29 January 2010

iPad, Where Style is Substance.

My Twitter feed is going crazy with iPad updates. Everyone can't stop talking about it. I guess people really love the same old thing in a brand new package. It gives the impression that one is in the know and right on the cutting-edge, without the risk of being laughed at later for having caught the wrong train.

What is the iPad, really? A web browser? A news reader? Some have even suggested that given its name, one can assume that it was a new line of female sanitary products. You can hear Stephen Fry waxing lyrical about it on the Guardian talking about mixed nuts, the liberal arts, capitalism and how Apple covers them all, and more.

Personally, I'm just dying to own it. Sure, it's Apple, it'll be sexy, user-friendly, and unlike your girlfriend, it will probably shiver to your touch.

Market research has shown that if you had to choose between spending money on an experience and on a product, you should spend it on the experience for optimal happiness value. Apple has probably taken this into account long ago and designed all their products to ensure users experience high joy to minimal frustration. With the iPad, they have probably gone further. Ten gazillion Science Fiction movies can't be wrong, what we want is information that is portable in an interface that makes it easily digestible. iPad is lightweight, and has a good screen size. You can read it while having coffee at breakfast or share smutty PDFs with your lover in bed. Or, like Gwendolyn from The Importance of Being Ernest,  you can now deign to travel without your blog, for one should always have something sensational to read on the MRT.

I have already heard complains about it's size. That's it's really an iPhone, but bigger (and we all know that  bigger does not necessarily mean better). I beg to differ.

As an Apple fan, the one thing I am not crazy about is the iPhone. It's good fun, but I'm one of those annoying people that would call a spade a spade and use a phone as a phone. It's main plus is the ability to surf the web while you're on the go, but it takes awhile to load, the screen is limiting and the typing interface is too frustrating for my verbose Facebook status updates. (And I hate cryptic status updates! If I'm reporting on my devastating breakup, I will aim for the most detail to solicit maximum sympathy, so there.) I see the iPhone as a time sucker and an indiscriminate distraction at lectures. Great when you don't have to pay attention, devastating when you do (particularly when exam tips are being dished out).

The iPad would solve this problem. Screen size is a wonderful thing, and in this age, valuable digital real estate. While I would love to wax lyrical about the erogenous sensibility of the iPad, and the huge possibilities for third-party coupling and plug-ins, my main joy is that it's really great value just for the extra screen space when it comes to having portable information because the hand-helds just don't cut it.

But more than anything, the iPad is the thing of the future. The product we see in our Sci-Fi movies that we covet. A bunch of old things we love in a brand new sleek package that we would like to show of.

26 January 2010

The Design of Symbols

Have you ever thought about the Design of Numbers? I know I never did, until I read The Book of Nothing, by John D. Barrow. A few pages into the book, you suddenly realize how the design of Arabic numerals, and particularly, the invention of the sign "0", has taken us to where we are in this day in our understanding of the world. 

We have attempted to comprehend our reality for millennia through symbols. Whether they were numbers, words or even musical notes and pictographs. They allow the application of logic to a world that is often chaotic, where the default is randomness and chance.   

This invention has taken us far as a species. The graphic representation of things has managed to reduce the world into a manageable scale, helping us understand everything, from the density of space, to the (mis) management of financial markets.

Good symbols are ones that give an accurate reduction of reality, optimizing the noise to information ratio and opening the window for new ways of seeing and managing the world.

There are many other varieties of symbols apart from words and number: road signs, smiles, skylines, corporate logos, the profile of buildings, etc. We exist in a cultural pot filled with them and can not function optimally without their understanding. Our world is an interface for living, and they are there to help as navigate it.

A friend who now works for a big tech company designing user interfaces for their interactive digital products (and iPhone is an example), told me a bizarre story of how symbol illiteracy, or the fact that they did not take this into account, ruined an project. What had happened was somebody in their research lab had decided to put Virtual Reality and the Internet together with social welfare and terminally ill patients, and give them the ability to communicate with the outside world.

This was back in the 80's when most people were only used to DOS prompts and Pac Man. You can imagine a VR garden where you could make 3D models of plants with good-bye notes tagged onto them wasn't something most people would be able to do easily. Even now I still find programs that deal with 3D objects a bit of a challenge to navigate. The experiment failed because these people fell into plenty of technical problems and spent their last days trouble shooting their virtual garden. But I guess, at least it took their mind of things.

Who knows where we will go from here as a greater mass of people learn rapidly developing and changing logical frameworks that put symbols together, in both the physical and digital environment. New frameworks will be invented, our environment will be altered; and I guess there is always the dream of our crystallization eventually becoming one big neural network like they imagine it in Science Fiction.

22 January 2010

Natural vs. Man-made

Look what I found via Pasta and Vinegar this morning :-D.

The evolution of Natural objects vs. Man-made objects. Man-made objects tend to converge and natural objects cannot actively learn from one another and adopt/inherit interesting strategies unrelated in their biological recipes to be passed on. 

21 January 2010

They Didn't Mean It.

To everyone who ever had a mediocre to terrible relationship with their parents, this is for you.

This Be The Verse by Philip Larkin

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

20 January 2010

Avatar's Plot: Fail, or Fail Safe?

I bet you felt something was vaguely familiar with Avatar's plot, I know I did. But you have to admit there are many ways to achieve some form of narrative originality, and Avatar is like a very well made collage. A combination of elements from Sci-Fi and Fantasy, epic romance and a current hot topic: ecological collapse. All of it packaged in technology that has existed for over a decade but is now finally entering the mainstream.

The best thing about Avatar however is the image system of Pandora. How everything connects into some kind of neurological network that is the consciousness of the entire planet. Also, we know the main point of watching movies like this is not really the experimental story telling (we might be too overwhelmed trying to comprehend a new world and a novel narrative in just about 3 hours, I think. The main point is the glorious setting and the myriad of new and interesting creatures and things in it. As pointed out by Carol K Yoon in this NYT article: Luminous 3D jungle is Biologist's Dream. If you're into Natural History, you could also dive into her book, Naming Nature.

19 January 2010

Two Favourite Fonts.

I am obsessed with information. Particularly, how information is presented and assimilated. The actual value inherent in the body of information is important, but that is only a small part of it; otherwise technical manuals and excel spreadsheet would be sufficient to present this.

Fonts are important because they say something about the content of a page or the value of a product. I'm a bit of a typophile and I absolutely love elegant, subtle fonts that say a lot with very little. It's amazing how, with fonts, small changes in a corner, variations in the weight of a stroke etc. can affect so much.

There is a documentary on the font "Helvetica".  The following is a quote from Kevin Kelly's blog.
It traces the history of how Helvetica was invented, how it became a default font on most computers, how that popularity catapulted it towards ubiquity in our environment, and what it means that we can find it everywhere, even though we aren't aware of it. Along the way, we are educated in what fonts do, and how they work. Using interviews with the most renowned typographers living today, this film illuminates the world of fonts -- a world we rely on more and more -- and the universe of typography and design.
My all time favourite is "Gotham" by Hoefler & Frere-Jones. It's the font chosen to be inscribed on the Freedom Tower, and it's the most elegant sans-serif, imho. The extra kerning (space between the letters) makes it look extra sexy. There is a good article on the NYT about it, "Chiseled with a New York Accent."

 The other one I love is Mrs. Eaves. It's 'English', 'rather posh', and 'Tea at three'. Or perhaps, 'Cake or Death".