This is BrainLog, a blog by Dan Sanderson. Older entries, from October 1999 through September 2010, are preserved for posterity, but are no longer maintained. See the front page and newer entries.

March 2010 Archives

March 31, 2010

The press embargo has lifted on early reviews of the iPad. Here's Andy Ihnatko.

Andy says several times that with the iPad, Apple has re-thought computing "from scratch." One of the reasons why I'm hopeful the iPad will be successful (and it sounds like it is) is that it isn't quite from scratch: Apple has been making iPhones for a couple of years now. Much had to be invented anew for the iPad, sure, but Apple has had time to gain experience with touch interfaces. The iPad builds upon ideas of the iPhone.

March 26, 2010

A Turing Machine:

March 25, 2010

Less Talk More Rock. Or perhaps the more salient point is ROCK BEFORE TALK.

This essay is more about preserving aesthetic coherence in a collaborative process, but a related point I like that's not made here: rocking first makes the talk more effective. Rocking first gives you something to talk about. Vision, rock, talk, then rock some more.

The problem is often that the people with vision are less able to do the rocking, probably because it isn't their professional role in the process. So they talk instead. The solution: make everyone into polymaths, Renaissance people. Give everyone the skills to build, or at least sketch. Give everyone the power to rock.

Find yourself talking? Learn to rock. I have things I want to do that require web design and illustration skills I don't have, for instance, and while those things would ultimately involve a professional web designer and illustrator to do most of the rocking, my inability to rock means I'm less capable of communicating my vision and getting a professional designer on board in the first place. I'll take a 3-month hiatus to learn to draw if I have to. Because talking some web designer's ear off isn't going to get it done.

Get the Blu-ray set for Pixar's Up, and watch the behind the scenes featurette of the art direction team taking a trip to Venezuela to climb around the tepuis. They take photos of scenes, textures. They sit with portable watercolor kits and pads, and they capture the environment to take back to the studio. Apart from being jealous of their ability, I got the distinct impression that not everyone on that trip was officially an artist, but everyone on that trip was capable of exploring ideas through making things. Damn I want one of those little watercolor kits SO BADLY.

Commodore 64 Awakes From Slumber With Makeover.

Some reactions:

The vintage Commodore 64 personal computer is getting a makeover, with a new design and some of the latest computing technologies, as the brand gets primed for a comeback.

Ooh! I loved my Commodore 64.

The revamped computer will be available through the Commodore USA online store, which is set to open June 1, according to the company's Web site. The computer will be an all-in-one keyboard, with Intel's 64-bit quad-core microprocessors and 3D graphics capabilities, according to the site.

Well, the original Commodore 64 was an all-in-one keyboard. That I plugged into my television. When I was six.

Commodore USA is a new company that has licensed the Commodore name from Commodore Gaming, which makes games for PCs and consoles. The PC company is trying to invoke the glory of the Commodore 64's past to promote the new PC. On its Web site, the company shows an image of the old Commodore 64 with the caption "you loved us then," and then an image of the new PC, with the caption "you'll love us again."

I loved who then exactly? And in what ways is a computer in 2010 like a computer in 1982?

Commodore Gaming is or was once a company that sold modern PC gaming machines, and now appears to be behind the emulations of C64 games for the iPhone (that C64 emulator app I've mentioned before) and the Wii (via WiiWare). It's a stretch to say they "make games for PCs and consoles." But they're not the subject of this press release.

The device is small, measuring 17.5 inches (0.44 meters) wide and 2 inches (0.05 meters) tall, Commodore said. "It's designed to take up far less room -- and use far less energy -- than any other desktop computer," Commodore USA said. The PC will run the Linux, Windows and Mac OS X operating systems.

Oh it will, will it? (This goes unquestioned in PC World's treatment, by the way.) Commodore USA's home page is quick to mention that OS X is "not supported, customer install only," and their "configure" page claims "Apple OSX can be customer installed using unmodified dvd install disk (requires additional optional hardware). [sic]" There's no further description of this optional hardware and no way to include it in the "configure" screen, which is just as well because there's no button on the "configure" screen to actually buy anything.

"It's a weird legacy thing with modern inerts," [president of "Endpoint Technologies Associates" Roger] Kay said. Commodore PCs had a heavy following in the 1980s among hobbyists, but the glory days may not translate to better sales with price-conscious customers today, Kay said.

Who you calling a "modern inert," random guy named Roger Kay? And wasn't the whole point of the Commodore 64 back in its heyday that it was affordable?

To whoever-wrote-the-press-release's credit, they point out the C64's low price in the next paragraph, and spend the next few paragraphs referring to this panel discussion with Jack Tramiel and Steve Wozniak hosted by the Computer History Museum in 2007, in honor of the C64's 25th birthday. The PC World article ends with another nonsense statement by that dude. The Register's treatment of the same press release includes a different set of references to the 2007 panel discussion, and elides (or never bothers to solicit) the opinions of an analyst.

Both the Commodore and Amiga brand names have been repurposed enough times in the past two decades that it's an old joke and not that interesting, but this press release and its unfiltered "tech news" echo brings on all kinds of new crazy. April 1st is next week, people.

Incidentally, this "Phoenix" device appears to just be this thing, which isn't new. The Commodore USA "news" page has nothing to say except this, referring to the C64's original rainbow label:

...we are diligently and fervently entrenched in the negotiations that will allow us to place this cute little logo nameplate on our all-in-one computer.
March 24, 2010

Adaptation, Adam Lisagor on the iPad. Not many new points but some damned good writing.

