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March 5th, 2019

An Audiophile Listening Room with Apple’s HomePod

Apple's HomePod has been the underdog in the "smart speakers" category since its introduction last year. It's more expensive than the offerings from Google and Amazon, and Siri doesn't seem to be as powerful. I haven't used Alexa or the Google AI assistant, so I can't say what the difference may be. But let me just say that HomePod is a revelation in audio quality, and its "smart" features are more than adequate for my needs. The most surprising aspect of HomePod is that it has finally let me put together an audiophile listening room without taking out a second mortgage!

    
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September 1st, 2012

Apple v. Samsung: The True Story

    
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July 31st, 2012

Introducing Smooth Black: A New Button Theme for CrystalClear Interface

In my previous article I spoke of a desire to get back to theming, and specifically mentioned a desire to do that "black matte" theme I've been thinking about. I guess the article helped spur me on, because after several weeks of work I'm now ready to release Smooth Black, a new button theme for CrystalClear Interface (CCI).

    
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July 14th, 2012

On Theming Mac OS X: How Long Can I Hold On?

CrystalClear Interface and Crystal Black are marvelous, foolhardy, and frivolous experiments in theming the Mac OS X user interface. As they were in the beginning, so they remain today: Elegantly imperfect software products, which will always be buggy. It's just the nature of the experiment. Why? Because they try to do something Apple works hard to prevent, and therefore are outlaw apps: Only able to pop up here and there with a sparkling, think-different approach that just isn't meant to be.

I am the foremost user of these two themes, and I continue to develop them because (1) it's still possible and (2) I really like them. As the author, I'm tolerant of their occasional misbehavior, but I understand that not all observers are so patient. Nobody likes a screaming 3-year-old while enjoying a quiet evening at one's favorite restaurant. I'm no different in that, but I do try to make sure my children learn how to behave as new situations arise that cause them to flare up.

Still, there are always new situations, and, well, children will be children. My children are still quite young, but the day may come when either they are banned from new restaurants for their behavior, or I become too exhausted from apologizing for them to take them out in public any more.

With each release of its operating system, Apple drives me one step closer to that edge. It's not intentional, I'm sure... In the interest of providing a safe OS environment, Apple continues to tighten the knot around inter-application interactions — especially those that allow third-party software, like CrystalClear Interface (CCI), to load itself into other applications, such as the Finder or TextEdit. And yet, without that kind of interaction, CCI and Crystal Black (CB) could not function.

For now, it appears that CCI will survive the transition to Mountain Lion (Mac OS X 10.8), but as with every release of Mac OS X since Tiger (Mac OS X 10.4), the amount of effort to do so is greater. And I fear that as the technologies introduced by Apple for increased security in Lion and Mountain Lion are more widely adopted by software developers, the number of applications that won't run CCI properly will increase.

In some future update, Apple could introduce a change that will turn off the lights for CCI and CB for good, as well as those for AppMenu Magic and my freeware Text Tools. Such a change would mean I could no longer develop the software, let alone support it.

    
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June 8th, 2012

The big-talk, no-action Congress

    
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Posted in:Human Behavior, Philosophy, PoliticsTags: |
June 8th, 2012

In search for civility online, is the Golden Rule the answer?

    
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February 1st, 2012

The Bother of Biological Bodies

Body Parts Needing Time-Consuming Care

When I came to Earth, I of necessity adopted a human form — in order to be less conspicuous. Little did I know what a mess caring for the human body would be.

The worst part about the tasks required to keep the body from deteriorating too much is that they take so much time. All of these mostly unpleasant activities could — if I let them — gobble up 1-2 hours of my day. Unfortunately, what I've found is that putting off some of these tasks merely means spending more than 1-2 hours when the deterioration has become more annoying than the tasks themselves.

    
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Posted in:Human Behavior, PhilosophyTags: |
January 20th, 2012

Bye Bye, Google

    
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Posted in:Internet, Software MusingsTags: |
December 1st, 2011

Mars Themes Website: New Home For Mars Downloads

A few weeks ago, I launched a new website — Mars Themes — as a central repository for all the various themes, app skins, applications, widgets, and so on that I've developed over the years.

These items — all available as free downloads, except for two — were previously in a section of the Mars website linked to the "Downloads" item in the navigation bar. That link now takes you to Mars Themes. (Oh yeah, the two not-free items are the software apps CrystalClear Interface and Crystal Black. They have their own websites, but are also linked to Mars Themes.)

The new site has all the content previously available here, plus a few more things. . .

    
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Posted in:Design, Icons, ThemingTags: |
July 23rd, 2011

“Just Say No To Flash”
Join The Campaign! Add A Banner To Your Website

Just Say No To Flash: Join The Campaign!In the past few years, Adobe Flash has become more than an annoyance that some of us have kept in check by using "block Flash" plugins for our web browsers. More and more, entire web sites are being built with Flash, and they have no HTML alternative at all! This goes way beyond annoying, into the realm of crippling.

