As the Web continues to increase in complexity, many designers are looking to simplicity as a tool in designing Web sites that are at once powerful and easy for people to use. Join your peers and colleagues in a discussion facilitated by three working designers who are committed to producing work which is simple: obvious, elegant, economical, efficient, powerful and attractive. We'll be discussing what simplicity in Web design really means, the difference between Minimalism as an aesthetic and simplicity as a design goal, who is and who isn't simple, how you can use simplicity to your advantage, and plenty more.
It's fun to see those two going at it more than 13 years later, still focused on harnessing the power of simplicity to help people get their best work done. (I don't know what the other guy's deal is. He's doing.... something, I guess.)
This was also the year I got food poisoning the first night of the conference, basically didn't eat anything for 5 days, and lost 10 pounds. Either Stewart or Jason suggested running to a bakery to get cookies for everyone at the meeting, and a little nibble one of those chocolate chip cookies was one of the few things I had to eat in Austin that year. ↩
Growing up, I had a pretty conventional childhood. In the northern Wisconsin of the 70s and 80s, that meant living in the country, dogs and cats, making ramps for our bikes in the driveway, Oscar Meyer bologna sandwiches for lunch, and a nuclear family of four that split into two soon after Ronald Reagan took office. But conventional childhoods are a myth. Every kid has some weird thing that distinguished their experience from everyone else's. My weird thing is that I spent a lot of time in and around airplanes when I was young.
My dad joined the Navy after high school but couldn't fly because of his eyesight. But sometime later, he got his private pilot's license. In the 1970s, after bouncing around between two dozen different jobs and business ideas, he took a small rented airplane and turned it into a thriving freight and commuter airline called Blue Line Air Express.1 At its height, his company had 8 planes, a small fleet of cars and trucks,2 more than a dozen employees, and hangars at several different airports around northern WI. He and his employees delivered packages and people3 all over the tri-state area, from Chicago and Milwaukee to Minneapolis and Duluth.
And every once in awhile, I got to tag along. I remember one time in particular, we got up early on a Saturday, drove to a nearby town, hopped in the plane, and made it to Minneapolis, usually a two-hour drive, in time for breakfast. I'd go with him on deliveries sometimes; we'd drive a small piece-of-shit truck4 up to this huge FedEx hub in Minneapolis, load it full of boxes, and drive an hour to some small factory in a Wisconsin town and unload it. Once he had to deliver something to a cheese factory and my sister and I got a short tour out of it.
For family vacations, we would jump in the plane to visit relatives in the Twin Cities or in St. Louis. We flew down with some family friends to Oshkosh to attend the huge airshow. When I was in college, my dad would sometimes pick me up for school breaks in his plane. It was just a normal thing for our family, like anyone else would take a car trip. The only time it seems weird to me is when people's eyes go wide after I casually mention that we had a runway out behind the house growing up.5
One of the last times I went flying with my dad, before it finally became too expensive for him to keep up his plane,6 we were flying into a small airport where he still kept a hangar. It was a fine day when we set out but as we neared our destination, the weather turned dark.7 You could see the storm coming from miles away and we raced it to the airport. The wind had really picked up as we made our first approach to land; I don't know what the windspeed was, but it was buffeting us around pretty good. About 50 feet off the ground, the wind slammed the plane downwards, dropping a dozen feet in half a second. In a calm voice, my dad said, "we'd better go around and try this again".8
The storm was nearly on top of us as we looped around to try a second time. It was around this time he announced, even more calmly, that we were "running a little low" on fuel. Nothing serious, you understand. Just "a little low". There was a heavy crosswind, blowing perpendicular to the runway. Landing in a crosswind requires the pilot to point the airplane into the wind a little.9 Or more than a little...my memory probably exaggerates after all these years, but I swear we were at least 30 degrees off axis on that second approach. Just before touching down, he oriented the plane with the runway and the squawk of the tires let us know we were down. I don't think it was much more than a minute or two after landing that the rain, thunder, and lightning started.10
But the thing was, I was never scared. I should have been probably...it was an alarming situation. I'd been flying with my dad my whole life and he'd kept me safe that whole time, so why should I start worrying now? That's what fathers are supposed to do, right? Protect their children from harm while revealing the limits of the world?
The internet is amazing. I originally wrote this piece for Quarterly as part of a physical package of stuff that was sent out to subscribers. While doing some research for it, I found an image of an old Blue Line brochure, which I distinctly remember from when I was a kid. From there, I was able to figure out the font and recreate the logo. Two of the items in my Quarterly package featured the logo: a balsa-wood airplane and a leather luggage tag. Blue Line flies again! It was very satisfying to use my professional skills (internet sleuthing and design) to "resurrect" my dad's old business.↩
There was a car or two stashed at every airport Blue Line regularly flew in to. To simplify the logistics, the key to the ignition was usually left under the rear wheel well of the car. Which was occasionally a problem w/r/t disgruntled former employees.↩
Living and dead...transporting cadavers was a particularly lucrative business.↩
My dad's fleet of cars and trucks were optimized for cost and performance...if you could load 1200 pounds of boxes into something without busting the springs and get it there at 80 MPH on the freeway, it didn't matter if the fenders were rusted off.↩
Oh, did I not mention that earlier? We lived on a farm and rented out all the land to nearby farmers...all except the runway that my dad had cut into the field behind the house so that he could commute by plane to whatever airport he needed to be at that day. As you do.↩
Blue Line went out of business soon after my parents divorced, but my dad kept a plane and a hangar. Sometimes he transported freight for money but mostly just flew as a hobby and transportation. Private piloting was cheaper back then, especially when your plane was long since paid for, the price of gas was obscenely low by today's standards, gear/radios were cheaper, and you were also a mechanic (as my dad was).↩
The Midwest is like this in the summer. Radar shows nothing, then, boom, thunderstorm.↩
That droningly relaxed pilot voice you hear while thumbing through the latest issue of the inflight magazine? My dad never talked like that outside of an airplane but every single thing he said inside one sounded unbelievably steady and serene.↩
And this is far from the craziest thing that ever happened to my dad while flying. Once we had to go pick him up in a nearby corn field after an emergency landing.
