Internet Explorer 8

With all the brou-ha-ha around Internet Explorer 8, I thought I’d add a couple of words to the debate.

Read James Bennet’s excellent summary (thanks for the link, Daring Fireball) for all the gory details. In short, IE8 makes a bit of a mess all over the web because it requires a metadata flag to tell it to render documents according to proper web standards.

That is, documents that have been written for IE6 and below that use the wrong box model will still look okay, and new sites that are developed correctly according to the standards require a special flag to render equivalently in Safari, Firefox and IE8. But without the flag, Safari and Firefox will still render them fine, only IE8 will do things wrong.

So, who wants a special “Microsoft fucked up” flag on every single page developed from now to eternity? Well, things look like that won’t be the case if IE8 renders HTML5 according to the standards no matter what. In which case this is all a storm in a teacup and the problem will disappear in the next couple of years as HTML5 becomes dominant. (Poor old XHTML.)

But if that’s not the case (that backwards compatibility precludes this standards-HTML5 mode) then Microsoft should just make a clean break and create a new web browser from scratch. I’m serious! Call it “MS Browser” or whatever and use all the code from IE8 that’s actual correct as far as standards are concerned. Then people that require IE can continue using that, which will be frozen forever. But home users can start afresh with a browser that can and will continue to support standards and doesn’t have to deal with backwards incompatibility kludges.

That’s a much cleaner solution, in my eyes, and moves Microsoft away from the perhaps tainted “IE” name. But it’ll never happen. Because no-one listens to me:)


New MacBook New Life

Well, I finally did it. After ruminating for possibly years on getting an iMac and then realising that I needed a primary machine in two locations, I’ve now sprung for a MacBook. Not, in the end, a MacBook Air; more on that later.

The buying periods for seasoned Mac fans deserves some words. While most people will just up and buy a new computer whenever they need one, following a computer company as obsessively as some of us follow Apple (well, we need some way to fill the void) attunes one to the ebbs and flows of product releases.

For many months, I was going to buy “the first iMac released after Leopard”; not only do I get the new operating system gratis, as it were, I’d also be buying the latest and greatest — obviously to maximise the performance/cost ratio as well as the advantages gained from subsequent generations of hardware. (While some will advise never to buy first-generation products, I’m not so leery about exercising warranty options; if you’re the unlucky type, then the hardware will break on you no matter what. And vice versa.)

But as time went by I realised that I was slowly starting to detest my working environment at uni. Windows PC and all that. The new McAfee anti-virus that literally slowed everything down by minutes to load was the last straw. And I thought how nice it would be to work on my PhD on a computer I actually enjoyed using. Loving your tools, and all that. With the Core 2 Duo, any Mac I bought would improve the speed of multitasking and at at worst remain about the same for simulation time in numerical software like Mathematica and Matlab. Buying a notebook would allow me to work on my PhD — which should be my primary purpose right about now — in comfort and even on weekends.

With a desktop at home, the chance of me doing real work on it would be essentially zero. With a notebook for my uni work, I could bring it home out of hours. Now, I’m not necessarily saying that I’m going to be enjoying doing some number crunching on Saturday mornings; the sort of time I shall save will be the workflow improvements that I’d otherwise be doing during the weekday. It’s not good time management to spend a few days making sure that the figures and diagrams I’m producing match the fonts of my thesis. But I can’t ignore those sorts of details, so I’d have the spend the time somewhere.

In the end, a MacBook just made sense. So, then the waiting game became “wait for Leopard and then see how we go”. By the time Leopard was released I was waiting for my tax return and the MacBook was due for an update; but by the time the latest of the MacBooks was released, there were rumours of Apple’s then-secret MacBook Air. After waiting so long on the MacBook, another couple of months wasn’t going to make much difference. And I had deadlines that I didn’t want to push back for accommodating a radically new computer in my life.

Finally (and I do mean finally — the wait had been interminable by this stage) Apple released their MacBook Air and I almost bought one within hours of watching the announcement. What’s not to like? With 60% of the weight of a standard MacBook, it falls into the category of light enough not to worry about. And I love the idea of soldered RAM. Seriously. I just added 4GB of RAM to my MacBook, the maximum possible, for AU$160; that’s less that 10% of the price of the machine. And that’s a huge amount of RAM. The days of swappable RAM in consumer machines are numbered. The upside is cleaner design and cheaper computers.