I had noticed the trend building for quite awhile, but it only really hit home when I realized that Google, of all companies, had redesigned its formerly accessible Analytics site to rely heavily on Flash for displaying content. This wouldn't be absolutely horrible except for the fact that Google provides no HTML alternative. I tried to needle the company through its Analytics forums, but only received assurance that yes, indeed, one must have the Flash plugin running to view the site.

Keep in mind that content like that on Google Analytics is not mere marketing information, like the sales pitch on the Analytics home page.

Those of us who are disturbed by the trend need to be a bit more vocal about our opinion. Hence, I'm starting a "Just Say No To Flash!" campaign, with its own web page, graphics for a banner, and the CSS and HTML code to deploy it on your own web pages.

I've mentioned this to some of my family and friends, and they often come back with: "So, Why should I say no to Flash?" I admit that as a power browser and a programmer geek type who, shall we say, makes more efficient use of the web, I'm more keenly aware of the ways that Flash is chipping away at the foundation of web content.

In the beginning, it seemed harmless: Flash was an alternative to animated GIFs, and an easy way to embed movies on web pages. But then advertisers wrapped their meaty mitts around it, and that's when Flash started to be annoying. However, one could block Flash in the browser, as part of a strategy of shutting out obnoxious advertising.

But publishing content via Flash is just wrong, for a number of reasons.

    
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June 8th, 2011

Introducing “Clear Crystal” System Icons for Mac OS X

The Sociology of Tornadoes

I'm happy to present a complete, new set of icons for Mac OS X, specifically designed to complement the Crystal Black theme. These icons can be used to replace the default "system" icons for folders, devices, toolbar items, Finder sidebar items, and others. The screenshots below display the icons for each system type.

    
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Posted in:Design, IconsTags: |
April 29th, 2011

The Sociology of Tornadoes

Or, Do Tornadoes Make Humans in Red States More
  • Paranoid?
  • Envious?
  • God-Fearing?
  • Intolerant?
  • Republican?
The Sociology of Tornadoes

In recent days, I've been barraged by friends back on Mars inquiring about what psychological effects the spate of tornadoes in the South and Midwest United States must have on the humans there. Their interest got me to thinking, and I suddenly had an insight, which I'm sure has brightened the intellectual glow of many humans over time.

The insight encompasses the sociological effects of Hurricanes as well, since the two devastating natural phenomena share some common traits... the most obvious being those furiously spinning wind and clouds.

My Martian theory also explains why tornadoes and hurricanes affect humans in ways that volcanoes, tsunamies, and earthquakes do not.

For brevity in the following paragraphs, I'm using the term "Recurring Events of Mass Destruction" (REMD) to refer to tornadoes and hurricanes, and the term "Unpredictable Events of Mass Destruction" (UEMD) to refer to volanoes, tusanimies, and earthquakes.

    
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April 12th, 2011

Theming Snow Leopard:
How Hard Could It Be To Paint A Leopard Black?

Preview of Crystal Black Theme for Snow Leopard

Dark interface themes are extremely popular with a small, but very passionate, group of Mac users. Sadly, since Apple introduced Leopard (Mac OS X 10.5), the old, relatively simple method of creating such themes on the Mac can't be used, and it took the theming community a good year and a half to figure out the current, relatively hobbled tools to theme the few bits of the interface that can be themed.

Given the weakened state of theming on the Mac, it's not surprising that the number of themes available has dwindled to a mere handful. And even those only go part of the way compared with what we used to be able to achieve with ShapeShifter. Still, the yearning for Mac themes remains strong among this community, and black themes are virtually nonexistent now.

Black themes have always been a challenge, because the frameworks used to build applications were designed to assume that text would always be black and the color of windows and buttons always light. Apple introduced a dark-theme paradigm a few years ago with its Heads-Up Display window style, which, with its translucent black background actually assumes that text will be white.

So, why would anyone undertake an effort to introduce a fully black theme for Snow Leopard?

I suppose it's because we Martians just can't step back from a challenge. Not to mention the fact that we, too, are afflicted with the passion for dark themes that many Earthlings suffer from. I also have a good starting point, having developed some useful techniques for the challenge through building CrystalClear Interface.

To acknowledge the theme's heritage, I've dubbed the theme Crystal Black.

    
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March 2nd, 2011

Theming A Web Page With Crystal Black:
A CSS Design for Web Inspector

For awhile, I've wanted to theme Safari's Web Inspector—the incredibly useful built-in website viewer/debugger/designer assistant—with the Crystal Black look and feel, but it wasn't immediately obvious how to do this. I assumed that the tool was just a part of Safari, and therefore built with classes and widgets from the Cocoa AppKit (which is the framework all Cocoa apps are built with). However, when I began to inspect the Inspector, I discovered that everything contained within its borders was simply web content: HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and images.