But my favorite story he tells is when he landed on a runway in winter in a twin-engine plane and discovered shortly afterwards that the entire surface was black ice. So the brakes didn't work. And it was too late to throttle up again and take off. And there's a lake at the end of the runway. Thinking quickly, he throttles up one of the engines, spins the plane around 180 ° on the ice, and then throttles up both engines to stop the plane. That sounds like total action movie BS, but my dad insists it really happened. Regardless, I love to hear him tell that story.↩
Using Phil Fish, the person responsible for critically acclaimed indie game Fez, this video by Ian Danskin explores what it means to be internet famous, something everyone who writes/creates/posts/tweets online has experienced to some extent.
We are used to thinking of fame as something granted to a person by people with media access. The reason people hate Nickelback is because of that record contract, that Faustian bargain -- they bought into it. They had to be discovered; someone had to connect them to video directors, record producers, stylists, advertisers.
This is not what fame looks like on the internet. There, fame is not something you ask for. Fame is not something you buy into. Fame happens to you.
Phil doesn't have an agent. He doesn't have ad executives. He doesn't tour the country on press junkets. He doesn't have a PR department. (Obviously.)
He talked on social media. He did interviews when invited to do them. He was invited into a documentary. People read these things as shameless self-promotion or a desperate need for attention, or both, but that's projection -- nobody knows Phil's reasons for doing them but Phil and the people who know him personally.
Phil never asked to be famous.
We made him famous. Maybe, in part, because we found him entertaining. Maybe, in part, because we found him irritating. Largely because many of us were once sincerely excited about his game. But he became a big deal because we kept talking about him.
On the internet, celebrities are famous only to the people who talk about them, and they're only famous because we talk about them, and then we hate them for being too famous, and make them more famous by talking about how much we hate them. Could there ever be anything more self-defeating than this?
Here's a transcript of the video. In his post about why he decided to sell Minecraft to Microsoft, Markus Persson cites This is Phil Fish as an influence:
I was at home with a bad cold a couple of weeks ago when the internet exploded with hate against me over some kind of EULA situation that I had nothing to do with. I was confused. I didn't understand. I tweeted this in frustration. Later on, I watched the This is Phil Fish video on YouTube and started to realize I didn't have the connection to my fans I thought I had. I've become a symbol. I don't want to be a symbol, responsible for something huge that I don't understand, that I don't want to work on, that keeps coming back to me. I'm not an entrepreneur. I'm not a CEO. I'm a nerdy computer programmer who likes to have opinions on Twitter.
The first is feeling like I'm sitting at a sidewalk cafe, speaking in a conversational voice, but having that voice projected so loudly that strangers many streets away are invited to comment on my most inconsequential statements -- especially if something I say gets retweeted beyond my usual circles.
Many moons ago, I was "subculturally important" in the small pond of web designers, personal publishers, and bloggers that rose from the ashes of the dot com bust, and I was nodding along vigorously with what Danskin, Persson, and Kissane had to say. Luckily for me, I realized fairly early on that me and the Jason Kottke who published online were actually two separate people...or to use Danskin's formulation, they were a person and a concept. (When you try to explain this to people, BTW, they think you're a fucking narcissistic crazy person for talking about yourself in the third person. But you're not actually talking about yourself...you're talking about a concept the audience has created. Those who think of you as a concept particularly hate this sort of behavior.)
The person-as-concept idea is a powerful one. People ascribe all sorts of crazy stuff to you without knowing anything about the context of your actual life. I even lost real-life friends because my online actions as a person were viewed through a conceptual lens; basically: "you shouldn't have acted in that way because of what it means for the community" or some crap like that. Eventually (and mostly unconsciously), I distanced myself from my conceptual counterpart and became much less of a presence online. I mean, I still post stuff here, on Twitter, on Instagram, and so on, but very little of it is actually personal and almost none of it is opinionated in any noteworthy way. Unlike Persson or Fish, I didn't quit. I just got boring. Which I guess isn't so good for business, but neither is quitting.
Anyway, I don't know if that adds anything meaning to the conversation, just wanted to add a big "yeah, that rings true" to all of the above, particularly the video. (thx, @brillhart)
Update: From the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges, a short essay called "Borges and I":
The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things.
Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.
Things have been a little more hectic than usual while I deal with some non-work issues, which means I haven't been spending as much time as I'd like on kottke.org. You may have noticed it's been a little rough around the edges lately. (Or maybe you haven't...but I've noticed.) Apologies for that and hopefully I'll be able to focus on the site more in the coming weeks.
I'd like to take this opportunity to thank some of the folks and organizations who keep the site running so smoothly even when I'm off worrying about other things:
- Greg Knauss for cheerfully answering my occasional sysadmin queries and even logging in every once in awhile to fix problems (after sufficient pleading on my part). He's not as heartless as he seems.
Sometime in the past few years, the blog died. In 2014, people will finally notice. Sure, blogs still exist, many of them are excellent, and they will go on existing and being excellent for many years to come. But the function of the blog, the nebulous informational task we all agreed the blog was fulfilling for the past decade, is increasingly being handled by a growing number of disparate media forms that are blog-like but also decidedly not blogs.
Instead of blogging, people are posting to Tumblr, tweeting, pinning things to their board, posting to Reddit, Snapchatting, updating Facebook statuses, Instagramming, and publishing on Medium. In 1997, wired teens created online diaries, and in 2004 the blog was king. Today, teens are about as likely to start a blog (over Instagramming or Snapchatting) as they are to buy a music CD. Blogs are for 40-somethings with kids.
