Tag Archives: design

The Ampersand is Important

How many times do I have to say this? We’re the Skull & Daggers—that’s with an ampersand. So I don’t want to see anybody spelling out “and.” This was not a random decision. We chose the ampersand because it’s the cleaner, more elegant option, and it resonates with our target audience. We may be vandals, but we’re not savages.
The New Yorker: Please Adhere to Our Biker Gang’s Style Guide

Use of the ampersand must be made judiciously, but is a very wise one when done. I might be biased.

Star Trek to Star Wars: Just One Thing About J.J. Abrams At The Helm

(Warning: This article contains spoilers for movies that have been out for at least a couple years now, though given the title if you are reading this article you have seen the films in question.)

Ars Technica has a good review of the Star Wars trailer because it doesn’t dive deeply into the details but instead looks at the overall context:

One alternate explanation for the excess of familiarity is that, unlike 2009’s Star Trek, The Force Awakens is a true sequel and not a reboot. Abrams’ first Trek film hit a big reset button for a franchise that was in much worse shape than Star Wars is now—even though reviews of Episodes I, II, and III were mostly negative and remain popular punching bags to this day, they were still big financial successes. The same cannot be said for Star Trek Nemesis and Enterprise, the final fizzling embers of the Star Trek revival that began with Wrath of Khan and The Next Generation. Abrams had a lot of latitude in reimagining Trek’s most iconic elements, but The Force Awakens is sticking closer to the aesthetic established in the original 1970s and ’80s films.

I agree about the prequels. Lucas fucked up. I saw all of them in the theaters, but I only ever saw them once. I have zero inclination to see them again, much less buy DVDs remastered or otherwise. For me, Episodes I, II, and III just never happened, and I will only revisit them when my kids ask “Hey, this is Episode IV. Where are Episodes I, II, and III?”

As for J.J. Abrams’ treatment of the Star Trek reboot, I have mixed feelings about them. For both the films, I really like the overall look and feel; the original uniforms with the movie iconography and sets. I think he really captured the overall aesthetic across the entire franchise that I grew up with.

The conclusion to the article sums up my feelings about these new Star Wars films:

Of course, this trailer gives us just a glimpse of what we’ll actually see in theaters in December 2015, and it tells us nothing about the stuff that really ruined the prequel movies—boring stories, wooden acting, and stilted, ridiculous scripts. We’re inclined to be hopeful, given Abrams’ track record, but we’re still in for a long wait.

This is also where I pause on Abrams taking the helm of Star Wars. Case in point: the plot to the second Star Trek reboot movie—you know, the one where Benedict Cumberbatch is Khan—because it speaks directly to my single biggest complaint about Hollywood in that there are so few original ideas. How many remakes of already-written plots do we need? How many Superman origin stories do we need set to film? Why have all of these action movie soundtracks been simplified down to non-orchestral bombastic textures? (I’m looking at you Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer.) As soon as Cumberbatch revealed he was Khan, I was ready to leave (but didn’t because the theater seats are way more comfortable than the lobby seats). When Spock and Kirk flipped the infamous engine room scene from Wrath of Khan, the Abrams version went into the same “I want two hours of my life back” bin I have for Episodes I, II, and III. My time for movies is severely limited, and I find more satisfaction out of other types of film than the current trends in high-end sci-fi/action. Maybe I’m just getting old and no longer the target audience for The Avengers, but my patience for seeing the same memes used across genres and franchises is already stale.

The point here is not that I expect an old plot will be rehashed in Star Wars—obviously, there shouldn’t be in what is clearly going to be a canonical sequel—but that Abrams has made what I consider to be showstopper mistakes with a beloved franchise. While I don’t think he will make a “second Death Star” mistake (speaking of rehashing old plots), there is still a lot of room for error here.

I do—however, ultimately, honestly, and truly—wish him the best of luck with Star Wars. The Star Trek reboot was a visual love letter to a great franchise, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the first one if only because he gave Star Trek a long-needed “edginess” to it, and the Star Wars trailer looks to be the same. Seeing and hearing those X-Wings skimming on the water, and the Millennium Falcon taking on a couple of TIEs, had the kid in my craving much, much more. Abrams is clearly already more on the mark than Lucas was; amazing what a fresh pair of eyes will do to a franchise. But we still don’t know anything about the plot, despite all the picking apart by fandom with their rumors in hand, and we all know as irrefutable, immutable law of film that no amount of special effects will save a bad story.

Speaking of fandom, the comments to the article are amusing in a William Shatner, Saturday Night Live skit kind of way (says the guy writing about a Star Wars teaser trailer on his blog), which I don’t normally read but I just had to look, and this one sums up the tone perfectly:

Yes, LET’S ARGUE ABOUT LIGHTSABER CONFIGURATIONS ON THE INTERNET IN THE TIME HONORED TRADITION

May the force be with J.J. Abrams and his team.

Adobe Digital Editions is *still* the worst ebook reader I have ever used.