In other words, the Web Inspector tool is nothing but an intricate, sophisticated, and extremely well designed web page!

Having built a Crystal Black CSS file for web pages in general, and with my past expertise in CSS, I attacked this challenge with relish! It reminded me of the time I realized that Dashboard widgets are, at their core, nothing but little web pages (as are simply apps for the iPhone). In tackling this one, the main question was, How should the various elements look? And the hardest part was inspecting the various parts in of the Inspector in great detail to determine which CSS rules governed their default appearance and behavior.

As I discovered, the WebKit has a a sub-framework called "WebCore," which in turn has a folder of resources specifically for the Web Inspector. In the Inspector folder, among other things, is a suite of CSS files that handle different aspects of the Inspector's design and behavior. Of these, the primary one I needed to tweak was called simply "inspector.css."

    
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February 23rd, 2011

A Black Gloss Theme for CoverSutra

I recently posted another member of the coming Crystal Black theme for Snow Leopard on my deviantART site. This new component is a glossy black theme for the popular iTunes controller CoverSutra.

Crystal Black is a theme for Mac OS X "Snow Leopard" that I'm still refining and plan to release eventually. I published a preview of the theme last fall, and a few weeks ago released a Crystal Black theme for iTunes. The skins for both iTunes and CoverSutra will, of course, be included in the full theme once it's out.

    
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February 3rd, 2011

Crystal Black for iTunes

Last fall, I released an early version of Crystal Black for iTunes 10.1 on my deviantART site and have updated it once or twice since then. This post announces an update of the theme for iTunes 10.1.2 and adds a couple of minor enhancements for 10.1.1.

Crystal Black is a theme for Mac OS X "Snow Leopard" that I'm still refining and plan to release eventually. I published a preview of the theme last fall, and also migrated the theme to iTunes 10 when it came out. Since theming iTunes is Preview of Crystal Black Theme for iTunes 10 Using High Contrast Mode quite a bit easier than theming the entire operating system, I decided to release Crystal Black for iTunes first.

This version of Crystal Black for iTunes continues to improve its usability when iTunes is set with the hidden "High Contrast Mode" option. High Contrast Mode effectively inverts white and black in the iTunes sidebar and playlist contents (see screenshot at right), and looks great with Crystal Black. The high-contrast option is accessible through various utilities you can download to customize "hidden" features of Mac OS X. I use and recommend the free, open-source Secrets for such customizing. Secrets installs an easy-to-use and auto-updated Preference Pane and includes hidden options for a wide variety of third-party apps, in addition to Mac OS X.

One more application-specific Crystal Black theme I plan to release soon will be of interest primarily to web developers: It's a theme for Safari's Web Inspector module. Stay posted for more on that, and for more about Crystal Black as a whole.

    
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Posted in:Design, Theming, iPod & iTunesTags: |
January 29th, 2011

The “Bloated” Federal Bureaucracy:
A Lie That’s Either Malicious Ignorance Or Deliberate Malice

The Incredible Shrinking Federal Worker

One of the truly bewildering traits of human beings is their ability—and even carefree willingness—to ignore facts that conflict with their current worldview. I touched on this topic in an earlier article, and find it manifested in numerous ways in this most viciously anti-rational political climate.

This article picks one of these non-facts as a particularly good example: Has the U.S. Federal Government workforce grown too large, or not?

The "Tea Party" politicians, in particular, appear to be masters at the art of selling people willful ignorance, perhaps partly because they themselves drink from that cup religiously. Among the false ideas they consider common knowledge is the idea that the Federal workforce needs to be cut—presumably because it, like the Government as a whole, has grown too big. While they're at it, they'd also like to make sure Federal employees don't have a benefits package better than members of their own congregation do.

Recently, a Republican from Texas, Rep. Kevin Brady, submitted a legislative proposal to cut the Federal workforce by 10 percent. According to a Washington Post article, Brady's reasoning goes like this:

There's not a business in America that's survived this recession without right-sizing its workforce, without having to become more productive with fewer workers. The federal government can't be the exception. We're going to have to find a way to serve our constituents and our taxpayers better and quicker and more accurately with fewer workers. I'm convinced we can do it and we don't have a choice.

Including its overall premise, Brady's short statement includes several fallacies, and on Mars we find it alarming to realize that this guy is chairman of the Joint Economic Committee and a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee. Where I come from, those are pretty big britches! When someone with authority over such enormously important Government functions gets his facts wrong, one has to wonder whether he is deliberately lying for political reasons, or whether he's maliciously failing to determine the facts—instead shaping them to fit his policy goals.

Joint Economic Committee
The Joint Economic Committee is one of four standing joint committees of the U.S. Congress. The committee was established as a part of the Employment Act of 1946, which deemed the committee responsible for reporting the current economic condition of the United States and for making suggestions for improvement to the economy.