I am not generally a bomb-thrower, but I wrote this piece in a deliberately provocative way. Blogs obviously aren't dead and I acknowledged that much right from the title. I (obviously) think there's a lot of value in the blog format, even apart from its massive influence on online media in general, but as someone who's been doing it since 1998 and still does it every day, it's difficult to ignore the blog's diminished place in our informational diet.
Through various blogrolls (remember those?) and RSS readers, I used to keep up with hundreds of blogs every day and over a thousand every week. Now I read just two blogs daily: Daring Fireball and Waxy. I check my RSS reader only occasionally, and sometimes not for weeks. I rely mainly on Twitter, Facebook, Digg, Hacker News, and Stellar for keeping up with news and information...that's where most of the people I know do their "blogging". I still read lots of blog posts, but only when they're interesting enough to pop up on the collective radar of those I follow...and increasingly those posts are on Medium, Facebook, or Tumblr.1
But anyway, I'll be here, blogging away until 2073. I figure 100 is a good age at which to retire. If I have a point to make, I'll have made it by then. Man, I wonder what crazy YouTube videos there will be to post in 30 years? Probably Wes Anderson filming trials riding in a wingsuit on Mars or something. I can't wait.
And yeah, what about Tumblr? Isn't Tumblr full of blogs? Welllll, sort of. Back in 2005, tumblelogs felt like blogs but there was also something a bit different about them. Today they seem really different; I haven't thought of Tumblrs as blogs for years...they're Tumblrs! If you asked a typical 23-year-old Tumblr user what they called this thing they're doing on the site, I bet "blogging" would not be the first (or second) answer. No one thinks of posting to their Facebook as blogging or tweeting as microblogging or Instagramming as photoblogging. And if the people doing it think it's different, I'll take them at their word. After all, when early bloggers were attempting to classify their efforts as something other than online diaries or homepages, everyone eventually agreed. Let's not fight everyone else on their choice of subculture and vocabulary.↩
A portable networked computing and gaming device that can be easily operated with one hand can be used in a surprising variety of situations.
Try to take the adjectives and adverbs out of that sentence. (Strunk and White say to "write with nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs. Strunk and White are often surprisingly stupid.)
But also try adding any more adjectives or adverbs in. Try adding in or taking away any of the clauses. Try writing a better sentence that describes the same thing. (This is also known as "the Mohammed Test.") Try to misunderstand what the sentence means. I'm a professional writer. So is Jason. I appreciate this stuff.
There's also a lot of structural and emotional variety in this post. The author gets mad. He makes jokes. But mostly, he observes. He studies. He empathizes.
People carry things. Coffee, shopping bags, books, bags, babies, small dogs, hot dogs, water bottles, coats, etc. It's nice to be able to not put all that crap down just to quickly Google for the closest public restroom (aka Starbucks).
It is very occasionally necessary to use the iPhone while driving. No, not for checking your stock portfolio, you asshole. For directions. Glance quickly and keep your thoughts on the road ahead.
My wife spends about five hours a day breastfeeding our daughter and has only one hand available for non-feeding activities. That hand is frequently occupied by her iPhone; it helps her keep abreast (hey'o!) of current events, stay connected with pals through Twitter & email, track feeding/sleeping/diaper changing times, keep notes (she plans meals and grocery "shops" at 3am), and alert her layabout husband via SMS to come and get the damned baby already.
I liked "layabout husband" so much when I read it, I started referring to Jason as "noted layabout Jason Kottke." At a certain point, I forgot where the phrase came from.
But read that last paragraph again. You can't read that description of Meg and not think of it every time you either are or aren't doing any of the things she does in that sentence, every time you have to have to carry a bag and use your phone, every time you have to open a door and use your phone, every time you don't have to use your phone while walking down the street but you do it anyways, because you can, and the fact that you can now means that you have to.
I think about it every time I cover a new gadget and companies start touting its hands-free features, how it's added a new voice interface, how its new keyboard algorithm makes it easier to correct for typos. People didn't use to market that sort of thing. But companies started to notice it was one of the things their customers liked best.
I also thought about it when I read these tweets Meg wrote, just yesterday and this morning, about how the newer iPhone's longer screen borks its one-handed functionality.
New iPhone (was on 4S): holding w left hand, pinky supporting bottom-right corner, my thumb can't reach diagonal to top right buttons...
I have enormous man-hands, and I still think that the trend toward enormous screen sizes on smartphones stinks. Not only is it harder to use a phone with one hand, it's harder to fit a phone in a pants pocket, and a long, thin phone is more likely to tip over and get knocked off a table or shelf.
We're all disabled sometimes. If I turn off the lights in your room, you can't see. If I fill the room with enough noise, you can't hear. If your hands are full, you can't use them to do anything else.
But as Sara Hendren writes, "all technology is assistive technology." When it's working right, technology helps people of every ability overcome these limitations. It doesn't throw us back into the world of assumptions that expects us all to be fully capable all of the time.
That's not what good technology does. That's not what good design does. That's what assholes do.
I think often about Jason's post on one-handed computing because I'm in the story. He wrote it for his wife, and he wrote it for me. I'd badly broken my right arm in an accident, snapping my radius in half and shooting it out of my body. Emergency room doctors stabilized my arm, then surgeons took the fibula from the left leg and used it to create a graft to replace my missing arm bone.
I'd broken my right leg, too, and sustained a concussion. With both legs unstable, I was stuck in a bed most days, and even when I could start putting weight on my left leg again, I couldn't climb in or out of bed to get into a wheelchair without help. I'm over six feet tall and I weigh about 300 pounds, so most nurses and orderlies were out of luck helping me. I couldn't type. I couldn't use the bathroom. I had hallucinations from the pain medicine. I was extremely fucked up.
