2020

  • The history of Myst

    Ars Technica just published a wonderful interview with Rand Miller. He was a co-creator (with his brother Robyn) of Myst, a groundbreaking adventure game originally released in the 1990s.

    I’ve never been a great gamer; I really admire the craft and skill of creating games but I rarely seem to have the patience, persistence, or problem-solving skills to truly engage with them in a meaningful way. But that wasn’t the case with Myst.

    I remember the first time I saw it: when I was (maybe?) 8, I went to my Dad’s office with him one day (I can’t remember why). In the evening, as people were heading home and I was following him out the door, I saw a couple of his coworkers gathered around one of their chunky, oyster-grey desktop Macs. One of them was playing the game, while a few others looked over his shoulder. Dad and I stopped to watch a moment and I was glued to the floor, completely transfixed. The landscapes I saw, and the eery, beautiful sound design blew me away. There was a story being told here, but it wasn’t being fed to you in a linear way as a book or film would do. Instead it offered an open space to explore with its own history that you needed to uncover on your own.

    This was my first experience with non-linear narrative, and it made me think about software in a whole new way.

    I’d played plenty of video games before that day, but they’d been mostly limited to platform-jumping, obstacle-avoiding console games. Myst was very different. It had very little animation – owing to technical limitations - but its creators had used this as a design choice, creating this wonderful sense of stillness and quiet throughout the game. You were invited to move around slowly, and take in all the details. The graphics were so rich and beautiful that it was worth stopping to examine every scene. There were no pitfalls or enemies to avoid. You couldn’t really “die” or “fail” because of a mistake (aside from one point near the end of the game). Instead, the challenge was to solve puzzles and connect the dots between all the different elements you encountered in each world. Your reward was, simply, another chapter of the story, and therefore more amazing things to see.

  • Javascript and the mysteries of Async/Await

    “Promises” are a part of the Javascript language that I’ve always had a hard time getting my head around, despite the fact I use them all the time. There’s just something oddly magical about them to me and I’m not sure I’ve ever been completely clear on all the nuances of the Promise object as it has evolved. This article on CSS-Tricks does a really nice job breaking down how the syntax works and what it all means. It’s by Sarah Drasner, who I’d say is one of the best Javascript teachers out there.

2019

  • Yann Philippe's infrared landscapes in Norway

    Photographer Yann Phillipe made this series of landscapes which are rendered using the infrared light spectrum, rather than visible light. The effect is dreamy and almost science-fiction-ey; forests become bright red while blues seem to get cooler.

    I’m not sure if these images were shot on actual infrared film, or if he was using a filter to simulate the effect. As I understand, infrared film stock is really hard to find these days (which is a shame), so my guess is that these images are digital. Either way, they’re gorgeous.

  • A history of the National Parks design system

    Oh dear Lord I want this book.

    I remember those “Helvetica + black stripe” pamphlets and maps from my childhood (esp the Appalachian Trail and Shenandoah ones - which I think are still printed) - I had no idea that they were actually part of a giant design system developed by Massimo Vignelli’s studio.

    This is one of those connecting threads between my hayseed middle-of-nowhere childhood and the supposedly bigger world I’m aware of now that just kind of gives me chills.

    More about Vignelli’s design system for park publications.

  • Google Slides, under the hood

    Interesting: I hit ‘view source’ on a Google Slides project this morning, to try to extract an image someone had uploaded and I noticed that the ‘slide’ code is all inline SVG (which is to say, XML). The image I was looking for turned out to be an <image href="..."></image> tag rather than the <img src="..." /> I expected. You can even download your slide as an SVG file.

    Makes a lot of sense to do it that way, now that I think about it; any given slide is type and graphics positioned in a fixed frame, which is precisely what SVG was built to do. In that sense, Google Slides is really just a big graphical SVG editor.

    That would also help explain why it’s so fast - I’m guessing that when you resize something, the JS is just changing the x/y/w/h coordinates on that particular XML tag, and then the browser does the rest as far as rendering goes.

    I guess I’d just presumed that Google Slides’ power was only possible through some kind of black magic, involving unspeakable things with canvas elements and a million lines of Angular script talking to a thousand AI server farms. But (on the front-end, at least) it looks like pretty straightforward, standards-compliant, remarkably clean HTML5. I’m impressed to see that, and also really drives home to me just how capable modern browsers are. This is the kind of thing they’re capable of, more or less, out of the box.

  • CPT is bringing the weird back

    The “Center for Philosophical Technologies” has one of the weirdest websites I’ve seen in awhile. Somebody really went nuts with RGBA and background-gradient. The UI is almost defiantly irrational, with odd punctuation everywhere, navigational elements strewn around the layout like somebody upended a box of tracing paper, and even their ‘logo’ is pulled apart and scattered across the top of the homepage (literally) at random.

    And yet… it’s really quite usable nonetheless.

    At first glance it just feels inscrutable, but after a few seconds of playing with stuff you can see there’s a logic to it. It speaks its own alien language, but the grammar is consistent and easy to learn.

    Looking at this site makes me feel kind of wistful, like when you hear an old song for the first time in 15 years. This brings back a rush of good memories of the odd and experimental websites that seemed more common in the early aughts, back when the rules for UX hadn’t really been written yet and, I dunno, people were maybe just more willing to try stuff.

    It’s cool to see that this kind of experimentation — this kind of wonderful fun weirdness for the sake of being weird — seems to be coming back as new CSS features are more widely supported and (maybe more importantly) as I guess we all are getting bored with following formulas.

  • Birchbark: Louise Erdrich’s bookstore

    If I’m ever in Minneapolis, visiting Birchbark will be at the top of my list. It’s a local bookstore founded by one of my favorite authors, the legendary Louise Erdrich, and it sounds wonderful. It sells all kinds of books but specializes in Native American authors and culture, including a wide selection of language instructional books, including Ojibwe, Dakota, Lakota, and Inuktitut.

    I can imagine that when you walk in the place smells like wood and ink and new paper and maybe coffee. Just as a perfect bookstore should.

    I’ve grown up with Erdrich’s work; The Master Butcher’s Singing Club is a book that means a lot to me which I’ve returned to a few times over the years. It’s hard to sum up how her work has affected me but, at the very least, her stories have taught me a lot about what it means to be American and how that notion is both more complex and more simple than it may seem. I dunno. Just read her stuff, you’ll see. Or, better yet, visit her store.

  • Finished a new sketchbook

    I finished a new sketchbook last night! I’ve been meaning to make a new one for myself for awhile but kept get sidetracked on other things. Finally done.

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  • ‘Mild’ peril

    I watched an animated movie with my 4-year-old daughter tonight and, as it started, I noticed the MPAA rating as it flashed by: RATED ‘G’ FOR MILD PERIL. For some reason the phrase MILD PERIL got stuck in a kind of processing loop in my head. Maybe because I’ve always thought of peril as a binary state: either I’m in peril or I’m, you know, okay. I never really thought of it as something that needed to be quantified.

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