On Mars, such behavior is almost unheard of. When I first revealed it, my fellow Martians had trouble believing that sentient beings could behave this way. And even if someone were to deliberately distort reality, surely Earth's legal systems would be constructed to punish the act.

Apparently, however, this behavior is not only tolerated, it's rewarded by the mere awareness that it's tolerated. After all, if a lie—or deliberate ignorance—by someone in authority isn't challenged, it clearly achieves its purpose. And achieving one's purpose obviously counts as a success. (On Mars, we believe that this is one of the perverse lessons Americans learned from President Richard Nixon's downfall: If you're going to lie, cheat, embezzle, or otherwise commit illegal acts, be sure you aren't caught doing so.)

    
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December 29th, 2010

Big Man in a Tiny Bubble Pops In To D.C.

Big Man in a Tiny Bubble Pops In To D.C.

He arrived from the tiny town of Butler, Pennsylviania, as part of the new freshman class of Angry Republican Congressmen. After all the feting and touring that greeted him in Washington, Mike Kelly was asked who had impressed him the most.

"Nobody," he said.

To be impressed by "nobody" must mean this guy is hugely impressed with himself, one would surmise. Well, yes and no:

"I hope I don't sound arrogant about this, but at 62 years old, I've pretty much seen what I need to see.”

Today's article in the Washington Post doesn't explore what exactly Mr. Kelly has seen in his 62 years, but from his attitude and statements, I would venture to guess it isn't much.

You see, Mike Kelly came to Washington because he is angry that the Federal Government "intruded" on the running of his General Motors car dealership, where he'd spent 56 years of creative energy. (I guess that means he'd been working on the business since he was 6. Just kidding.) 

And exactly how had it intruded? Why, it was making him sell Chevrolets instead of Cadillacs.

And exactly why was it ruining his business this way? Well, you see, Obama had (personally) taken over General Motors and was (personally) requiring dealerships to restructure as part of an effort to save the company.

"This is America. You can't come in and take my business away from me. . . . Every penny we have is wrapped up in here. I've got 110 people that rely on me every two weeks to be paid. . . . And you call me up and in five minutes try to wipe out 56 years of a business?”

This is a reasonable attitude if you believe that tiny, parochial self-interest should be the motivator of those elected to run a National Government. However, tiny attitudes from Big Men In Their Local Communities have no place in Congress. Indeed, those with tiny, uninformed beliefs who fail to see the big picture are precisely the ones inclined to take actions that will fail the interest of the public they're elected to serve.

    
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December 19th, 2010

Senate Exposes Gaping Hole in Conflict-of-Interest Law

    
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December 15th, 2010

To Act in My Own Interest, Or Not?
How Humans Deal With Conflicts of Interest (Part 1)

For several years now, I've been troubled by how humans define the concept of "conflict of interest." My concern has grown as I've realized the importance humans seem to place on avoiding "it", or, at times, even the "appearance of it." The more thought I've given to the topic, the more confused I've become. My confusion stems from the observation that whether or not someone has a conflict of interest seems to depend on who is asking the question, what the context is, and whether or not the answer is in that person's own interest or not.  

Even more confusing is the paradox whereby humans believe that allowing a conflict of interest can be wrong in case A but right in case B. Again, the paradox may only be resolved if one assumes that the perspective of the believer is what determines the judgment of right or wrong.

Let me be a little more specific.

In most situations where humans raise the spectre that someone may have a "conflict of interest," the implicit notion is that having such a conflict is bad and should be avoided. Examples here are cases where a judge may issue a ruling that is in his own interest but not necessarily that of the conflicting parties. Or where a public official makes spending decisions that stand to benefit himself—or his friends, family, supporters, etc.—but not necessarily those who are supposed to benefit from the spending.

Most people I've talked to seem to think that this notion is obvious—that weighing such conflicts of interest in one's favor is wrong and should be avoided. As will become plain later in this essay, I certainly do not disagree with this notion.

On the other hand, either consciously or unconsciously, most humans in modern, West-European-modeled societies entertain notions of conflict of interest that, to my Martian mind, seem antithetical to the the one they espouse publicly. In this less-than-conscious notion, acting in one's own interest is something that society, instead of outlawing, should actually encourage, since acting in one's own interest is a natural human tendency that can't be legislated away. Not only that, but acting in one's own interest is viewed as ultimately the same as acting in everyone's interest.

This essay is the first of a series that will explore some specific cases where Western societies legislate to prevent "conflict of interest," and perhaps more interestingly, where they do not. The cases will be examined in the light of the way self-interest is perceived by individual humans, as well as by humans grouped into various, possibly overlapping, personal and business relationships.