Another victim of the accident was my Blackberry, my first-ever smartphone, which I bought just before I finally got my PhD. (I revealed this once in a 2010 post for Wired. Commenters called for my head, saying anyone whose first smartphone was bought in 2009 had no business writing for a gadget blog. "I'm sorry," I told them. "I spent my twenties learning things, not buying things.")
After I was discharged from the hospital, I spent money I didn't have to get an iPhone 3G, which was my phone for the next three years. It was mailed to me at the rehab institute where I learned how to walk again. And it changed everything for me. Even with my left hand, I could tweet, send emails, browse the web. I could even read books again -- even print books weren't as easy as the iPhone.
And then I read Jason's post about one-handed computing. And I thought and thought and thought.
I started blogging again. I even started my own community blog about the future of reading. The next year, that led to some articles for Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic.
I was back home by then. My injuries had cost me my postdoctoral fellowship and a second crack at the academic job market. But I was able to audition for and win an entry-level job writing for Wired the same week that I did my first stint guest-hosting for Kottke.
And I swore to myself that I would never forget: technology is for people.
Anyways, the accident that broke my arm in half was four years ago today.
It was on Jason's birthday. He was 36 then; I was 29. His son was two, almost exactly the same age as my son, his brand new baby daughter less than a week old.
It was all so very long ago. It was the beginning of the rest of my life.
If you ask me why Jason Kottke is important to me, it's because in 2005, he found my little Blogspot blog when it only had a couple dozen readers and started linking to it. It's because his idea of "Liberal Arts 2.0" led to a book I made with friends, some of whom went off to make extraordinary things of their own. (We offered to let Jason write the forward; characteristically, he declined.)
Then Jason became my friend. Every so often, he gives me the keys to this place he's built -- home to the best audience on the internet -- and lets me write about things I care about. And because of all of that, I got a second chance -- me, with all of my flaws and frailties, my misdeeds and mistakes.
But really Jason is important to me because Jason is always writing about how technology is for human beings. He doesn't bang gavels and rattle sabres and shout "TECHNOLOGY IS FOR HUMAN BEINGS!" That's partly because Jason is not a gavel-banging, sabre-rattling sort of person. But it's mostly because it wouldn't occur to him to talk about it in any other way. It's so obvious.
The thing that tech companies forget -- that journalists forget, that Wall Street never knew, that commenters who root for tech companies like sports fans for their teams could never formulate -- that technology is for people -- is obvious to Jason. Technology is for us. All of us. People who carry things.
People. Us. These stupid, stubborn, spectacular machines made of meat and electricity, friends and laughter, genes and dreams.
Happy birthday, Jason. Here's to the next forty years of Kottke.org.
Building on yesterday's "The dirty BLEEP," here are a few more great moments in the artful use of censorship (or its illusion):
Neven Mrgan and James Moore have an iOS game called "Blackbar" that involves playful use of blacked-out text. (If my last name were missing an expected vowel, I'd be interested in intentional omissions too.) It's described as "serious," "artsy," and "texty," all adjectives I hope I will one day earn.
Jimmy Kimmel has gotten a lot of mileage out of "Unnecessary Censorship," a recurring sketch that uses bleeps and blurs for comedic effect. A proprietor of a popular internet site named J--n K----e confided in me this week that "Kimmel's... skit always makes me laugh until I pee my pants," a pretty stirring endorsement if I've ever heard one.
Also, besides using the appearance of censorship to remix existing text, audio, and video like "Unnecessary Censorship" does or fully scripting the bleep ahead of time like Arrested Development or South Park do, there's been a real rise in a mode that's in between, something that's deliberate but has the feel of being off-the-cuff. This is probably best exemplified by The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Check out Ashton Kutcher's "surprise" experience on Colbert:
Here the tension isn't just between what you've heard and what you know was said, but also between the live experience and that of broadcast. It used to be that if you heard a bleep of an event that was recorded live, someone had gone off the rails, like Madonna on the David Letterman show.
Now, TV mostly just lets anything and everything rip for the people in the room, knowing it will amp up the energy in the crowd, but can be bleeped for broadcast later. Then sometimes (like with The Daily Show or Chappelle's Show on DVD or Netflix), you can catch the uncensored cut at home.
So we get the live, the censored, and the edited-but-encensored experiences, and we're always mentally bouncing between all three. We know it's not really spontaneous, but knowing is part of what lets us in on the joke, even though we can't be in the room.
One of the first pages I ever visited in the fall of 1994 was the National Center for Supercomputing Applications' "What's New" page. Every time someone added a new homepage to the web, the NCSA would publish it on this page. In hindsight, that was the first blog -- published reverse-chronologically, colloquial, and full of links. It was the family encyclopedia with velocity.
"Pleased and proud" is a slight understatement. I first ran across Wired at college. A friend had an early issue and I had never seen anything like it. (He also had a copy of 2600...the pairing of the two was irresistible to a culturally isolated midwestern kid raised on Time and Newsweek.) When I got on the web in 1994, HotWired was the coolest site out there. HotWired begat Suck and became the nexus of a bunch of the coolest online writing, culture, and design. The way people discuss the cultural and technical influence of Facebook and Twitter today, that position was occupied by Wired and HotWired back in the mid-1990s.
After I dropped out of grad school to teach myself web design, I applied for an internship at HotWired but never heard back. I wanted to work there so bad, to be at the center of all the excitement of the web, but I'm sure it was an easy decision for them to pass over an unemployed grad school drop-out living with his dad on a farm in rural Wisconsin in favor of any one of the thousands of other applicants who had likely taken more than zero design, programming, or even art classes. So yeah, to have written an article for the 20th anniversary issue of Wired about a project I created...well, 1995 Jason's head would have exploded.