But the MacBook Air didn’t quite cut it for me as a main machine right now. On top of the $400 excess for the design, I’d likely need an external DVD drive which made the thing even more expensive, and the compromises for that price point just didn’t add up for me right now (probably with the CPU being the biggest factor). But I’m gunning for the MacBook Air to become the MacBook as soon as possible and it’s definitely my “favourite” machine in Apple’s lineup. I hope in the future they release an even smaller machine that uses a widescreen display the width of the old 12 inch PowerBook. While I don’t mind the size of the 13 inch MacBooks, I am more taken by the more diminutive PowerBooks of yore. The slightly smaller screen totally justifies the rather dramatic reduction in size of the notebook, in my opinion. I’d like to think that the reason the MacBook Air isn’t that size is that Apple’s engineers simply couldn’t shrink things that much. That’s a rather self-serving opinion, however.

(By the way, guess what? Even my Dad knew about the MacBook Air shortly after its announcement. Now that’s something for Apple marketing, I’d say.)

So here I am with a fancy new computer with all my music, my typesetting, my code, my data. I’ve got a new-found respect for software like OmniWeb that just didn’t cut it any more on older hardware. iCal is now useable and I can organise my life in it. Mail.app has a convenient ToDo list that might get me to finish all of my unfinished projects. I’ve got large displays at home and at work so Mac OS X has room to breathe; something it totally deserves.

There’s a feeling of association that you have with a computer that fits your needs and responds to your commands that really shouldn’t be lacking from any computing experience. When web apps start being faster than desktop apps, you know there’s a problem. When you sigh when sitting down in front of Windows every day to have to deal with all of its idiosyncrasies, that’s not a positive environment for work.

It sounds silly, but when I sit down in front of my new MacBook, I start to feel at one with this extension of my brain that is before me. There’s a long way to go in getting computing just right, but I feel that we’re starting to home in on what that is.

‘Children of Húrin’ by Tolkien (2007)

I imagine that Peter Jackson’s epic telling re-stimulated interest in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I’d be interested to see the numbers. What I think many people don’t realise is that the story depicted in there is a small part of the tale imagined by Tolkien over his long years.

The backstory of ages past forms a greater story than The Lord of the Rings itself, albeit told in less detail. Tolkien spent his entire life drafting fragments of stories and poems of this history, much of which has been posthumously published by his third son, Christopher Tolkien. The most recent, and most ambitious, of these is The Children of Húrin.

Small reflections of this greater tale can be seen in brief moments in The Lord of the Rings, such as:

For of Beren and Lúthien was born Dior Thingol’s heir; and of him Ewing the White whom Eärendil wedded, he that sailed his ship out of the mists of the world into the seas of heaven with the Silmaril on his brow. And of Eärendil came the Kings of Númenor, that is Westernesse.

The story of Beren and Lúthien is referred to in the Lord of the Rings due to the parallels between the relationship of Aragorn and Arwen. The Children of Húrin takes place in a similar time and covers a separate branch of the family.

Unlike previous works such as The Silmarilion and Unfinished Tales, which are a collection of short works that read more like history books, The Children of Húrin is a complete narrative seamlessly composed from a vast array of reference material. The result is a story that is dark and sombre where the Lord of the Rings is hopeful and sometimes even light-hearted.

For those who have read The Lord of the Rings and would like to continue reading works in the same vein, Children of Húrin can be recommended without reservation. It’s a great loss that Tolkien could not bring more of his works to completion, as the stories that survive are tantalising glimpses into the great imagination that he possessed and the entire worlds that existed in his head. We can but be thankful that his son has been able to construct such a collection of works out of the material left behind.


Can't see past the pinstripes

The evolution of pinstripes in Mac OS X has been quite a ride. Remember when things looked like this? (Extracted from a screenshot at GUIdeBook.)


Some people thought this looked a little bit over the top. In hindsight, yes, that is a bit visually noisy. As time went by, Apple continued to tone down the pinstripes until they were almost entirely gone in Mac OS X 10.4, remaining only very faintly in the menu bar and in the title bar of background windows.

I would much have preferred them over the years to keep the pinstripes and keep the brushed metal away, but there you go. The brushed metal never bothered me too much aside from the occasional niggle.

With Mac OS X 10.5, the pinstripes in the menu bar have been replaced with transparency, and haven’t we had fun complaining about that, too? For what it’s worth, I’m also not a transparent menu bar–hater. At least they didn’t make it a brushed metal menu bar at any stage.

But wait! If you look hard there are indeed pinstripes in Leopard. And they’re unlike any pinstripes you’ve ever seen — well, except the ones you seen in real life:


Squint, and you’ll see ‘em. Here, this might help; they’re pretty subtle:


Vertical slimming lines in an otherwise unadorned window. And they’re lighter than the window. Quite unexpected. I’ve only seen them here in iCal, too. Do I like them? Well, I guess I’d rather not have them there. Noticing them did prompt this entire post, after all. But were they to be replaced with yet more gradient fills, I’d be more upset, I think. Too many gradients just kills me.