    
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October 25th, 2010

Crystal Black Preview: A New Attempt To Put a Dark Skin on Snow Leopard

Like many themers for Mac OS X 10.3 ("Panther"), I was awed by the beta releases of a theme called "Cathode" back in 2004. An artist named Dragun took the theme through a few iterations and then abruptly halted development.

Those of us who used ShapeShifter to run Cathode on our Macs understood why. Although Cathode was beautiful, in practice it was impractical. There were too many elements of too many applications that resisted a dark theme for buttons and window backgrounds.

For me, however—and I'm sure for many theming fans—the dream of using a beautiful black theme like Cathode was a siren call impossible to forget.  Over the years, the dream receded further from our grasp because of roadblocks Apple erected—intentionally or not—to the existing mechanisms of theming Mac OS X.

Starting with Mac OS X 10.5 ("Leopard") in 2007, the main tool for applying Mac themes, ShapeShifter, went bye-bye and has never returned. This is one of the main reasons I continued development of CrystalClear Interface, because it was the only way for me to apply a fully realized theme to Mac OS X.

Since Leopard, themers have been able to finesse the problem by changing the system graphics files that apply buttons, menubar background, basic window shape and color, and a few other items to your window appearance. Despite best efforts to unravel the secrets of the Mac's new ways of drawing itself, this mechanism isn't able to consistently change text color in the many contexts in which it appears in a window, thus making design and use of dark theme impractical.

As I'll describe in a future article, tackling the design of Crystal Black, a new theme inspired by Cathode, has been far from easy. And there remain user interface elements that totally resist its charms. But for me, those elements are few enough to make Crystal Black practical.

At this point, I'm confident that I'll be able to complete Crystal Black and release it at some point for all Mac users of Snow Leopard (Mac OS X 10.6). The theme is an offshoot of CrystalClear Interface (CCI) and uses much of the same code. However, Crystal Black is much simpler, has a smaller impact on the operating system, and is compatible with many more applications than CCI. Also unlike CCI, Crystal Black provides a complete theme for iTunes 10.

    
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July 1st, 2010

White House Freezes IT Projects To Revisit Wasteful IT Contracting

    
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June 4th, 2010

Google Ditching Windows?

    
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April 15th, 2010

The Future for Home Computing

    
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February 4th, 2010

Government Going Apple?

    
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February 2nd, 2010

Eight New Themes Coming in CrystalClear Interface 2.5

Besides the set of Crystal Document icons previewed recently, another feature of the forthcoming CrystalClear Interface 2.5 is a new set of eight beautiful preset themes, shown below. (Click the images for a closer look.) The themes are designed to complement the eight Frosted Crystals desktop pictures released with CCI 2.2. Of course, you can still set colors, frames, and transparency settings for Mac OS X windows to your own taste, as always. The preset themes are ones I've enjoyed and find a convenient shortcut to designing custom themes.

    
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January 22nd, 2010

Introducing Crystal Documents:
A Set of Document Icons for CrystalClear Interface

This is a set of 74 document icons intended to complement CrystalClear Interface and the set of Crystal Albook system and application icons I released a couple of years ago. The set covers most of the document types used by Apple's applications as well as a limited set of document types for third-party applications. The icon set for third-party apps will be augmented substantially as time permits.

These icons are available for download now, and they will be included in the forthcoming release of CrystalClear Interface 2.5 (more on that in another article). In CCI 2.5, you will be able to automatically install and uninstall the various icon sets displayed below, including any of the Crystal Docs icons for any of the third-party applications you use. The new icon install feature will be included in the new CCI Preferences window.

Enjoy!

    
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August 14th, 2009

Introducing Frosted Crystals for CrystalClear Interface

These are snippets of the 9 "Frosted Crystal" desktop pictures that'll be distributed with CrystalClear Interface 2.2. The look of frosted glass looks terrific when viewed through CrystalClear windows! I hope you enjoy using them as much as I have.

    
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June 18th, 2009

A Gift for Self-Deception

You Can't Get A HorseFor a long time now, I've been explaining why the world would have been better off if Apple's computers had come to dominate homes and businesses. I've focused on the virtues of Apple's software almost exclusively, even though Apple has for most of existence been primarily a hardware company, like Dell or Hewlett Packard. Why? Because it's clear to all us Martians that what makes or breaks a computing experience is the software. To paraphrase one of your ex-Presidents, "It's the Software, stupid!"

I've also come to believe that humans are genetically predisposed to self-deception, allowing them to talk themselves into whatever point of view is most convenient, or is perceived as being in their best self-interest. Thus, argument over the relative worth of one technology or another is pointless, because no carefully researched and supported set of facts will ever be enough to persuade someone with the opposite view. Indeed, the truth of this axiom is encapsulated in the common human phrase of folk wisdom,

"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink."

I've noted that when someone conjures this phrase to explain a colleague or acquaintance's intransigence about something, those listening will nod to each other knowingly and somewhat sadly aver, "So true."

