Category Archives: Uncategorized

Are we living in the Matrix, part one: a simple roll of the dice

The Matrix is one of my favorite movies. When it came out, I was in college. It fueled many philosophical conversations among my friends and me. And not just in my circle. It was so popular with the college students that it played in the local theater for a whole year! In that year I saw it on the big screen dozens of times.

It, of course, forces us to ask the question: is our universe real? Or is it some kind of simulation?

I had actually been thinking along these lines for more than a decade before I saw the movie. As a young kid I really thought it was suspicious that the sky looks like a dome. I wondered if I wasn’t living in some kind of experiment.

I have a lot of thoughts on this premise. Most of them are steeped in very exotic, theoretical physics. I’ll bore you with those details in later posts. For now, I will start with the simplest argument.

Suppose that we assume that at some point in the entire existence of the universe, from beginning to end, somewhere and sometime, there is the technology to create a simulation of the universe convincing enough to fool us. Well, if there is at least one of these similulations, then we have to admit that the chance we ourselves are in the original “real” universe is, at most, 50%.

If someone tries to sell you an original Monet, you have to consider the possibility that it’s a forgery. You know that such forgeries exist. And, if you are like me, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a good copy of the master of Impressionism, and the real deal. Without any extra info, you might as well flip a coin. Unfortunately, my argument here is a direct analogy. If we assume universe simulations exist, and we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, then it just boils down to a roll of the dice.

The Return of the Long Scroll, or how I learned to stop worrying and love parallax

For a long time now, the research on web design has said that people prefer to click than to scroll. So we designers have been pushing short pages, with content “above the fold”, and if everything didn’t fit, then better to put content on a separate page than to have it be down below where users would have to scroll down to get to it.

And that has worked well. It’s worked well for white hat designers with their users best interests in mind. It’s also worked well for grey hat types, very well, in the sense that it inflates the number of hits and pageviews on your site while deflating the bounce rate. Users have to view more pages to get the same content. That’s where you get all the link bait “top ten” lists where each element on the list is a separate page, “Seven child stars who grew up to be super hot.”, etc.

Being a dutiful designer interested in the research and best practices, then, I’ve advocated “click over scroll” for almost twenty years now.

But, now I’m changing my mind.

With the rise of the mobile device, so-called Mobilegeddon, I suspect it’s no longer true that most users prefer to click than to scroll. Clicking can be a huge pain in the ass on a tiny screen. Even if the link area on the screen isn’t too small, which it usually is, you still may find yourself switching hand positions so you can use your finder instead of your thumb. Inconvenient. Not hugely inconvenient, but enough to register cognitiively. And even the smallest little inconvenience on the subconscious level can make a big difference on a web site.

I haven’t been a fan of “parallax” for the last couple of years, a design where content is all huge and lives on one big scroll on the home page, so called because it often uses a background image which scrolls at a different rate than the main content, creating a kind of funky 3-d effect. First of all, it’s very trendy, and I’m not usually a fan of the biggest new fad. Also, it often makes heavy use of JavaScript animations in a way that reminds me of the bloated Flash pages of the 2000s.

But, I’ve come around to understanding the usefulness of a parallax design paradigm. This design is extremely mobile friendly, especially for the “business card” type sites which I find most of my clients, small businesses and non-profits, gravitate toward. If what you have on your site is some short ad copy, some info about your organization, maybe a few bios, and a contact us form, then I think you can do very well putting all of it on one long scroll. That way, your phone and tablet users can easily reach all your content with just one thumb.

The highest level philosophy in web design has always been not to forget the minority groups in your audience. Don’t forget the visually impaired, people on slow connections, people on old browsers, people on Unix machines, people who don’t have Flash, etc. etc. Each group may be a small percentage, but they add up super quickly. So, if we embrace scrolling because of mobile and tablet users, we still have remember to cater to the desktop crowd. For most sites, they’re not even a minority, yet. So, what I strongly advocate and haven’t seen a lot of in the parallax designs I’ve seen is click based navigation *within* the long scroll page. The ancient HTML 1, venerable, often overlooked “jump to” function, using anchor tags and a hash mark in the URL will save the day here. We can add navigation as per normal, and make it simply jump around on the long page. This then becomes an ideal experience both for desktop and mobile users. There’s More Than One Way To Do It.

Karma is a pain in the ass, or “How I learned to stop worrying and love my parents.”

I’ve always had a great love and respect for both of my parents. Even in my teenage years, when most kids are rebelling and yelling, “I hate you”, I thought my folks were pretty cool. But, nobody’s perfect, and, of course, even I had a some complaints here and there along the way. But, now that I have kids, even most of those complaints have been painted over with a patina of understanding. Kids don’t tend to think of their parents are real human people with their own internal lives, emotions and needs and all. Now that I’m a parent, I’m recasting a lot of my memories with my parents in the starring role, instead of little me. I could probably give a thousand examples, but one is freshest in my mind. I remember very clearly, as a child, my parents being impatient with my various very creative stories. Now, I struggle to pay attention when my own son is telling a story. One of his stories this week lasted over an hour, and that was while I was driving! It’s simply not possible to pay attention that long. I probably over indulge him because of how I felt as a chlid. In turn, he’ll probably be a little too snippy with his own kids, and the cycle will go around and around.

A very novel play: a review of “Smokefall” at the Goodman Theatre

In short, let me say that “Smokefall”, showing right now at the Goodman Theatre, is a wonderful wonderful play. You should see it if you’re able.

