Monthly Archives: December 2002

Awaiting The Two Towers

A couple of hours from now I should be firmly planted in my seat with popcorn and drink for The Two Towers. I didn’t get to finish re-reading the book this week as I had planned, but from what I’m hearing there are enough differences that maybe it wouldn’t have mattered. These films have a way of intruding on our own version of the story. After seeing the film, it’s sometimes hard to remember how you first imagined things.

Not to mention the plot changes. There was one subtle change that annoyed me about Fellowship, and as far as I can tell there was no reason for it. In the last chapter of Fellowship and the opening of Two Towers, Aragorn is busy running around and makes a crucial decision as the Orcs attack to not continue to find Frodo, and so Frodo and Sam leave unnoticed with the ring. By the time Aragorn realizes what has happened, he admits to himself that it’s probably best for Frodo to go the rest of the journey alone, and he can focus on rescuing the other hobbits.

But in the film, Aragorn and Frodo have a little talk, and Aragorn lets Frodo go to Mordor alone. This is definitely wrong for Aragorn’s character, since after Gandalf disappeared he was responsible for seeing the journey to it’s conclusion. He would never have willingly let Frodo go alone, and my guess is that Tolkien spent some time crafting the right situation that would allow Frodo to go by himself.

Meg: “I’m most looking forward to seeing the Ents.”

I’m both looking forward to and dreading the Ents. In the early trailers, there was no sign of Treebeard or his friends, so I assumed they had been given the ol’ Tom Bombadil (cut). Of course it will be computer animation, but I wonder if they can pull it off in a believable way.

Apple’s UI playground

Steven Johnson for Slate, “Is the Computer Desktop an Antique?”

“Now that Microsoft has largely caught up to the Mac in terms of basic file manipulation tools — thanks to Windows XP’s elegant user interface — the iApps have become a key differentiator for Apple. They are also an implicit acknowledgement that the desktop metaphor has its limits. Apple is moving toward a Swiss-army-knife approach to user interfaces: You need different tools to keep track of different kinds of files.”

While Apple has moved to many small, focused apps to get the job done, they have also attempted to build a new suite of interface components so that each app is easy to use right out of the box.

One such nifty widget they have invented is the rounded search box. Most of the iApps use it, and so does the Finder. It’s got a little “x” that clears the search text, and rounded edges so the search box is easy to find. (“Which of these text fields do I type to search? Oh yeah — the round one.”)

Splasm Software’s Checkbook is the first app I’ve seen to copy Apple’s search box. Unfortunately they didn’t get it quite right. (Psst: The “x” is supposed to be inside the box.)

Checkbook search box

Metadata seven years later

Aaron Swartz talks at the Creative Commons launch party:

“Right now you can only ask a search engine one question: ‘What pages have these words in them?’ When pages include RDF metadata, you will be able to ask more advanced questions like ‘What’s the current temperature in California?'”

Aaron, thank you for being optimistic. Someone still needs to be.

Back in 1996, when RDF was more an idea than an acronym, I worked on a side-project with my friend Travis Weller. It was based on RV Guha’s MCF and hosted at the domain We demoed the first part of the software at Mactivity/Web, and I still have the slides for the presentation (click the logo to advance). It was a web server plug-in that served a site from an object database (the prototype used an embedded version of Userland’s Frontier database, but the idea was to eventually provide object-relational mappings to other more common databases). We called the web server portion Rendezvous, because it gathered pieces of content and metadata and assembled them together to serve a page. Apple likes that name too.

We also designed parts of the admin interface, which was to be the killer app to enable thousands of web designers to make metadata an integral part of their web site. You sell users on the product by providing a great interface for managing an entire site’s content, and then handle organizing the metadata behind the scenes.

Somewhere along the way, we realized the magnitude of our goals and grew disillusioned. Or maybe we just found better day jobs. Either way, the domain expired and was taken by someone else, we never shipped any software (although I still have the code on a backup disk somewhere), and the W3C’s Semantic Web effort eventually emerged with a ton of smart people trying to solve this problem.

Yesterday I noticed that the domain was available again, so we took it back. Maybe I still have some optimism left in me after all.

Reading and typography

The weather turned cold here yesterday, and that just contributes to my blogging apathy after the Thanksgiving weekend. I’m just too lazy to blog, and the backlog of unread items in NetNewsWire was over 150 this morning. Time to trim the subscriptions again. There’s too much to read, and hardly any of it really matters.

Reading text on the screen continues to be a challenge for most people. A recent newsletter article from Human Factors discusses optimal line length:

“What can we conclude when users are reading prose text from monitors? Users tend to read faster if the line lengths are longer (up to 10 inches). If the line lengths are too short (2.5 inches or less) it may impede rapid reading. Finally, users tend to prefer lines that are moderately long (4 to 5 inches).”

Aaron Swartz reviews “The Elements of Typographic Style”:

“What I’ve realized since reading it is that publishing documents on the Web, no less than preparing them for publication as a book, is typography and deserves the same care as that noble craft. There are some differences, to be sure, but the core it’s about making the meaning of the text shine through the words, a craft that has been practiced for ages.”

He’s also put some excerpts from the book online.