And yet, how many humans really think they're as "stupid" as horses?

    
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May 23rd, 2009

Compass: A New Concept for Managing CSS Styles

    
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February 21st, 2009

Taking a Snapshot of the Semantic Web:
Mighty Big, But Still Kinda Blurry

title text

It's still somewhat difficult to get a handle on exactly what is meant by the "Semantic Web," and whether today's technologies are truly able to realize the vision of Tim Berners-Lee, who first articulated it back in 1999. From what I've read, I think there's general agreement that we aren't even close to being "there" yet, but that many of the ongoing Semantic Web activities, technologies, development platforms, and new applications are a big leap beyond the unstructured web that still dominates today.

There is a huge, seemingly endless amount of work being done by thousands of groups all trying to contribute to making the Semantic Web a reality. In my few weeks of research, I still feel as though I've just stepped my toe into that vast lake of semantic experimentation. Partly as a result of the many disparate projects, however, it does become rather difficult to see the entire forest for all the tiny trees. That said, these thousands of groups do appear to be working more or less together on the basis of consensus-based open standards, and they have set up mechanisms to keep everyone abreast of new ideas, solutions, and projects, under the general leadership of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)'s Semantic Web Activity.

Semantic Web Stack As Envisioned by Berners-Lee

As a starting point for exploration into this topic, the Wikipedia article that describes the Semantic Web Stack is quite good. Among its good overview and many useful links, the article includes the original conception of the Stack as designed by Berners-Lee.

Besides cataloguing the sheer number of different projects all tackling different aspects of building a Semantic Web, it's important to distinguish ongoing projects from those that expired years ago—a distinction that's not always readily apparent to those peering in from the outside. Even excluding these, there are far too many projects to read up on in a few weeks, so this snapshot is necessarily incomplete. But after having the content reviewed by some Semantic Web experts, I'm confident it includes all the most significant threads of this new web, which, as Berners-Lee envisioned it:

I have a dream for the Web [in which computers] become capable of analyzing all the data on the Web – the content, links, and transactions between people and computers. A ‘Semantic Web’, which should make this possible, has yet to emerge, but when it does, the day-to-day mechanisms of trade, bureaucracy and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines. The ‘intelligent agents’ people have touted for ages will finally materialize.

In my tour of the Semantic Web as it exists today, it's interesting to note that most of the projects are geared not toward machine-to-machine interaction, but rather to the traditional human-to-machine. Humans being by nature anthropocentric, the first steps being taken toward Berners-Lee's vision are to build systems that are semantically neutral with respect to human-to-human communication. Once we can reliably discuss topics without drifting off into semantic misunderstandings, then perhaps we can start teaching machines "what we mean by" ...

This paper is an attempt to assess the current state of today's steps, while compiling a list of resources that would prove useful to someone thinking about building a Semantic Web application in 2009.

    
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November 7th, 2008

A Treasure Trove of iPhone eReader Software Part II:
13 Apps for Managing Documents

iPhone Readers illustration. Based on a photo courtesy of the U.S. National Science Foundation.

This second part of my report on the iPhone application marketplace covers the class of software that, while still falling squarely in the overall eReader category, is designed primarily for storing and managing documents. The primary distinctions between this class and the one covered in Part 1 are that the eReader apps discussed here:

  1. Handle a wide variety of common file formats found in the workplace, rather than just text and proprietary eBook formats,
  2. Don't include controls for customizing fonts,
  3. Don't let users do full-text search on documents,
  4. Have good embedded browsers and follow web links,
  5. More easily let users move files to and from their iPhones, and
  6. Typically let users organize and rename files and folders within their interface.

It still surprises me how rapidly this market is evolving, and that evolution makes keeping tabs on the capabilities of each application--and even on the entire set of applications--quite challenging. As I was finalizing this report, a new application in this class came to market that, it turns out, I've found to have among the very best features of any that came before. I have no doubt that many of the applications reviewed here will continue to be refined, rendering this snapshot fairly obsolete fairly quickly. But the observations here accurately reflect the current state of iPhone eReaders.

    
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Posted in:Reviews, eReaders, iPhone/TouchTags: |
October 14th, 2008

Discover a Treasure Trove of iPhone eReader Software
Part I: Eight Apps for Reading Books

iPhone Readers illustration. Based on a photo courtesy of the U.S. National Science Foundation.

The iPhone application marketplace now offers a tantalizing variety of tools that can be used as eBook readers and file managers. As I concluded in the September 2008 report, "Without Even Trying, Apple's iPhone Takes the eBook Reader Sweepstakes," the iPhone and iPod Touch hardware finally enables truly practical eBooks, and the software now available for the iPhone platform just clinches the deal.