I write like I talk. Or at least I thought I did. But after listening to the first 10 minutes of this episode of Unprofessional I did with Lex Friedman and Dave Wiskus, that is untrue. Because I, you know, actually talk, like, like this, basically. You know. Yeah. Gonna have to, um, work on that if, basically, you know, I'm gonna keep doing, like, podcasts. Basically. But Lex and Dave sound so silky smooth so you should give it a listen in spite of, you know, me.
The Internet's Jason Kottke joins Lex and Dave to talk digital friendships, the future of keeping in touch, and what life would be like without connectivity.
So this is fun. Back in February 2000, I wrote a post about Amazon being awarded a patent for their affiliates program. In it, I wondered about a world where Apple was the largest company in the world:
And that brings us to Microsoft and Apple. Microsoft is perhaps the largest target of this sort of "boycott", organized or otherwise. People hate Microsoft. Companies hate Microsoft. It's the company you love to hate. Apple, on the other hand, is one of the most beloved companies in the world. People love Apple.
But what if Apple were Microsoft? What if Apple had won the battle of the PC and was the largest company in the world? People would hate them. Why? Because they would be using the same tactics as Microsoft to stay ahead and keep every bit of that advantage in anyway that they could. Apple is the way it is because they are the underdog.
I'll even argue that life would be worse under Apple's rein. Apple controls the OS *and* the hardware: if we were under Apple's boot instead of Microsoft's, we'd be paying too much for hardware as well as the software.
Nailed it! Or not. That third paragraph is pretty wrong...one of the things that contributed greatly to Apple's rise is their commitment to pricing their products competitively. And software is cheap.
As for Apple being the underdog, I've always thought one of the interesting things about Daring Fireball, even from the beginning, is that John Gruber never treated Apple as an underdog. In his esteem, Apple was the best company making the best software and hardware, and the DF attitude with respect to Microsoft was very much like that of Jon Lovitz's Michael Dukakis in a debate with Dana Carvey's George H.W. Bush on SNL: "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy". Gruber proved correct...what looked like an underdog proved to be a powerhouse in the making. (thx, greg & andy)
But before the party, Robin will be interviewing a variety of people over a 24-hour period and streaming the whole thing online. I am one of the scheduled interviewees and I have no idea what we'll talk about. But because my slot is right before the party starts, after almost 20 non-stop hours of Robin interviewing people, it's possible we'll just change into our sweatpants, split a pint of Cherry Garcia, and spoon on the couch.
I'm switching to a new default web browser today (i.e. the browser I use the most on my computer) and that put me in a reminiscing mood. So here are some screenshots of all of the browsers I've used as my default for the past 18 years.
Using NCSA Mosaic to surf the World Wide Web for the very first time in the basement physics lab at college was as close to a religious experience as I've ever had. It was a thunderbolt that completely changed my life.
When Marc Andreessen left NCSA and formed a company to build web browsers, it was clear that their browser was the future. The first version was called Mosaic Netscape:
NCSA didn't appreciate the new company's use of the Mosaic name so they changed it to Netscape Navigator. This is a screenshot of Netscape 3, still my favorite web browser.
I continued to use Netscape 3 even after the release of Netscape 4, which was a such pile of junk that I eventually decamped for the sweaty embrace of Gates and Ballmer. You may not remember, but IE 4 was a pretty good browser. Microsoft won the browser wars, in part, because their browser was better than the other guy's.
I used IE on Windows until I bought a iBook in 2002. The default browser for OS X was IE for Mac:
From IE for Mac, I moved to Chimera. I loved Chimera...it was fast and was the first browser I used that supported tabbed browsing.
Chimera soon changed its name to Camino for legal reasons and I switched along with them.
Eventually, the team and resources for Camino dried up, the release schedule slowed down, and the other browser makers caught up. At this point, I can't quite remember what I switched to. I might have gone to Firebird (which was renamed Firefox), but I probably just went straight to Safari.
I used Safari for a long time until switching to Firefox a couple of years ago.
And today I'm making Chrome my main browser. I'll still use Safari and Firefox for some stuff but links will open up on Chrome by default.
Chrome will probably be my last default browser on a non-mobile computer. Many of you use Mobile Safari much more than any desktop web browser; I'm not quite there but will be soon enough.
Gawker has rebranded their new commenting system...it's now called Kinja. The name is recycled from a project that Nick Denton worked on with Meg Hourihan starting in 2003. Kinja 1 was an attempt to build a blog aggregator without relying solely on RSS, which was not then ubiquitous. Here's a mockup of the site I did for them in late 2003:
Luckily they got some real designers to finish the job...here's a version that 37signals did that was closer to how it looked at launch.
Where is the team that worked on that Kinja? Nick's still hammering away at Gawker, Meg is raising two great children (a more difficult and rewarding task than building software), programmer Mark Wilkie is director of technology at Buzzfeed, programmer Matt Hamer still works for Gawker (I think?), intern Gina Trapani is running her own publishing/development empire & is cofounder of ThinkUp, and 37signals (they worked on the design of the site) is flying high.
Quarterly is a hybrid of a magazine and an online store...you subscribe to people and receive items in the mail. It's a fun idea and I'm pleased to announce that you can now subscribe to me on Quarterly. Here's what I'm planning on sending out, very generally:
Each day on kottke.org, I attempt to find the interesting in everything. Part of that is casting a wide net and looking for connections between seemingly unrelated things. I hope that -- for instance -- a sports freak can appreciate something about how the human brain works, a book editor is enticed to read about the history of the American automobile industry, or a startup CEO can find business lessons in fashion. In that vein, I'll be sending you things that you didn't know you wanted to see until you saw them.
Price is $25 per quarter with the first mailing shipping in about two months. Sign up!
