you. But sometimes we need our own spaces.

Penflip

Intriguing concept from Loren Burton:

For the past three years, I’ve used GitHub for hosting code projects, discovering bleeding edge tech, and collaborating with an engineering team. And it has been simply wonderful. In fact, it’s hard to imagine coding without GitHub. I rely on GitHub every single day.

However, despite how crucial GitHub is to the developer toolbox, I’m constantly wondering why the platform is limited to just code. It’s not a stretch to imagine the usefulness of a similar platform for non-developers - authors, teachers, students - though as much as I search, I can’t seem to find one. So I’m building it myself. I’m building a GitHub for everyone else.

I’ve been watching prose.io for a while now, and if you’re familiar with that project, Penflip will look familiar. I haven’t gotten to try it out yet, but I find the collaborative features very intriguing, reminiscent of Editorially.

We still need better tools, I’m glad people are still working to make them.