Having worked with the growing number of these applications since the first started appearing in June, I've concluded that the market is clearly divided into two major objectives:

  • Applications designed primarily for reading text (books), and
  • Applications designed primarily for storing and managing documents.

As I compiled notes and usability data on this group of applications, it became clear that trying to cover all 19 different applications for the iPhone that can server as e-document readers in one article (a 20th was released just as I was finalizing this report) would be a bit much--for me as well as for readers. As a result, this will be the first of two installments of the overall report. (Note: All of these applications, with one exception, work equally well on both the iPhone and iPod Touch. For simplicity and brevity, I'll use "iPhone" to refer to both devices going forward.)

This first part covers the following iPhone applications, which are primarily aimed at reading text and HTML documents:

  1. Bookshelf
  2. Bookz
  3. Reader
  4. Evernote
  5. Instapaper
  6. iSilo
  7. ReaddleDocs
  8. Stanza

The second installment will cover applications that specialize in enabling document repositories on the iPhone: Air Sharing, Annotater, Caravan, DataCase, File Magnet, Files, Folders, iStorage, Mobile Finder, TextGuru, and TouchFS.

    
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Posted in:Reviews, eReaders, iPhone/TouchTags: |
October 1st, 2008

Amar Sagoo: Software Design for Usability

    
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Posted in:Usability, eReadersTags: |
September 18th, 2008

Recognizing Self-Evident Truths

Extending these to more difficult lines of inquiry, it's clear that changes in earth's atmosphere are causing global temperatures to rise, for the Arctic ice cap to melt, for glaciers around the world to disappear, and for the incidence of hurricanes and droughts to increase. These are facts, and nearly all scientists today agree that the inference from these facts is that Global Warming is a fact. It is the truth, even if it's extremely inconvenient.

    
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Posted in:Philosophy, PoliticsTags: |
September 8th, 2008

Without Even Trying, Apple’s iPhone Takes the eBook Reader Sweepstakes

I recently decided it was time to look again at the state-of-the-art in eBook reader hardware. It seems like I've waited forever for a company to design one I could really use in place of the traditional paper-filled parallelepiped. I first got excited by the possibility while implementing the PDF format for a magazine on CD-ROM back in 1995. "Wow!," I thought, "Whoever wrestles PDF onto a small electronic device is going to make a mint!"

Of course, PDF turned out to be not particularly well suited to small viewing screens, since publishers would have to make a special layout for the PDF version. And so, years went by, with talk of E-Ink, electrowetting, electronic paper, and other exotic technologies appearing to be on the verge of practicality.

What most of the would-be designers of eBook readers have seemingly failed to grasp, however, is that to replace paper books, eBooks must be nearly as light and portable as a paperback. They must work without cords, and be compatible companions to one's daily trip to the little boy's room. (I've honestly never met a woman who reads in the john, but it seems nearly all men do.) They must be able to accompany you to the beach, the pool, or the mountains. I'd really like something I could read while holding it in one hand, like I do a paperback. I don't want a reader that will break the bank, either. And most of all, an eBook reader needs to be comfortable to use in bed or in your favorite armchair.

Even today, with devices shrinking towards the ideal size and weight, nearly all fail to meet my needs for one reason or another. Quite surprisingly, one device has in fact replaced books for me, and it's not one I ever thought would or could. Because I had bought the device for another purpose entirely, this eBook reader has actually cost me nothing whatsoever.

This article covers five eBook reader devices, including two that are full-fledged personal computers serving as an eBook reader by way of third-party software, and another that is a multifunction "smart phone" with eBook reader capabilities. All five devices have strongly positive characteristics, and two of of them possess the full range that would allow them to serve as portable eBook readers for organizations that need access to technical and policy documentation. Even though I personally need a reader that's useful for novels and such, I'm evaluating these based on their utility as devices for storing and reading technical and other documentation rather than literature, each of which have quite different requirements for eBook reading.

    
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July 25th, 2008

A Close-Up Look At Today’s Web Browsers: Comparing Firefox, IE 7, Opera, Safari

My, we've come a long way in browser choices since 2005, haven't we? It's been a very heady time for programmers who dabble in the lingua franca of the World Wide Web: HTML, JavaScript, Cascading Style Sheets, the Document Object Model, and XML/XSLT. Together, this collection of scripting tools, boosted by a Browser choicestechnique with the letter-soup name "XMLHttpRequest," became known as "Ajax." Ajax spawned an avalanche of cool, useful, and powerful new web applications that are today beginning to successfully challenge traditional computer-desktop software like Microsoft Word and Excel. As good as vanguard products like Goodle's Maps, Gmail, Documents, and Calendar apps are, one only has to peek at what Apple has accomplished with its new MobileMe web apps to see how much like desktop applications web software can be in 2008.