If you're actually reading this on the site and not in RSS (guys, come on in from the cold, don't be shy), you'll already have noticed that I changed the "look and feel" of the site. In doing the design, I focused on three things: simplicity, the reading/viewing experience, and sharing.
Simplicity. kottke.org has always been relatively spare, but this time around I left in only what was necessary. Posts have a title, a publish date, text, and some sharing buttons (more on those in a bit). Tags got pushed to the individual archive page and posts are uncredited (just like the Economist!). In the sidebar that appears on every page, there are three navigation links (home, about, and archives), other ways to follow the site (Twitter, Facebook, etc.), and an ad and job board posting, to pay the bills. There isn't even really a title on the page...that's what the <title> is for, right? Gone also is the blue border, which I liked but was always a bit of a pain in the ass.
Reading/viewing experience. I made the reading column wider (640px) for bigger photos & video embeds and increased the type size for easier reading. But the biggest and most exciting change is using Whitney ScreenSmart for the display font, provided by Hoefler & Frere-Jones' long-awaited web font service, which is currently in private beta. Whitney SSm is designed especially for display in web browsers and really pushes the site's design & readability to a higher level. Many thanks to Jonathan and his web fonts team for letting me kick their tires. I believe that kottke.org is one of only two sites on the entire Internet currently using H&FJ's web fonts...the other is by some guy who currently lives in a white house near Maryland. Barnaby something...
The reading experience on mobile devices has also been improved. The text was formerly too small to read, the blue border was a pain in the ass (especially since the upgrade to iOS 5 on the iPhone & iPad changed how the border was displayed when zoomed), and the mobile version was poorly advertised. The site now uses the same HTML and CSS to serve appropriate versions to different browsers on different hardware using some very rudimentary responsive design techniques. Whitney ScreenSmart helps out here too...it looks freaking AMAZING on the iPhone 4S's retina display. Really, you should go look. And then zoom in a bunch on some text. Crazy, right?
Sharing. I've always thought of kottke.org as a place where people come to find interesting things to read and look at, and design has always been crafted with that as the priority. A few months ago, I read an interview with Jonah Peretti about what BuzzFeed is up to and he said something that stuck with me: people don't just come to BuzzFeed to look at things, they come to find stuff to share with their friends. As I thought about it, I realized that's true of kottke.org as well...and I haven't been doing a good enough job of making it easy for people to do.
So this new design has a few more sharing options. Accompanying each post is a Twitter tweet button and a Facebook like button. Links to posts are pushed out to Twitter, Facebook, and RSS where they can be easily shared with friends, followers, and spambots. I've also created a mirror of kottke.org on Tumblr so you can read and share posts right in your dashboard. I've chosen just these few options because I don't want a pile of sharing crap attached to each post and I know that kottke.org readers actually use and like Twitter, Tumblr, and even Facebook.
In computer science parlance, Kottke doesn't scale. That's a shame. While services that collect popular stuff online are useful, they lack any editorial sensibility. The links on Techmeme and Summify represent a horde's view of the Web. The material on Kottke represents one guy's indispensible take. The Web ought to have both kinds of aggregators, but I'd love to see more people starting link blogs that offer a clear editorial vision. But how do you get more of something so hard to do?
Enter Robottke. Over the last few weeks, Chris Wilson has been building a machine that aims to automatically generate links you might find on Kottke.org. Robottke isn't meant to replace flesh-and-blood Kottke; we just want to come up with a list of items that Jason Kottke might link to each day.
You can check out Robbotke here. How does it work? We began by crawling all the sources that Jason Kottke is likely to look at every day -- we look at all the sites he links to, and all the stuff that people he follows on Twitter are sharing. The hard part is choosing the best, most Kottke-like links from Robottke's collection. It's helpful that the human Kottke meticulously tags all of his posts with keywords. When Robottke finds a link, it searches for topics that it knows Kottke likes -- the more it finds, the higher the article ranks.
Hey, that riderless bike link at the top of Robottke actually looks pretty interesting...
Jason asked me to fill in this week as he bunkers in an undisclosed location pursuing interpretive dance training. He'll chime in with some posts here and there, though, along with some videos of his training.
I've been here before, but if you don't remember I write Unlikely Words. I'm hoping for a good week on the internet, and if you find any gems, buzz me on Twitter.
For the past several months, I've been working on a new web app/site called Stellar. Stellar helps you discover and keep track of your favorite things online. If you like playing around on Twitter or Flickr, you'll probably enjoy Stellar. There are a few dozen people using Stellar right now and some of them seem pretty enthusiastic about it, so I'm encouraged to open the site up a bit more. As of just this minute, you'll be able to do a few things with Stellar:
With all the buzz around the new Gawker design, I figured I'd dig out the first design I ever showed Nick for the site back in October of 2002:
Nick didn't like it too much. Background too dark, masthead text not logo-y enough. Two weeks later, I sent him this, with a half-assed technicolor logo that I'd dashed off in Photoshop in like 30 minutes:
Today's competitors have cooked up a little something different for you today; they have suggested that we go Iron Chef style for this match. So, I have chosen a "secret ingredient" for today's match in the form of a design element that will need to be used in each volley.
If either of the competitors wants to know the ingredient before match-time tomorrow, it'll cost you $500...or $1200 for exclusive knowledge. Personal checks accepted.
An improvised toy: Old Fashioned Quaker Oats canister ($4). You know, the big can. Buy it, eat oatmeal for months, and then give it to your kid when you're done with it. It's a drum, a car garage, a cave, a shaker, a block carrier, a hat, an echo chamber, a steam roller, a doll's bed, and flower pot. Basically the perfect cheap, replaceable, recyclable, open-ended toy.
