Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Last Night Musings

On the last night before I leave a place, I come into a contemplative vein, remembering the simple images and haunts that constituted my days. Tomorrow I leave this tropical grove and its languid spans, the little stray dog who will most likely be gone when next I return, and my family; I remember the flatteningly bright morning sunshine when we would share Cuban coffee out of small plastic cups at the Genesis Bakery, and long afternoons that draw into the wide, slow dusk of this part of Florida. Last night I went to the waterfront near Coconut grove with a full moon in the sky that limned the tall, soft clouds in such bright shades that they looked as though someone had painted them in oil on a vaulting canvas.

Years ago I had stayed with a friend for a short while en route of a long drive, and the night that I left she stood in the driveway, a black silhouette against the lamplit street, waving goodbye as I drove away. At the time I described what I felt as having become "accustomed" to my days there---and that embodies the substance of what I feel in leaving a lifestyle that has become routine enough that one begins to take it for granted, and in the very act of doing so draws it deeper into the subconscious: put another way, if someone close to one's heart goes away, it is not the grand events of life together that one will miss in the end---the vacations to breathtaking waterfalls or striking the jackpot in Las Vegas---but the little daily habits, grocery shopping, playing Scrabble; the quick lackadaisical hours of life.

The night hours march inexorably onward, and my musings segue to sleep.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Web Programs

The trend these days is to refashion traditional applications as web programs; start-up company PR statements declaim upon the obsolescence of any software that is not accessed through a browser; almost everyone I know uses a web-based email system. I feel, though, that the uniformity and simplicity of web-browsing, while making it an good medium for relatively passive information retrieval, draws out of a program the potential to embody a spirit of its own. Reading about the devoted fans of XYWrite (Check out Salon.com to find a nice article on the cadre of users tending the temple of that word processor.), and how their fingers became intimate with customized keystrokes of their setup so that they could manipulate the program almost subconsciously, I saw that the level of connection between a user and her daily programs has become much more superficial in this time. A program's user-interface used to express a certain computing philosophy of the author---and could span the range from elegant, when the program's behavior was in accord with the user's thinking, to nauseatingly unintuitive---but on the web, user-interface design is distilled to the question, "Where should the user click?" It makes using a new program simple, but it severely constricts how a new program may act. Every text box on the web has the same primitive editing functionality, and as people have moved "forward" from terminal connections to check their mail, to web-mail programs, they've endured a accompanying decrease in efficiency. Gmail, the interface of which is lauded as quite advanced, uses heaps of JavaScript to bring novel features to web-mail, such as... keyboard shortcuts. Keyboard shortcuts? You mean like a real program? And even such modest improvements restrict the brands and versions of browsers that work with Gmail, somewhat reducing the basis for having web-programs in the first place. Experienced users of Pine, Mutt, VM, or myriad other character-based mail clients, can ply through their mail in a fraction of the time that webmail devotees spend waiting for the endless round-trip pages to load.

Universal accessibility of one's programs and data is a very good thing, so for many aspects of computing, like email, having some fat client for Windows only, or Linux only, or something else only, is a poor option. And so what, should everyone be using character-based applications? Well, never mind that---but what could the web experience have been if things happened a little differently? Let us say Java had succeeded on the client (not to say that it won't do so, or some Java-like environment), and every computer one would come to in the Internet cafes of the world would have a Java VM installed. Then, when one went to, say, mail.yahoo.com, instead of getting the cumbersome pages we've become so accustomed to, a mail applet (probably cached locally, since a previous user had checked his Yahoo mail) would load in a few seconds, and then one would have the quick response and sleek interface of a local mail client, like Eudora or Thunderbird (Or Outlook. *cough*), as well as the near-ubiquitous access and server-stored data that web programs have today.

Think of the wars that have been waged throughout personal computing's years between devotees of WordPerfect vs. Word, Emacs vs. Vi, PageMaker vs. QuarkXpress---web-programs are geared towards a superficial knowledge of their layout, and in such a case, can there even be such a thing as a devotee?

For many types of web-pages, a traditional browser interface is indeed the best thing, but I hope that the future of computing won't be restricted to programs whose bodies are so conventional.

Wow, I feel nerdy right now. I think I'll go play with my pocket protector for a while.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004


Go lovely Rose,
Tell her that wastes her time and me,
That now she knows
When I resemble her to thee
How sweet and fair she seems to be.
Tell her that's young,
And shuns to have her graces spy'd
That hadst thou sprung
In desarts where no men abide,
Thou must have uncommended dy'd.
Small is the worth
Of beauty from the light retir'd;
Bid her come forth,
Suffer her self to be desir'd,
And not blush so to be admir'd.
Then die that she,
The common fate of all things rare
May read in thee;
How small a part of time they share,
That are so wondrous sweet and fair.

- Edmund Waller

We do not appreciate our graces of a time until intervening years reveal their worth---so as you be a rose, in the air and light live.