That this overwhelming trend toward advanced, desktop-like applications has happened at all is the result of the efforts of determined developers from the Mozilla project, which rose from the ashes of Netscape's demise to create the small, light, powerful and popular Firefox browser. The activity of the Mozilla group spurred innovation from other browser makers and eventually forced a trend towards open standards that made the emergence of Ajax possible.

This article starts with a brief history of web browsers and then jumps into a look at the feature set of the four primary "modern" web browsers in 2008. The comparison of browser features begins by listing the core features that all these browsers have in common. The bulk of the article lists in detail "special features" of each browser and each browser's good and bad points, as they relate to the core browser characteristics. Following that, I present some recent data on the comparative performance of these browsers. The article concludes with recommendations I would make to organizations interested in making the switch from IE6 in 2008.

    
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April 14th, 2008

WebKit/Safari Keep Blazing the Trail to CSS 3.0

Looking back,Cascading Style Sheets!This is an update to the article I wrote last summer, when Safari 3.0 was first released. In the 9 months since then, a lot has happened, and I wanted to try to keep this info up to date. Opera, iCab, Konqueror, and Firefox have all made progress in adopting CSS 3.0 specifications, the next generation of the W3C's Cascading Style Sheets standard.

However, the WebKit team continues to lead the pack, as they have since I first contemplated this article over a year ago. In the last 6 months, that team has not only adopted more of the CSS 3.0 specs ahead of the others, but they have proposed several exciting new specs of their own, which the W3C is taking up as draft recommendations.

In addition to updating the state of CSS 3.0 in WebKit/Safari, I've also added some new demos for the Backgrounds section.

Here are the CSS 3.0 features I wrote about in July 2007:

  1. Box-shadow: Yes! Add drop shadows through CSS!
  2. Multi-column layout: Can we really do this now? With HTML?
  3. Resize: Give JavaScript hacks a rest and let users relax when typing input on web pages.
  4. Rounded corners: Any
    can be made round.
  5. Colors with transparency: There goes another ugly hack from way back!
  6. Background image controls: Remember how great it was when you could add images as well as colors to an element's background CSS style? Well, it's about to get a whole lot better!

And since then, WebKit and Safari 3.1 have adopted the following new ones:

  1. Adopted last October, WebKit introduced its first take at CSS Transforms, which it has submitted to the W3C for consideration. With CSS Transforms, <DIV>s can be scaled, rotated, skewed and translated... all without using JavaScript!
  2. Announced at the same time is the equally exciting implementation of CSS Animations. At the moment, the only type of animation that's documented and demonstrated on the WebKit blog is based on CSS Transitions, which let you define how an object or attribute changes over time from one state to another.
  3. Also in October, WebKit added the CSS Web Fonts feature, which lets designers beam fonts to users through CSS and HTML, approximating the capabilities of PDF in a much lighter-weight form.
  4. Then, after a lull, things started to heat up again last month, when Apple released Safari 3.1. Safari 3.1 incorporated all of the CSS 3.0 features WebKit had pioneered earlier, plus it added a bunch of things the WebKit team hadn't blogged about. Chief among these was support for CSS Attribute Selectors. This is something of a holy grail to advanced web developers, since it opens up a whole world of possibilities for using the Document Object Model (DOM) to build better web interfaces. When released, WebKit was the first and only browser to support this geeky, but highly practical feature.
  5. And then, just today, WebKit added support for CSS Gradients to its portfolio. Gradients are not yet a CSS 3.0 specification, but they are part of the HTML 5.0 spec. No doubt Apple's implementation will be referred to the W3C for consideration.
    
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July 20th, 2007

If I Complete A Digression, Did I Get Anything Done?

I’m drowning in ideas I have no time to pursue…! I think this is what some people mean when they complain of “information overload.” In my case, it’s more like “idea overload.”

I recently tried some of the “getting things done” software tools I’ve downloaded in an attempt to get my idea-log under control… but none of them really helped. I’m leaning to a href=”http://bargiel.home.pl/iGTD/”>iGTD since it’s free, full-featured, and actively under development, but honestly, the work of compiling my list of projects and trying to prioritize and schedule them, etc., merely made me even more aware of how swamped I am, and how far behind I am in the things I want to be doing!

I will certainly be getting some of these “things” done eventually, but it sure is harder as the projects pile up. And my wife keeps wondering why I’m killing myself over work I don’t even get paid for…! Now, there’s a conundrum that simply could not have existed before the web came along. Am I having more ideas for interesting projects now because there’s a potential audience that might be likewise intrigued? Or is my “idea center” being overstimulated by the vast number of other fascinating projects now so readily at my disposal? And is ADD merely a byproduct of living with the web? That is, are we more distractible today because web browsing can lead us onto so many irresistable, multi-nested, looping digressions? No wonder so many of us have trouble getting anything done! :-)

    
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April 21st, 2007

George Carlin Must Be A Martian

    
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Posted in:PhilosophyTags: |
Just Say No To Flash