April 25, 2008

Q&A with the New York Times Online Design Director

Khoi Vinh, the designer of the newish New York Times site and creator of the elegant blog Subtraction, is participating in a question and answer session all week (yeah, I'm late with this).

Talk to the Newsroom: Khoi Vinh, Design Director

Right up front he makes an important point about designing and writing for a specific medium (one that I wish more people truly understood):

Whatever success we've had with making a useful and engaging source for online news, in my opinion, comes from realizing that we're not just trying to re-create what's available to readers in the printed newspaper.

Rather, we're trying to create something that's true to this medium, that borrows the best of what works in print and that takes advantage of the unique aspects of digital media.

This means we pay a lot of attention to how people use our content online. That is, not just how they read it, but how they make use of it: how they might scan the page haphazardly rather than diligently reading from top to bottom; what parts of the page they look to first and last; what they expect to change from visit to visit; which visual cues are meaningful for them and which design flourishes they find useless.

Good stuff.

April 21, 2008

Increase your website performance

As most readers will know a browser allows only so many parallel connections to a server. This means that if an HTML-page contains a lot of included JS/CSS-files and images and such, it will not load them all at once, but a bunch at a time and then the next bunch etc. This maximum is typically 2. It isn't hard to imagine that as more files need to be loaded in to display a page correctly, it can take longer to load it in when there's a queue instead of loading in all files simultaneously. This becomes even more apparent when you take into consideration all the Ajax/widget toolkits that are popping up all over the place, which can require quite a few JS & CSS files to load in and process before rendering a page.

Today I came across an article explaining a fairly basic but sweet idea to help increase your website performance. Simply use subdomains to load in files! Apparently a browser doesn't check for IP when loading in files but only the domain. So a file originating from a subdomain is seen as originating from a different server then from the toplevel domain, and isn't put into the queue for the toplevel domain. This means that you can set up subdomains which point to the same host as the toplevel domain and your site will still load in faster! And as an additional bonus, if your site becomes so big or popular it warrants splitting across servers, you can point the subdomains to different servers and your site's code will still work without a change! If you don't assign subdomains to files in a 'random' fashion ofcourse like the code used in the article. This technique will most certainly be used in a site my girlfriend and I are slowly developing, and I am sure it will find its way into the GalaxyGoo code as well.

Please keep in mind that as with anything, this is not some sort of holy grail. Do think about proper site/file-structure when setting up/developing a site before applying this idea.

January 23, 2008

The XO Laptop and GalaxyGoo

Did you notice the new category on this blog? Well, I'm pretty excited about it: XO laptop.

A while ago, we sent in a project proposal to the OLPC developers program. Today, I found out it was approved, and that two XOs are on the way.

I can hardly wait to get started! already studying the specs, before I even have the machine in my hands. Working in a Linux environment will be new for me, and while I've dabbled in Python I haven't done much with it yet. That's about to change. I get to be a newbie all over again!

November 20, 2007

The GalaxyGoo Flash-a-thon

The GalaxyGoo Flash-a-thon is coming! Starting Dec 10th!

We've got a bunch of really talented folks contributing their projects, with source code!

+ Branden Hall
+ Edwin Heijmen
+ Kristin Henry
+ Mike Johnson
+ Seb Lee-Delisle
+ Stacey Mulcahy
+ Keith Peters
+ Ben Stucki
+ and some great surprise guests!

This online event supports the educational projects at GalaxyGoo. Continue reading for more information...

Continue reading "The GalaxyGoo Flash-a-thon" »

June 26, 2007

What is Flash?

Flash! What is it?!

An vector illustration and animation tool?
A video format?
A programming paradigm?
AS3 + movie clips?
Endless font frustrations?
A tool for developing specialized Flex components?

I'm heading out for the Gordon Research Conference on Visualization in Science and Education this week. While there, I will undoubtedly be talking about Flash a lot...about what I do with it. About interaction, and dynamic animation, ...

A lot of people have an idea of what Flash is, and what it can do. Do they have the complete picture? What would you say, if someone asked you what Flash is?

June 06, 2007

Where I'm stuck, with importing Mathematica FLV into Flash

Below is a short description of how I might import a video file into Flash. I wrote it to explain to the folks at Wolfram what I want to do with flv or swf files generated by Mathematica . I'm hoping that someone may have some insights on how to resolve the problem I'm having when working with the files generated by Mathematica in Flash. Please note that this is not a tutorial. If it was, I'd be a lot more careful about defining my terms and not leaving out any steps or details.

