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The Design of Everyday Things

27 January 2007 » In Books, Reviews » Comments Off on The Design of Everyday Things

Mental DNA

I have just finished reading the first book from the pile that I bought at Powell’s. Despite the title, the book’s main focus is not about the industrial design of the things around us. Rather, Norman takes a close look at badly conceived and designed everyday objects (like doors that give no overt clue as to how they should be opened) and strikes back at those who are responsible for such dysfunctional artifacts. My favorite example is a refrigerator control panel that provides two controls for fresh-food and freezer compartments, yet works in such a way that changing either control affects the temperature in both compartments.

Norman spends a fair amount of time on the psychology of actions; namely, what people go through in order to bring about changes in the world according to their intentions. His main premise is that good design “reduces the gulfs of Execution and Evaluation”: in other words, the user should easily be able to figure out what to do and the user can tell what is going on as a result of their actions. Unfortunately, at times the book veers off into areas with only a tenuous connection to the main theme. Chapter 5 could be cut out completely and the book as a whole could be trimmed down to about half its size without sacrificing the major points. The discussion of computer interface design in chapter 7 is dated and I hope Norman concentrates on higher-level human-computer interaction rather than lauding the Macintosh as the pinnacle of good interface design.

Nevertheless, it is a good read and I recommend it for everyone who has often wondered why shower controls seem to be designed by sadists, but especially for those who are involved in designing things that are intended to be used by normal humans.

First Post, 2007

03 January 2007 » In Books, PHP, Travel » 4 Comments

Mental DNA

Hello and Happy New 2007 to everyone! I have just returned from a trip to Portland, Oregon, where I visited some friends and spent New Year’s Eve skiing at Mt. Hood’s Skibowl (it’s been a year since I first gave skiing a try). Some other highlights of the trip included good food and drinks at such places as Pix Patisserie, Brazil Grill, and Andina, a couple of loooong visits to Powell’s City of Books, and ringing in the new year at a huge house party that must have had around a hundred people.

Tomorrow, the work resumes. I feel bad about not getting the Unicode preview release of PHP 6 out before the end of the year, but there was one crucial piece still missing and having a release without it did not make sense. But rest assured, we are very, very close and I anticipate making the release in the next week or two once we have this piece integrated and all the details ironed out.

I must again confess how much I love Powell’s: it is truly a bibliophile’s dream. Its 1+ million new and used books are organized by the staff with care and evident love and one could get lost amidst its twelve foot high shelves for a whole day. I also had a chance to visit the Rare Books room and flip through the first edition of The Fellowship of the Rings ($1000) and an 1805 printing of a large format Latin dictionary ($1200 for 4 volume set). Too bad they didn’t have Newton’s Principia at the time.

I decided that I would buy only used books on this trip, to avoid carrying back something I can purchase new anywhere. What did I come away with after hours of browsing and a few cups of coffee? 12 books for a total cost of $101.19.

Back from OSCON 2006

29 July 2006 » In Books, PHP, Talks » 3 Comments

Just got back from OSCON which was again in Portland this year. The conference was excellent, as always and so were the events and extracurricular activities. The sheer variety of talks at OSCON is exciting and frustrating at the same time: exciting because I attended several talks that I would not get to hear at a more focused conference, and frustrating because of the time conflicts between these talks.

The slides from my own session on PHP 6 and Unicode are online now.

By the way, if you like books just a tiny little bit and happen to be in Portland, do yourself a favor: set aside a full day and visit the Powell’s. It the world’s largest independent used and new bookstore (covering, oh, a couple of city blocks) and has an amazing collection of books (including some very rare ones). You could literally lose your friends and family there and wonder among the stacks for hours whilst salivating giddily over the titles on whatever topic your mind can imagine. And don’t worry, there is always the coffee shop to come back to and get provisions to sustain yourself.

PHP-GTK Book is Out

30 April 2006 » In Books, PHP » Comments Off on PHP-GTK Book is Out

Well, I certainly never imagined back when I was starting work on PHP-GTK that one day there would be a 400 page book about it. Pro PHP-GTK by Scott Mattocks is the first English language book on this topic and it is on the bookshelves, real and virtual, right now. I just wanted to say, kudos to Scott and congrats on his newborn as well. He’s very productive. 🙂

Book Update

12 January 2006 » In Books, Reviews » Comments Off on Book Update

Thought it would be good to mention some memorable books that I have read in the last couple of months. I had Dark Star Safari on hiatus for a long time, but finally finished it a couple of weeks ago. The delay had nothing to do with the quality of the book itself, which gives a detailed and profound account of the Africa of modern times from the point of view of a westerner who is also intimately familiar with it. Paul Theroux spent many years of his youth teaching in Africa and his knowledge of the local people, languages, and customs allows for a much closer conversation with everyone he meets on his epic journey from Cairo to Capetown, be it on a ferry, canoe, or an armed convoy truck. Some might find him a bit crotchety, but I found the book to be a good eye opener on the problems facing Africa — especially sub-Saharan countries — today.

Redemption Ark is a sequel to Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space hard-SF space opera. Reynolds is at the top of his game once again, revealing a complex, gripping, and surprisingly insightful story full of awesome imagery and technothriller-like excitement. Looking forward to the conclusion of the series.