Somehow, Adobe managed to upgrade Adobe Digital Editions from version 2 to version 3 with absolutely no improvement. This is impressive in its own way. Text selection for highlighting is still a complete disaster. The app still translates my moving the pointer one pixels to jump the selection of a single sentence to half a paragraph, a problem that inarguably plagued the last version.

That the app was allowed to be released with such a major bug in a vital feature of any ebook reader, is astounding to me. Now I get the impression that the app lives in some sort of development backwaters, using version numbers simply to call attention rather than indicating any real improvements (which puts it in line with past Creative Suite upgrades).

For a company that is in the business of making books and wants to be in the business of eBooks, Adobe Digital Editions is just an embarrassment.

I’ll know it when I see it, and this isn’t it.

SILE versus Word

When most people produce printed documents using a computer, they usually use software such as Word (part of Microsoft Office) or Writer (part of Open/LibreOffice) or similar–word processing software. SILE is not a word processor; it is a typesetting system.

SILE versus TeX

SILE is basically a modern rewrite of TeX.

SILE versus InDesign

InDesign is a complex, expensive, commercial publishing tool. It’s highly graphical–you click and drag to move areas of text and images around the screen. SILE is a free, open source typesetting tool which is entirely text-based; you enter commands in a separate editing tool, save those commands into a file, and hand it to SILE for typesetting. And yet the two systems do have a number of common features.

So, essentially, this is a rewrite for TeX. But the reality is that creating complex layouts really, truly requires GUI layout tools. No matter how good the output is for this application, it’s entering into an firmly-established market with a few, large, expensive players, and not a lot of action. Publishing automation tools are nothing new, but one has to give up a certain amount (usually a lot) of control to create a document on the cheap. Even for those workflows that are intensely reliant on templates, designers are still working in InDesign for the initial design, which is then handed off to a person, or more frequently a system, to translate into something to be automated.

TeX has already been done, and automated layouts have already been done. I’m a long-time user of TeX, and I love it, but I don’t feel this has a long road in front of it.

Ars Technica: Same box, better graphics

In the never-ending war between PC and console gamers, one of the PC side’s favorite points is the fact that console hardware stays frustratingly static for years at a time, while PC users can upgrade everything from the RAM to the graphics card as technology improves. Thus, by the end of a given console generation (and sometimes earlier), a price-competitive PC will almost always be able to outclass the performance of its aging console competition.

This is true, as far as it goes. But as any console owners can tell you, unchanging hardware does not mean unchanging graphical performance over the life of a console. On the contrary, as time goes on, developers are often able to extract more from a console’s limited architecture than anyone ever thought possible when the system launched.
Ars Technica: “Same box, better graphics: improving performance within console generations”

Great retrospective that highlights how much those early consoles improved over time, though not so much on the later consoles. I’d be surprised if the same retrospective would be applicable to the consoles coming out today or in the next couple of years.

I am surprised, however, they didn’t highlight the Nintendo 64. I think of all the consoles listed in the article, the N64 would be the best example of just how much progress developers could make in a single generation. The Ocarina of Time was an amazing game in terms of story, scale, and mechanics, but the graphics, frankly, paled in comparison to Star Wars Episode 1: Racer and Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Despite the games being so expensive, I was really disappointed when the N64 was discontinued because the games looked great and had none of the load times seen on the PlayStation. I still miss that console sometimes, and if Nintendo would get their act together, face reality, and start releasing games on the iPhone, I would pick up pretty much every one of them.

The American Room

More than 100 million Americans live in the suburbs. Suburban homes are built many at a time to achieve efficiencies. A set of tract homes is the horizontal equivalent of a skyscraper. The plans themselves are defined along familiar principles, designed to meet market demand. Programs like AutoCAD make it possible to quickly and efficently produce blueprints for homes using a pre-defined, standardized library of components. Viewed very broadly, the construction industry functions like a massive, decentralized, and human-powered 3D printer controlled by AutoCAD
. . .
You could judge those rooms and say that America has a paucity of visual imagination, that we live in a kind of wasteland. Or you could draw another conclusion, and note that America might be a little more broke than it wants to show. The painfully expensive 2,000-square foot home is furnished with cheap big sofas and junk from Target. Maybe these video stars don’t hang pictures because they are renters. Maybe they know they are going to move soon, to another part of the state or country; suburbs are the temporary worker housing for America. Maybe they moved in and just haven’t unpacked yet, and the big picture of grandma is still in the garage.

But try to see it from their perspective. Our protagonists are looking into the computer. They like what they see, find it stimulating and exciting. They are eager to participate. They see what we see when we go online. Other people’s rooms.
Medium.com: The American Room
Behind the nation’s closed doors, with YouTube.

Why I rail against Adobe: I care.

Pretty much all of my blog posts about Adobe are critical, if not outright negative. This is because I care about the environment in which I work. My line of business, I am all but compelled to work with Adobe products. They are a major focal point of my development efforts, and are something with which I have had a relationship for over twenty years now.

