Tuesday, May 24, 2005

kidandkitefest17


kidandkitefest17, originally uploaded by jasonpettus.

Just got my photos posted of the Chicago Kids and Kites Festival, which I attended the other weekend. You can click here to see the entire set yourself, if you want.

marshallfieldclock01


marshallfieldclock01, originally uploaded by jasonpettus.

Just posted 22 new random photos at my Flickr account, taken over the last month all over the city of Chicago. You can click here to view the entire set, if you want.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Photo: tubenuts

Spotted this morning being inventoried at the convenience store in my neighborhood. Not sure what it actuallt is, but it sure sounds dirty.

Wanted: Cross between SimCity and CAD/CAM software (and argument for how such a thing could be a big seller)

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This is a piece of software I want to own and play with; if I mention it on the web, maybe some enterprising young programmer out there will actually make it for me! It'd be a cross between a videogame like SimCity and a powerful design program like CAD/CAM software; like SimCity, the goal is to build an urban environment, but there is no game play, no worrying about budgets or zoning, no changing traffic patterns. Instead, the main power of the program is that you can go into very specific areas of the environment if you want and profoundly customize their look - either pick from dozens of predesigned cool templates for a variety of categories (churches, low-rise apartments, sidewalk retail, etc), or get really nerdy and design it yourself from scratch. That way you could designate a large area of land and have the program automatically develop itself, like SimCity does; but then go into one specific area (your "downtown," for example), and pick the look building-by-building from a variety of templates; and then when it came to one specific building (City Hall, for example), you could sit and actually design the building yourself and get as weird or crazy as you want.

The point of playing with such software, then, is to build as cool-looking an urban envrionment as possible, and to easily share the environment with others. So for example, you take all that processor power that was formerly running the game, and use it instead to let people record virtual tours of their environment, "filmed" by the computer from a sidewalk point of view, as if you were actually walking or driving through it. These could then be saved as MPEGs, for non-players who just want to see what you've done. But then you could export the entire environment as a file that could be posted on the web, so that other players could download the actual environment, go in and play with it themselves, even alter it if you turn on that permission in the export process. This then is how the company would make its money; by sponsoring a vibrant fan community on the web, with a website that made it easy for users to post and swap homemade environments. And for marketing purposes, the company could do things like design their own special environments for download, or do interviews with environment designers who become popular, or partner with Hollywood to release environments based on TV shows or movies. (How much would you love a version of The Simpsons' Springfield like this?) And hell, a daring company could even make their API available to the public, to let others come up with all kinds of interesting new applications - imagine a couple of smart high-schoolers figuring out a way to hack a Grand-Theft-Auto-type driving game into user-created environments, or a role-playing MUD.

Okay, so who's going to build me this?

Download manuals for outdated videogames

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Replacementdocs.com: 74,000 downloadable user manuals for old videogames, for those you might pick up used or are now playing through a modern MAME (or, er, you know, that you pirated from your friends). (Thanks to MAKE magazine for pointing this out.)

Yahoo announces new RSS protocol

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Yahoo is reporting that their new format for RSS delivery, Media RSS, is now finalized and ready to be used. Techies, of course, will know that there is a specific tag within RSS 2.0 ("Enclosure") that allows MP3s to be attached to an RSS item - that's the way podcast software works, by seeking "enclosure" tags within RSS items and automatically downloading them for you while you're away from your computer. Media RSS, then, is a new set of tags that greatly expands on this "enclosure" capability - it lets you attach just about any kind of multimedia file you want, lets you send a lot more text information about what the file is and who created it, and in theory will let users download this text information straight to their media device itself.

Of course, for this to be of any use at all, someone's going to have to start creating RSS readers for users that actually understand Media RSS - and according to Yahoo, only three such readers exist at this point (FeedBurner probably being the most well-known of the three). It'll be interesting, I think, to see if the larger web community will start embracing Yahoo's new protocol, or if it's destined to become yet another of the hundreds of protocols invented over the years that no one actually bothers using.