So there you have it. An insignificant graphical frill that will probably be never again seen in any Apple product, but one with enough back-story to make it worth mentioning. Perhaps.

Period Space Space

Typographically speaking, typing two spaces after a period ending a sentence is the wrong thing to do.

Extra space after a sentence was popular around the 19th Century, but these days it is no longer in fashion. By default LaTeX still adds the extra space, and you can turn it off with \frenchspacing. Don’t forget TeX’s typesetting was inspired by early 20th Century textbooks and you can understand why the extra space is the default.

But let’s get this clear: this extra space was used to help justify the lines of type without overly increasing the space between words inside the sentences themselves. That is to say: the extra space was not exactly two spaces wide. For some sentences it was more, sometimes less. (In some old books the extra space can be grotesquely large to my eyes.)

When typewriters came along, they needed all of the readability improvements they could get. Using a double space after the period works well to separate sentences that would otherwise run into each other visually. But proportional text doesn’t have the same problems.

Even if you wanted to add extra space after your sentences, it should be the job of the typesetting program to do this for you. Just like you shouldn’t hit Return twice in Word to separate paragraphs (if you know what you’re doing), you shouldn’t hit Space twice to separate sentences.

The only acceptable time I can concede that the double space is appropriate is for markup reasons. LaTeX does not support this, but a typesetting program that only added extra space in conjunction with the double space would be a little more elegant in cases where a period doesn’t end the sentence (e.g., after an abbreviation). I’m not a big fan of LaTeX’s syntax in this instance: cf.\@ previous, where the \@ suppresses the extra space that would normally be inserted. Luckily TeX is clever enough to assume that a period following an uppercase letter will generally not be ending a sentence, and suppresses the extra space automatically.


Let’s just make life easy for ourselves and use \frenchspacing.


Combining Quick Look & texbin

Mac OS X 10.5 has a handy technology called “Quick Look” that allows you to preview documents in a floating window without actually opening them up in a dedicated program. Ideal when you want to briefly check on the contents of something while you’re in the middle of another task.

Modern TeX distributions come with a convenient program texdoc for quickly finding documentation for LaTeX packages and so on. It’s nice to use Quick Look as the viewer for texdoc–found files, as I often open up package documenation just to check the syntax or spelling of some obscure command. Here’s a shell script to do this:

qlmanage -p `texdoc -l $1 | grep -e '.*' -m 1` &> /dev/null &

Save it somewhere in your path in a file called, say, teq and you’ll be able to write teq pdfpages to called up the pdfpages documentation in a floating window. Nice.


With money to spend: MacBook ±Air?

A year ago I wanted to buy an iMac. Long story short: I changed my mind. Primarily because I became frustrated with using a Windows computer at uni and wanted a notebook to replace both my home and work machines. Towards that end, I’ve got big (enough) displays in both locations that I’m okay with the ergonomics situation. Disk space is also fine as long as my music is kept on an external hard drive.

Now the MacBook has been recently updated, and today brings the announcement of Apple’s new ‘MacBook Air’. This marks the beginning of the end for the current form-factor MacBook; it’s only a matter of time before it’s replaced by its svelte brother. So it’s time to buy; my 867MHz PowerBook is so flaky these days to be largely unusable for anything serious. I don’t want a MacBook Pro because (a) they’re expensive, and (b) they’re large; if I’m lugging the thing on my half hour walk to and from uni every day, the smaller the better. So the MacBook Air looks like a good idea from that respect. And it’s small. I like small! (To throw in an empirical point of argument.)

The only problem is the performance/price trade-off. For approximately AU$400 less, I can buy a MacBook. And the processor will be about half as fast again over the ’Air, all else being about equal. But even my uni computer is only a 2.4GHz Pentium 4. The two cores and greater efficiency of the Core 2 Duo means I won’t be down-trading much at all on the performance I need to run Matlab and Mathematica.

So I’m leaning greatly towards the MacBook Air. I’ll give it a day of deliberation before I make my decision.

P.S. Why is it ‘MacBook Air’ but ‘iPod touch’? (Note the capitalisation of the qualifier.)



Here lies a new day, a new week, a new year. I don’t know what’s going to happen next, although I’ve got some plans. By the end of the year I could be in a different country. I will be called “Doctor”. I will hold my head high, and my future will be trodden with a steady step. I will help others around me and I will not judge. Friendships will be strengthened and new friendships made. My time will be well spent and I will not regret the idle moments. Happy 2008!