I’ve been meaning to read something by Tom Robbins, so I picked up Jitterbug Perfume. I honestly can say this is one of the best books I have ever come across: amazing and amazingly unique characters, a plot that is firmly rooted in the magic realism space, great dialogue, and to top it off, there are genuinely funny moments sprinkled throughout. Robbins is a master of the language; on almost every other page I found sentences and passages that I wanted to highlight and maybe I will do just that on the second reading. Give this one a try: you’ll never think of the beets in quite the same way again.

Started on: Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond (another book that’s been on my list for a while), and Oldman’s Guide to Outsmarting Wine by Mark Oldman.

Rendezvous at the Fiction Corner

19 September 2005 » In Books » 1 Comment

I love books. But I adore new books.

To me there is something singular about picking up a crisp volume, feeling it heft or lightness in my hands, turning it over to inspect how well it’s been put together. I like to run my fingers over the texture of the cover and the pages, flicking them like playing cards, one thin sheet after another in a deliberate and languorous movement, catching a glance of a letter, a word, a sentence. I look at the unbroken spine, binding the book until its proper owner decides to make the first crease by unfolding it harshly, to keep it in its place during breakfast or lunch.

I like to glimpse through the quotes and adulations on the back cover, all unequivocally promising a remarkable experience. I look at the foreign objects affixed to the book by the book mongers, the promotional stickers and pricing labels, pinning its value to a specific amount and categorizing it among its brethren. I open a page at random and look at the typeface, noting its stylistic grace, the seriffed letters, the elaborate initials, the ascenders and the descenders, forever trying to fill the empty space between the lines. I hold the book closer and gently inhale its unique and tangy smell: the ink, the glue, and the paper melting together into a characteristic bouquet that makes you swoon slightly and triggers the memories you thought were long gone.

I sit and look at the new book in my hands, thinking about the promise contained inside this veritable Schrödinger’s box, the work that went into it all, the time someone spent in a dusty office, in a country house, in a dark room illuminated by the glow of a screen, capturing the words out of ether and into their solid form, struggling against the entropy, stringing one sentence after another, and another, and another. I wonder whether I will be absorbed for hours or abandon it after just a few chapters, condemning it to sit in the book case until given away to someone more appreciative. I savor the anticipation of turning to the first page and being seized by the opening sentence. But until I do that… this moment is mine, and this experience will remain, always, a sublime one.

Here’s to a new book.

It’s Tuesday

19 July 2005 » In Bay Area, Books » 3 Comments

It’s that time of year again. No, not Tour de France. Not the time of the crushingly hot, lead-melting temperatures either. It’s the time of the year when I evaluate my housing options, and so far the facts are:

  1. the housing market in Bay Area is crazier than Robin Williams on cocaine
  2. my apartment complex has been sold to a different entity and the new management company are complete and utter pricks

Given that I have not yet won a World Series of Poker championship and that the rent on the already overpriced apartment currently occupied by me has been jacked up even higher, I can easily say Au revoir, je vais chercher un autre endroit. Probably somewhere in Sunnyvale.

In other news, I finished Blondie24 and started on The Day After Tomorrow, because I felt like reading an engaging mystery thriller. Blondie24 was a good, if somewhat basic, introduction to the field of artificial intelligence and genetic programming. It was definitely oriented towards a lay person, but Fogel does a good job of describing their quest for evolving a checkers-playing neural network.

Book Update

18 June 2005 » In Books, Reviews » 1 Comment

Finished: Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. A fascinating, if sometimes shocking, look at what goes on behind the scenes in the restaurant business, specifically the kitchen. Bourdain does not pull any punches as he describes the rough and tumble kitchen crew, atmosphere, jargon, machinations, relentless pressure, and grisly details of every day of his profession in an eloquent and almost gleefully confessional way. His account is somewhat uneven and undoubtedly colored by his own history, but you will never forget why you should not order the fish on Monday.

Started: Blondie 24

PHP-GTK Book

12 April 2004 » In Books, PHP » 12 Comments

This morning at work I found a package sitting in my mailbox. From Brazil. I tore off the wrapping and found inside a copy of the very first book about PHP-GTK! Pablo Dall’Oglio, a long time user and a friend, has written PHP-GTK: Criando Aplicações Gráficas com PHP to impart his experience and educate people about this software library that I developed. Rasmus still calls PHP-GTK “bogus”, but I think it’s just been validated a bit more. And PHP had been called “bogus” when it started too, I think.. 🙂

Nothing but books

02 September 2003 » In Books » 4 Comments

Jeremy is a fellow book nut. I love the smell of books, that distinct combination of wood pulp and ink that assaults you when you walk into a bookstore. Almost every weekend I head out to one and browse through the shelves, picking up books, thumbing through them, reading the first paragraph and a few in the middle, in hopes of finding a true gem. I also have a long reading list that I accumulated from various sources, but it should probably be revised. Sometimes I struggle with what book I should read next – there are so many and so little time. How do you figure out which one is worth spending your time on? Recommendations only go so far. I have literally thrown away some highly recommended books because I could not stand them, and at other times I could literally pick a random one up and go through it in one sitting. I would be interested to hear what approaches people have to organizing their reading list and how they discover new books.