Make your own car-based pirate radio station

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Roadcasting.org: Technology that lets you broadcast your own radio station from your car, to be picked up by anyone within a 30-mile radius. I mean, sure, the idea's kind of silly if you were trying to do a legitimate radio station, but what about more practical applications? How about a group of friends or family members, for example, making a road trip in several different vehicles, using roadcasting to synchronize where to take food and gas breaks? Some of the goofiest ideas in the world can suddenly seem pretty smart, when you take a minute to think of new uses for them. (Thanks to MAKE magazine for pointing this out.)

Podcast supplementary material - a great example

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Steve Rubel recently wrote about a new podcast devoted to cooking, called Gastrocast. The podcast itself isn't that terribly original an idea, but here's what is - the creators also post a set of photos at Flickr with each episode, showing step-by-step that item being prepared, which you can consult while actually listening to the podcast itself.

Brilliant! This is so brilliant, in fact, and so simple, that I'm literally kicking myself right now for having never thought of the idea myself. And what ways can you use complementary forms of communication to get your point across on the web more profoundly? How about audio commentary for the next set of vacation photos you post? Video clips embedded within text journals?

Edit Yahoo 360 info via IM

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Here's some interesting news: People with Yahoo 360 accounts can now update their blogs through Yahoo Instant Messenger (YIM), as well as the "Blast!" that appears at the top of their page. For those who need the backstory: Yahoo 360 is an attempt by the company to let people pull together all the various Yahoo crap they've signed up for over the years (photos, mail, groups, etc) and to display synopses of each on one central webpage; and at the same time, it's also Yahoo's attempt at social-networking software, and has a lot of new features that allows people to more easily connect with existing friends and those with common interests. So for example, whenever you submit a user review to Yahoo Local, your 360 page keeps a tally of all the reviews you've written, for others to see at once; and then if you're looking up something in Yahoo Local, and see a user's review that you particularly liked, you can click on their name, go straight to their 360 page, learn a lot more about them and invite them to be your friend if you want. (And here's my 360 page, by the way; I encourage you to add me to your friends list if you want.) And in an attempt to catch up with such cooler social-networking sites as Dodgeball.com and MySpace.com, they've also introduced what they call a "Blast" - a short IM-like message that appears in a box at the top of your page, designed to be easily updated, so that you can send out short messages at all times of the day and night about where you are and where you're heading. (The difference between this and a place like Dodgeball is that your Yahoo Blast simply remains on your webpage; Dodgeball members actually have such a blast sent out as an SMS to the cellphones of everyone on their friends list.)

[RANT BEGINS]
Of course, the only way to do this is by downloading the latest version of YIM, the only version with a 360 option; and of course Yahoo hasn't bothered to make a new version of YIM for Palm or PocketPC or Blackberry or any other type of mobile device, just desktops. Which makes them idiots, because in what more natural way could one be updating one's "Blasts" than on the go through a mobile-based IM client? That's the entire point of such messages existing, and we all know the future of IM is in mobile devices anyway, so it drives me kinda bats**t sometimes when companies refuse to provide mobile support for new products, even though we're in the middle of 2005 by now and everyone can see the handwriting on the wall. Because I really want to use YIM to update my 360 page, and I'd be a really frequent user too, and it pisses me off that Yahoo won't let me be one, simply because no one bothered making a Palm version of YIM (which, frankly, would be a lot easier than the desktop versions).
[RANT ENDS]

Whew.

Xbox 360 is going to change everything...and I don't mean videogames

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Gizmodo has an interesting tidbit up right now about Microsoft's newest gaming console, the Xbox 360, that not a lot of other people seem to be reporting: that it's fully compliant with Microsoft's new Media Center operating system for PCs, and the PC version fully compliant with the Xbox. You know what this means, don't you? For the first time, we will finally have the killer product for that fabled "networked home" that everyone's been ballyhooing over the years. It's relatively cheap (a few hundred dollars, versus a few thousand for a PC); is tricked out to handle video and audio well; has a nice simple interface that lets you plug a TV and stereo into one end and a computer into the other; is both broadband- and Wifi-ready; and works with most of the equipment you already own (unless you're a Mac/Palm home, like mine is, but we're in the minority here). This is going to change everything - you'll be able to send those downloaded movie trailers and porn clips straight to your high-definition television now, send MP3s and internet radio stations straight to your home stereo. You can get a flashing message on your TV when an important email comes in. You can have your TV mute itself when you pick up the phone. And sure, ways of doing this have technically existed for a number of years - but the Xbox 360 is the first product to make it cheap, and make it easy.