They discuss blogging for a living, general vs. niche blogs, content longevity, making the transition to full-time blogging, how taking a break (even for a week) can affect traffic, finding links, guest bloggers, the good and bad of comments, and more.
(Christ, is that my voice? I *was* just getting over a cold...)
Despite the media hype, the biggest story about the Y2K computer bug is that nothing happened. Trains didn't spontaneously derail. McDonald's didn't roll back to turn-of-the-century pricing (no Happy Meals for a ha'penny). And the banks didn't lose all of our money; we'd have to wait another eight years for that.
Hello everyone. I'd like you to meet Ollie's little sister, Minna Kottke.
Big yawn! She was born at home (on purpose!) early this morning; mother and baby are resting comfortably. I am weakened by an unrelated sickness but proud and happy. Ollie can't stop talking about her. "Minna! Minna!" He's going to be a great big brother.
So, things are going to be a little slow around here for a bit, especially the rest of this week. Starting next Monday, I'll be joined by a part-time guest editor for a couple weeks. But more on that later. Now: sleep.
Even though it's a history of the telegraph, this book is always relevant. The rise of the 1830s communication device continues to be a fantastic metaphor for each new Internet technology that comes along, from e-mail to IM to Facebook to Twitter.
Two competitors will swap a file back and forth in real-time, adding to and embellishing the work. Each artist gets fifteen minutes to complete a "volley" and then we post it to the site live. A third participant, a writer, provides play-by-play commentary on the action, as it happens. A match lasts for ten volleys.
Curatorial strategies are spilling out of galleries and museums and into our everyday design practices. As emphasis shifts from designer to consumer, the vital role of designer is often that of mediator, shaping ideas and content created by others into another user experience. How have these new pivots changed the role of designer from one of artisan to one of curator? Four lecturers speak to curation as a way of design life, and how their audiences learn from, are inspired by, and gain insights from it.
Come for the Felton, stay for the Bekman, and don't mind me, my talk's only 10 minutes long. (Actually, I just noticed that they're "sold out".)
For the fourth year in a row, a list of all the places I visited in 2008.
New York City, NY*
Cedar Rapids, IA
Las Vegas, NV
One or more nights were spent in each place. Those cities marked with an * were visited multiple times on non-consecutive days. Note: We didn't actually spend the night in Paris, but we were there all day so I threw it in there. Here are the lists for 2005, 2006, and 2007.
When I was born 35.2 years ago, a light cone started expanding away from Earth out into the rest of the universe (Minkowski space-temporally speaking, of course). Thanks to updates from Matt Webb's fancy RSS tool, I know that my personal light cone is about to envelop the Zeta Herculis binary star system, located 35.2 light years from Earth in the constellation Hercules.
With a mass some 50 percent greater than the Sun, however, and beginning its evolution toward gianthood (its core hydrogen fusion likely shut down), Zeta Her A is 6 times more luminous than the Sun with a radius 2.5 times as large. Nevertheless, the star gives a good idea of what the Sun would look like from a great distance, in Zeta Her's case 35 light years. The companion (Zeta Her B), a cooler class G (G7) hydrogen-fusing dwarf with a luminosity only 65 percent that of the Sun and a mass about 85 percent solar, orbits with a period of 34.5 years at a mean distance of 15 Astronomical Units (over 50 percent farther than Saturn is from the Sun). A rather high eccentricity takes the two as far apart as 21 AU and as close as 8 AU.
Hercules is of course named for the Greek hero, Heracles. Next up is Delta Trianguli, another binary star system, in about two months.
Clusterflock's Deron Bauman did an interview with me the other day over IM and posted an edited transcript. This seems to be the bit that everyone is pulling from the interview so I will as well:
Other times, it's not so fun running a visible site. Some people are determined to deliberately misunderstand much of what they encounter in life. Sometimes I have a hard time realizing that that's their problem, not mine.
Three cities, two serious relationships, one child, 200,000 frequent flier miles, at least seven jobs, 14,500 posts, six designs, and ten years ago, I started "writing things down" and never stopped. That makes kottke.org one of a handful of the longest continually updated weblogs on the web...something to be proud of, I guess. The only thing I've done longer than kottke.org is sported this haircut. (Perhaps not something to be proud of...the hair-in-stasis, I mean.)
Being a digital packrat, I have screenshots of all the past designs the site has had. When I started, the posts were actually hosted on another site of mine, 0sil8, that I'd been doing since 1996. I didn't know at the time that kottke.org would eventually kill 0sil8. This was the first design (full size):
It's a little misleading because there's only one post shown on the page...there were usually more, displayed reverse chronologically. The stars were a rough rating of how well that day had gone called the fun meter.
When I moved the site to its own domain after a few months, I redesigned it to look like this (full size):
The aesthetic was influenced by the pixel grunge style of Finnish designer Miika Saksi...you can see some of his older work here. The font in the navigation is Mini 7...Silkscreen was still several months away at that point. The fun meter is still present as is the all-lowercase text, a house style I thankfully dropped a few months later. The cringeworthy writing took a few more years to iron out...if it ever fully was.
This one's still my favorite; it turned a lot of heads back in the day (full size):
With dozens of spacer gifs and five concentric tables, it was a bitch to code. There was also a capability to modify the look and feel of the site...you could choose between this design, the older design pictured above, and a text-only version. Inline permalinks were introduced on kottke.org in March 2000 and subsequently the idea was spread across the web by Blogger.
But it only lasted for about a year. In late 2000, I swapped it for this one (full size):
The familar burn-your-eyes-out yellow-green makes its first appearance. I never really meant to keep it or for it to become the strongest part of the site's identity. After this design launched, I cycled through a few colors (the old yellow, blue, red) before getting to the yellow-green...and then I just got lazy and left it. For 8 years and counting. The post style underwent several changes with this design. In June 2002, I switched to Movable Type after updating the site by hand for four years. Soon after that, I added titles to my posts. In late 2002, I added a frequently updated list of remaindered links to the sidebar. In late 2003, the remainders moved into the main column and have become an integral part of the site. I also started reviewing movies and books around this time...kottke.org became a bit of a tumblelog.