Publishing technology has few alternatives. Before InDesign, QuarkXpress was the dominant application for page layouts. When InDesign CS2 was released, a gust of fresh air blew into the state of page layouts, and Quark quickly was given a run for its money, quickly outpaced by InDesign’s innovations. There were others, like PageMaker and FrameMaker, but they had their specific markets and requirements that generally didn’t meet book publishing’s general needs with the same ease as Quark and InDesign.

For a case in point, one need only look at the link manager in both applications. A “link” in this case is a piece of art placed into pages, or an XML file used to populate a template. A lot of time has passed since I worked with Quark in depth, but I remember Quark’s link manager being very linear with a poor UI and file selection UX. InDesign’s link management became everything that Quark’s wasn’t and kept innovating. The link manager is not “sexy” in the sense that it is an easy-to-implement, eye-popping effect for a client to see, but it is a focal point in the application for the page builder, who has to manage anywhere between a handful to thousands of links in a single job. A designer cannot build a design without using the link manager; it is like needing food to survive. With Adobe Creative Suite 4, my company made the decision to have all new titles be made in InDesign and have yet to change that policy. I learned how to script on that version and have built up a substantial library of code since.

Recent releases of the Creative Suite, and the newly released Creative Cloud, have left me wanting for better Applescript support, to the point where much of my code is going to be rendered obsolete within a year at the rate things are going. In my team’s recent purchase of Quark licenses—purely for legacy file support purposes, sadly,as we have a soft spot for Quark since some of us built are careers on it—the link manager was the first feature we looked at. It was immediately apparent that their link management had not changed one iota since InDesign’s first release, and quickly went back to work with InDesign, disappointed that nothing new was on the horizon for us.

There is one promising open source page layout application, but since scripting support appears to be even more dodgy than InDesign’s, there is no point in even downloading the application. “Contribute to the project,” you suggest? Noble, but there is no way I can fit in free development work in between The Day Job, school (I get 10-20 hours of homework each week), and family. So, I keep slogging with InDesign.

With Photoshop and Illustrator, things are more promising with there being a number of good alternatives, but without that page layout to tie it all together, I have to pick my battles elsewhere. I’m really not keen on supporting whatever arbitrary language a given application supports in addition to Applescript and Javascript. Wrangling those two is enough work as it is.

Really, the only way I can get out from Adobe’s mire would be to change my careers away from anything remotely design-related, which wouldn’t be all that bad, but that would really mean changing industries, which is something that is, personally, unappealing to me for the time being. I have my reasons, but this is not the forum in which to discuss them.

What this means is that, in the end due to industry and personal constraints, I cannot avoid Adobe, and will not be able to in the foreseeable future. While I am here, working with their apps, I have a desire to see them improve, or at least be better maintained. Adding in 3D object creation into Photoshop is not what I consider a good use of anyone’s time. So, I criticize.

Adobe’s Applescript API: Their near lack thereof.

I have this working draft of a post explaining how badly broken Applescript is from purely an Apple-owned technology perspective, and imploring Apple to do something about it. It’s a bit long. But, since Adobe’s Creative Cloud has been released and I got my grubby little hands on a copy, I decided to look at the state of Applescript support in my most-used applications. It’s not that I have high hopes of anything improving given support since Creative Suite 5, but this is my bread and butter so it’s worth a look to see what I have to workaround in future upgrades of scripts, if upgrading a script is even worth the time.

Currently, my Applescript “support” of in-house that utilize Adobe applications has been relegated to using one call—doJavascript:withArguments:showDebugger: within the Scripting Bridge header, if one can be generated. (As I explain in my as yet unfinished post) Adobe’s Applescript support is rather dodgy in its implementation—there are some long-standing, show-stopper bugs (I’m looking at you open command in Photoshop—so I thought it best to migrate over to their Javascript APIs. Interfacing with other applications like Excel and a couple others of my own devising centered around XML parsing is paramount to my workflows.

Here is what we have to work with.

  1. Photoshop: Line 1280.
  2. InDesign: Does not exist in the header.
  3. Illustrator: No header could be generated because the sdef (scripting dictionary) file does not exist.

I took a look at some other apps, like Bridge, and things go generally downhill from there. Essentially, any Applescript-related support is rendered useless in Creative Cloud. This is infuriating, back-stabbing bullshit. I would also like to say this is also unacceptable but that would ring hollow since the state of publishing technology is such that I have no choice but to use Adobe software. Nowhere on their site do they formally announce the drop in support in Illustrator, and given the dodgy performance of their Applescript API.

I wish Adobe would do three things:

  1. Formally announce that Applescript, if not OSA support in general, is going away.
  2. Pick a date well in advance (like a year) for developers to prepare.
  3. Turn it off all at once so I can stop having to hunt for the state of their API.

This unannounced erosion in API support by inconsistency is poor form, though I expect nothing less from Adobe these days, and reflects their general customer support as well.