I was one of the people laughing the hardest when Bill Gates announced in 1995 that the future of computing was on the internet. (I, like most others who followed that stuff back then, thought the future was in CD-ROMs.) But I learned my lesson, which is that Gates has such an enormous impact on the entire high-tech community, he can literally self-fulfill any prophecy he gets in his head. For the last year or so I've been carefully following the news on this whole Media Center system Gates is trying to build these days, because 1) he talks about it with the kind of passion that he did about the internet in 1995; and 2) it seems just as implausible right now as the dominance of the internet did in 1995. I think when you see this new Xbox get released, it's going to be the start of a whole new way of doing things at home - of finally having one system that controls and communicates with every piece of technology you own. Mark my words - I think the entire nature of home computing will change radically once this starts happening.

(And hell, think of the things that haven't even been invented yet: air-conditioning that runs on a Media Center operating system; lights; security system; baby-monitoring; it just goes on and on.)

Editorial: Thanks, programmers, for going back to older technologies

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I've been meaning to throw up a note here for awhile now, thanking programmers at places like Google and Flickr for dumping their Flash interfaces this year and switching back to older technologies (like dHTML, Javascript and CSS) to make their sites function instead. And why is this such a big deal? In two words - 'universal usability.' For example, dHTML stands for "dynamic HyperText Markup Language," and is basically an attempt to add cool interactive elements to plain HTML while still not having to get rid of the HTML altogether. So, if a browser that understands dHTML goes to a website programmed in dHTML, it will get all the bells and whistles that come with that language - like, the ability at the new Google Portal to drag and drop the different items on the page to change their order. But, if a browser that doesn't understand dHTML (like "Blazer," the one that comes with the Palm Treo) goes to such a website, the "d" part of the dHTML is simply ignored and the rest of the content still published - so I still get all the items at Google Portal that I normally would on a desktop browser, and still displayed elegantly on my tiny little screen, but merely lacking the ability to change their order through drag and drop.

Now compare that to something like a Flash-based interface, which both Gmail and Flickr were using not even a year ago; since that is a proprietary piece of software, you need a proprietary plug-in for your browser to even view Flash-programmed material, with you getting nothing but a blank screen if you don't have said plug-in. And since the owners of Flash don't make a plug-in for mobile browsers, you're pretty much screwed if you ever try to visit one of these sites through your Palm or other wireless device, making the entire website itself completely and utterly inaccessible. Flash is an excellent option for some projects, don't get me wrong (when it comes to online animation, for example, or interactive artist portfolios, it literally can't be beat), but is a terrible choice for overall site navigation; as Jakob Nielsen and other usability experts remind us over and over, the name of that game is always how many different types of browsers can elegantly open the material at your site, even if some of them can't access all the bells and whistles that come with the newest browsers.

dHTML is perfect for accomplishing something like this, and especially when you combine it with the power of other older technology, like Javascript, CSS and XML. I mean, this is what that new school of web programming called AJAX is all about - the term stands for "Asynchronous Javascript And XML," and is nothing more than an attempt to take these old technologies and to combine them in new and innovative ways, led by these smartypants I was mentioning at places like Google and Flickr. It's what lets us access things like Gmail and our Flickr accounts from our cellphones and mobiles, when even a year ago we couldn't, while still letting desktop visitors have access to all those cool interactive features that make them go "whoa." Speaking as someone whose online access would be severely handicapped without these new AJAX innovators, I'd like to thank them for all their hard work, and to encourage other programmers out there to turn first to these old technologies before diving head-first into something new and proprietary.