In July 2004, I refreshed the design a bit...tightened it up (full size):
After about a year, I changed it again to the current look and feel (full size):
Sorry, that got a little long...there's a lot I didn't remember until I started writing. Anyway, I didn't intend for this to become a design retrospective. Mostly I wanted to thank you very sincerely for reading kottke.org. Over the last ten years, I've poured a lot more of myself than I'd like to admit into this site and it's nice to know that someone out there is paying attention. [Cripes, I'm choking up here. Seriously!] Thanks, and I'll see you in 2018.
Here are all the places I visited last year...much less travel than in previous years. Having a baby will do that to your schedule. For a few months there, I don't think I left a 20-block radius of Manhattan.
New York City, NY*
San Francisco, CA
One or more nights spent in each place. Those cities marked with an * were visited multiple times on non-consecutive days. Here are my lists from 2005 and 2006.
Some vital statistics: He was born on July 3 just before 1pm, weighed about 7 lbs., 2 oz., loves to eat (and then sleep), is O.K. (ha!), dislikes sponge baths, unfortunately doesn't have any descenders in his name, both mom and baby are home and doing fine, Ollie is not a particularly popular name right now (and is not short for Oliver), and I've never been quite so content as when he fell asleep on my chest yesterday and we snoozed together on the couch for an hour or so. A little slice of heaven.
Also, I'm going to be taking about two months of paternity leave from working on kottke.org. I'll probably post a few things here and there when I can, but it won't be a priority by any means. I hope you all have a good rest of the summer and that you'll find the site again when I start back up in the fall.
And if that weren't enough excitement for one day, it's also Pi Day. (Whoa, the Pi Day web site uses Silkscreen!) I bet the Pi Dayers are really looking forward to 2015 when they can extend the fun to two additional decimal places.
On Thursday, Google, the Internet search giant, will unveil a package of communications and productivity software aimed at businesses, which overwhelmingly rely on Microsoft products for those functions.
The package, called Google Apps, combines two sets of previously available software bundles. One included programs for e-mail, instant messaging, calendars and Web page creation; the other, called Docs and Spreadsheets, included programs to read and edit documents created with Microsoft Word and Excel, the mainstays of Microsoft Office, an $11 billion annual franchise.
Google isn't worried about Yahoo! or Microsoft's search efforts...although the media's focus on that is probably to their advantage. Their real target is Windows. Who needs Windows when anyone can have free unlimited access to the world's fastest computer running the smartest operating system? Mobile devices don't need big, bloated OSes...they'll be perfect platforms for accessing the GooOS. Using Gnome and Linux as a starting point, Google should design an OS for desktop computers that's modified to use the GooOS and sell it right alongside Windows ($200) at CompUSA for $10/apiece (available free online of course). Google Office (Goffice?) will be built in, with all your data stored locally, backed up remotely, and available to whomever it needs to be (SubEthaEdit-style collaboration on Word/Excel/PowerPoint-esque documents is only the beginning). Email, shopping, games, music, news, personal publishing, etc.; all the stuff that people use their computers for, it's all there.
When you swing a hammer in the vicinity of so many nails, you're bound to hit one on the head every once in awhile. Well, I got it in the general area of the nail, anyway.
New York City, NY*
One or more nights spent in each place. Those cities marked with an * were visited multiple times on non-consecutive days. Less travel than last year, thank goodness. Where's your list?
Over the past two weeks, David Jacobs, Anil Dash and I have attempted to reproduce (in some halting way) Jason Kottke, while the actual Jason Kottke was in rehab on his honeymoon. The attempt, on my part at least, has been an abject failure. Or haven't you noticed all the crappy links with "GK" at the end of them? Go-kart magazines? What the hell?
Like most of the disasters I've had a hand in, I've got a theory that both explains what happened and exonerates me. Ducking responsibility sounds better if you put on academic airs about it.
The theory: There are two kinds of bloggers, referential and experiential. Kottke is one. I, now two weeks too late in realizing this, am another.
The referential blogger uses the link as his fundamental unit of currency, building posts around ideas and experiences spawned elsewhere: Look at this. Referential bloggers are reporters, delivering pointers to and snippets of information, insight or entertainment happening out there, on the Intraweb. They can, and do, add their own information, insight and entertainment to the links they unearth -- extrapolations, juxtapositions, even lengthy and personal anecdotes -- but the outward direction of their focus remains their distinguishing feature.
The experiential blogger is inwardly directed, drawing entries from personal experience and opinion: How about this. They are storytellers (and/or bores), drawing whatever they have to offer from their own perspective. They can, and do, add links to supporting or explanatory information, even unique and undercited external sources. But their motivation, their impetus, comes from a desire to supply narrative, not reference it.
There's nothing here to imply that one type of blogger is better than the other. There are literally thousands -- OK, hundreds... OK, at least a dozen -- of both kinds that are valuable additions to the on-going conversation/food-fight/furry-cuddle that is the Internet. My point is that Jason Kottke is a very, very good referential blogger and I am a very, very bad one. And I'm sure I wouldn't have trouble finding a link that expresses this sentiment (many, many times over, with varying degrees of vehemence), but I'd rather say it from my own experience:
New York, NY*
Los Angeles, CA
Las Vegas, NV
One or more nights spent in each place. Those cities marked with an * were visited multiple times on non-consecutive days. Somehow, I did a lot more and a lot less traveling last year than I had anticipated. And just for fun, let's make this a meme! Blog your list of cities and get your friends to do the same. It'll be fun.