Stand-up economist Yoram Bauman:

March 23, 2010

"Plastic Bag":

Voice by Werner Herzog. Part of the Futurestates series, which I haven't seen all of yet. I've also seen "Play," and it's pretty good, but not as good as "Plastic Bag."

March 21, 2010

Fear and Loathing in Farmville, notes by Soren Johnson from GDC 2010. (Via waxy.)

It's welcome news to me that many game designers have "open disregard" for companies like Zynga, and for slot machine game mechanics that rise naturally from business models that tie revenue directly to gameplay features. It's tempting to see Farmville make huge tons of money off of not much game development investment and conclude that what they're doing is a "good" idea.

March 14, 2010

A Breakout clone not to be missed [Flash game]. Go from curious to exhilarated to desperate in a matter of minutes.

March 13, 2010

Processing's Ben Fry on the iPad and closed platforms. Yet another, but coming from a prime proponent of making programming accessible.

A couple of additional thoughts from me: Video game consoles are closed platforms, and I distinctly remember being upset and disappointed that there was no way for me to make my own games. This was, of course, because I already knew what it was like to be able to do so with other systems. As with the rest of the grew-up-with-open-systems-and-made-a-career-out-of-it crowd, if all I had access to was closed systems, I'm not sure I'd even be curious how they work, let alone be motivated to make my own.

But the iPad is hardly the end of open systems. I'm reminded of another platform that was just closed enough to be out of my reach: Microsoft Windows. To program Windows, you need commercial software that includes programming tools, the system libraries, and documentation. I can't speak definitively about the current state of Visual Studio, but during my formative years, even the steep student discount on Visual Studio made it enough of an investment that I needed to commit myself to the notion before I had a chance to try it. At the same time, Linux was becoming accessible enough to uneducated but motivated college students that it was the natural choice to fulfill my interest. I never developed any Linux desktop software—I'm a web app guy—but it was enough of a runway to build the momentum I needed.

It's awesome and necessary that Mac OS X includes professional development tools bundled with the operating system. Even the iPhone/iPad development tools are easy enough to legally obtain (it's a free download from Apple), so they get props for that. Strangely, I'm not sure that's enough to make them as accessible to neophyte programmers as the open systems of olde that ostensibly launched all our careers. It may be more important that a given mainstream platform be able to run a text editor and a Python interpreter than it have a C compiler and full OS libraries.

So there are many things that alienate people from controlling their computers and learning how to program. An important one in the iPad discussion is distribution. In what way does not being able to share arbitrary software projects with others inhibit my ability to develop an interest and skill in programming? I'm not saying there's no connection, I just can't answer the question directly from experience. Rather, it seems likely that closed development platforms encourage closed development communities—and I'm not even thinking of the original iPhone SDK terms of service that prohibited discussion of the SDK in public.

But I think what people are mostly thinking about with regards to the iPad is that an iPad-like device may eventually be someone's only computer, and you can't program an iPad from an iPad, at least not right now. I wonder how quickly that will change, and I wonder how big a role web applications will play in making that happen. We're a hair's breadth from a browser-based IDE and cloud hosting.

March 12, 2010

Hubble Ultra Deep Field 3D. Embedded below, but click through and upgrade to 720p for a high-def experience.

Via Gruber, a post by Instapaper's Marco about interface metaphors, and a brief iPad-related response from Chris Clark. Marco uses the Calculator app as an example of when not to emulate a physical interface in a computer application, and mentions Soulver, an awesome-looking calculator app for Mac OS X.

For quick calculations, my calculator of choice is Spotlight. Yes, Spotlight, the little magnifying glass in the upper-right corner of the Mac OS X screen that lets you do text search queries of your computer. If you type an arithmetic expression, the answer is the first "result" in the Spotlight menu. And since Spotlight is always available via keyboard (Command-Space by default), it's the fastest way I know to do simple arithmetic. (I also use Spotlight as a dictionary, and begrudgingly use it as an application launcher. It's pretty much useless for anything else. And yes, I know of the alternatives.)

It's interesting that Marco would bring the calculator example to the table in a discussion about iPad interfaces, because a calculator app for the iPad/iPhone is a prime candidate for emulating the desktop calculator interface. It's a touch interface, so we still need buttons to press to enter data into the calculator. Were Acqualia to port Soulver to the iPad, I'd expect to find a custom calculator-like keypad at the bottom of the screen, at the very least. [Update 3/13: Of course there's an iPhone version of Soulver, with a keypad.]

I want an Emacs port of Soulver. Maybe I'll write one. Of course, Emacs has a fancy calculator built in, and it includes a Reverse Polish Notation mode. (EmacsWiki on Calc.) But I like the idea of a textual calculator with real-time spreadsheet-like capabilities. And there are spreadsheet apps for Emacs, too: Simple Emacs Spreadsheet, Dismal, esheet.

March 8, 2010

Scott and Scurvy, Maciej Cegłowski. (Via Waxy.)

March 2, 2010

The making of the 1980s HBO intro:

Even at the time it never occurred to me that none of these effects were "digital" in any sense. Even the colored lights that sweep around the O in "HBO" are actual colored lights that sweep around in front of a camera. Also check out the computer driving the camera.