I’m currently reading the “Aspects of the Novel” by E.M. Forster. It’s an interesting book. From what I gather, it’s based on a series of lectures given at Oxford sometime in the middle of the last century. Professor Forster argues pretty persuasively that the novel is unique among the arts in its ability to express our inner lives directly to the audience. Other arts, he says, rely on sensory evidence, just like we do in life. If someone is sad, they must look sad, or say that they are sad. But, in a novel the narrator can directly tell us that the person is sad. And so we peek into their secret inner life.

I was fairly convinced by this book I’m reading. But, by happy accident I saw “Smokefall” last week. The play uses a narrator, you see. So, it operates in much the same way that most novels do, giving us direct insight into what the various members of one extended family are thinking and feeling. It uses this tool very effectively. I felt coming out of it, as though I had been on a journey at once spiritual and intellectual. Indeed, I had been wrestling with all sorts of questions about forgiveness and sin, and without giving too much away, I’ll at least say that this play provided me with some very powerful answers to these Important Life Questions. Plus, it’s hilarious. Seriously, go see it if you can, whether for the entertainment, spiritual, or technical artistic value.

Google Glass and the ubiquitous photo capture

I’ve had Google Glass for a few months now. I’m still very much in love with it. But, the novelty has worn off. I no long have the sense of something shiny and new. I’ve settled into it, and now it’s more like a very expensive comfy shoe. I’ve formed habits around it. It’s just a part of my life now.

Some of those habits are surprising to me. I was eager to get Google Glass primarily as a way to more easily and quickly take pictures of my two boys. I’m a stay-at-home dad, and a web designer, so the overlap seemed pretty obvious. My younger one, in particular, is fascinated with the cell phone, such that I can’t effectively take pictures or video of him with it. He just stops whatever cute thing he was doing to focus on the phone. And I do use it a lot for that purpose. It’s very convenient for taking pictures. What has surprised me is how the very convenience of taking pictures has radically changed the way I think about photography itself, and therefore the kinds of pictures I take.

Glass makes taking a picture as easy as scratching your temple. And it then takes the photo and puts it on your “timeline”, a series of images in a line which shows up on Glass and is extremely easy to flip through. When I first started to use Glass I thought of those photos they way I think of photos on my phone — I was focused on how to get the photos off of Glass and into whatever useful form I ultimately wanted to the photo to be in, that is to say, saved on my computer, uploaded to WordPress, posted on social media, loaded into a digital frame and so forth.

But, as I’ve been using Glass, I’m more and more often taking pictures only to be stored in the “timeline” so I can call it up later. In other words, I’m using photos to take “notes”. And not even the kind of notes that you file away for later. I use photos like the kind of notes you stuff in your pocket and then throw away at the end of the day. I take pictures of my car so I can remember where I parked. I take pictures of price tags in the supermarket so I can comparison shop. I take pictures of billboards and company vans so I can remember the phone number or web site of a company I want to follow up with to do business (like, a plumber, for example).

The digital camera generally revolutionized photography by making it essentially free to take a picture. It used to be that you were economical when taking pictures, because each one would cost some small amount of money to develop. At your son’s birthday party you might take a dozen or two photos. At less special occasions, you might take one or none. With digital photography, many of us moved to the process of the professional photographer of taking dozens or hundreds of photos with the idea of culling them to save one or two really good ones.

Glass has made taking photos even easier by making it not only free but making the act of photography nearly frictionless. No more pulling the phone out of the pocket and launching the camera app. Even that ten-to-fifteen second effort is gone. Specifically, it’s now even easier than jotting something down on a piece of paper or the back of your hand. And in so doing, photography becomes a new ubiquitous form of keeping temporary, throw-away information that it never was, even on the cell phone.

IFTTT, the missing link for Google Glass users

I’ve been using and enjoying IFTTT for a few weeks, and also using and very much enjoying my Glass Explorer Edition. I was overjoyed this week when I noticed that Glass had been added to the IFTTT channels.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, IFTTT stands for “If This Then That”. It’s a web service which allows users to select from a menu of inputs and a menu of outputs to create custom recipes designed to bridge the gaps in online services. You can, for example, make a recipe to repost Facebook updates on Twitter, or to email you whenever a file is uploaded to your Dropbox. Now, with Glass support, you can create recipes to notify your Glass display when one of any number of things occur in your online life. This is particularly nice at this early stage in Glass development, when a lot of apps haven’t been designed yet. The possibilities for this are innumerable. I’m mainly excited about it because I’m frustrated by my Glass being tied to very closely to my gmail account and its associated email. I’m particularly interested in setting up email forwards which will trigger ifttt and then notify Glass — for example, when my wife or a work client emails me. As a developer, this one Glass application cuts down dramatically on the number of things I wanted to hack up some code for, which is fantastic. I have plenty to do otherwise!

How to reset the title in your Tumblr blog

Today, I came across a small hiccup in the usability of Tumblr’s interface.   I had set up a Tumblr account some time ago and not configured it.   I went in today to do just that–because Tumblr works with Klout, Hootsuite and Google Glass, all of which I just started using this past month.   But, when I went in to change the default Title “untitled”, I couldn’t find how to do it.   My instinct was to go to login in via tumblr.com, which takes you to tumblr.com/dashboard, and then to click on the gear icon for the settings page.   But my instinct was wrong.   That’s a terribly futile way to change the title of your blog.   Instead, what you need to do is visit the URL of your actual Tumblr blog.   Mine, for example, is < iansmithdahl.tumblr.com >.   From there, if you’re logged in, you should see a contextual menu in the top right with two links: customize and dashboard.   Click on customize, and you’ll be taken to a page with two panes, a replication of your blog on the right and a scrolling pane with several options on the left.   One of the options there is your title.  You can click it in, edit to your heart’s content, and click Save at the top.   Voila!