Wanted: Smart, innovative MovableType tutorials

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Okay, first a little backstory, for those who don't regularly read my personal journal:

I've had one form of personal website or another up and live since December 1997, which for many years was located at the same Geocities page where my personal journal is still found. In 2000, one of my readers (Jimi Sweet) donated a chunk of his commercial server space to me for holding a more permanent version of my work, which is where jasonpettus.com is located. At the time, though, I decided to leave my journal at my original Geocities space, for two reasons: 1) it was easier to update from internet cafes (it having a web-based interface, versus having to FTP my individual HTML pages and images to my main website); and 2) there were just so many damn people at that point who had links at their own sites pointing to that Geocities page, not to jasonpettus.com. And so for the last four or five years, it's been like that - all of my work besides my journal has been slowly moved over to the permanent site, with my journal still residing at my Geocities page, and with me logging on through a desktop browser at an internet cafe and hand-updating pages whenever I have a new entry.

But of course, now we're living in the Second Great Blog Boom of '05, as I like to call it, where there are all kinds of insanely innovative ways to get stuff posted to a website - via web-based interface still, of course, but also via SMS, IM, email, mobile devices - not only text but audio, photos and video as well, all of it archived automatically for you, all of it run off a "type engine" that is at once both simple for beginners and infinitely customizable for hardcore programmers. And, in fact, Jimi has had MovableType installed on all his servers for a number of years now, and last year installed the engine to my pages as well. (Here's my sandbox, for example, although right now there's nothing really to see except the minimalist template MT uses as a default. That RSS feed there is live as we speak, by the way, so fellow design geeks should feel free to subscribe to it, if they'd like to watch the Grand Redesign unfold in real time this year.) And now that I can so easily post all matter of files directly to MT from my Palm Treo, which I utterly cannot do with Geocities, I've decided that this year is finally the one when I move off Geocities for good and enfold the journal into the permanent site.

I won't kid you - if you're installing MT onto an independent server and running it yourself (versus having them do it for you, via Typepad), there is a huge learning curve to be faced, one that will throw you for a loop if you're not already conversant with HTML and CSS, and have at least a conceptual idea of how XML works. But I'm slogging my way through it all, plus admit that there is a basic overlying simplicity to MT that at least lets you understand the concepts of the engine easily. It'd be easy enough if I just wanted to make a blog-looking blog, but my goal is different: I want to combine the power of MT's automation with the look and feel of an old-skool graphic designer, based on my years of hand-designing templates back when prefabricated ones didn't exist. I've designed now something like 14 templates for my personal website in the last seven years (and here's a page displaying miniature versions of them all in JPEG format, for those who are interested, along with explanations behind what went into each); some are great, some suck, but it's the process itself that I find most enjoyable. And so my blog's not going to look like a blog, with the little colored boxes for each entry, and the little line at the bottom of each with the author and date and time and comments and trackbacks, and the little space along the gutter to run links and archives and blah blah blah. Mine's going to look like...well, I don't know yet, but something interesting and different, for sure. (Oh, and there will be separate templates as well for viewing on a mobile device, for sending to a printer, and for subscribing through AvantGo. Behold the power of MT automation, man.)

So, that's where my request comes in: Now that I'm pretty familiar with how MT works, what special tags are at my disposal, and what the latest innovations are in the world of CSS, I'm ready to be inspired by people already doing unusual things with MovableType-powered sites. Where are they? Will you point me to them? Are any of these people maintaining programmer-oriented blogs about MT tips and tricks? Do they have an RSS feed? I'm ready right now to build an okay-looking new blog; I want to build one, though, that makes people go "yowza" when they visit it, and I'm looking for ideas and hints. I encourage you to leave your suggestions either as a comment at this entry, or to email them directly to me at ilikejason at hotmail dot com; I will semi-regularly post new entries concerning the latest, for fellow MT users who are looking for such cool examples as well. (Oh, and yes, I will be leaving [metafeed] right here at Blogspot; I like the idea of having memberships and daily interactions with both of the major type-engines out there.)