Continue reading "Where I'm stuck, with importing Mathematica FLV into Flash" »

June 04, 2007

Adobe needs a Science and Education Evangelist!

The scientific and education communities use Adobe products extensively. Does Adobe have an evangelist that serves their needs? If not, why?

I'd like to see Adobe doing more to meet the needs of scientists and educators. I'd like to see Adobe at the next AAAS national meeting, as exhibitors--a big booth with demonstrations of the current releases of Photoshop, Flash, and the rest. Introduce them to AS3 in'd be surprised how often I meet scientists/programmers who have no idea that Flash has a scripting language, let alone one with the capabilities of AS3!

Why do I want Adobe to do this? Because it will make my life a lot easier! Adobe now owns most of the software that I use in my work. The more scientists and educators know about Flash, the sooner I can get to the project brainstorming and development aspects of my work. We will all start to build even more compelling and useful learning tools.

May 14, 2007

My First Export to SWF, From Mathematica

A little while ago, I briefly posted about Mathematica 6 exporting to SWF. Well, I've had a little time to play with it, and must confess that I'm finding it difficult to focus on finishing a project, because there is always something interesting in the documentation to distract me.

I've set myself the task of exploring the export to SWF feature, and here's an early example. AT this point, all I've done is make some small modifications to provided examples.

My impressions, so far:

Some Good stuff:
1. A lot of power in a few lines of code! This example was created in about 4 lines.
2. Wonderfully simple programming interface--I've always loved that about Mathematica.
3. Amazingly easy to go from evaluating a function to producing an interactive animation of it (even if the swf export doesn't have the interaction part).
4. Nice range of color palettes to choose from, and easy to apply. (I need to research how to add custom palettes).

Some Problems:
1. The resulting swf is huge! 3.27mb!
2. There is no interactivity in the swf - it runs automatically, even though there is a slider visible. (within Mathematica there is a lot of interaction with the example).
3. The swf does not support the 3d rotation of rendered object, which is present in the Mathematica interface.
4. The swf appears to be frame-by-frame animation of stills, rather than making use of any of the Flash drawing api.

Because the file is so big, I've posted it to the extended entry, instead of the main body, of this post. I've also posted a screenshot of the Mathematica notebook file, used to create this swf.

Continue reading "My First Export to SWF, From Mathematica" »

February 07, 2007

How did you learn Flash?

Often, I'm asked how I "learned Flash". I don't always know how to answer, since I don't think the way I learned it would work out for others. I also started programming before I even knew Flash existed.

People learning Flash, have a big challenge in finding good material amid all the noise. Some of the material really frustrates me. In fact, I recently had an "argument" with someone who wants to teach the old "on()" event model to high school students, instead of teaching best practices. For a lot of people, ActionScript is their first programming language, and I don't think it's a good idea to teach an outmoded event model that they will have to unlearn before they can make real progress in Flash.

What resources do you point people to, when they're starting out? Do you think there is a shortage of online resources that help people start out, with a solid foundation that prepares them to continue on?

February 05, 2007

Reflecting on IM2.3 at Apple

I'm still recovering from the Image and Meaning workshop I attended last week. Gotta say that our hosts at Apple took wonderful care of us. It's very heartening to know that a big company like Apple, is taking an active role in supporting this work. But then, with a visionary leader like Felice Frankel, it's only natural that Image and Meaning is attracting such support.

The Image and Meaning phenomenon is unlike anything I've ever experienced. My brain will continue percolating this intense, and extremely positive collaborative experience for quite some time. I think it's safe to say that all of the participants are passionate about visually communicating scientific information, and that we are equally concerned with the accuracy of that communication.

The workshop was remarkably interdisciplinary. What does that mean? In my workshop group, we had physicists, artists, biologists, computer scientists, and more. Many of us fell into multiple disciplines, as individuals. To me, "interdisciplinary" also means that I rarely got the "I have a PhD" dropped on me, when someone wanted me to take their words as more heavily weighted than anyone else's (including my own). We were all participants, and were not segregated into groups of "speakers" and "listeners".

It doesn't seem possible that it all took place in under two full days, and I can't wait to do it again! I'm all fired up and eager to take on new challenges.

January 24, 2007

Meeting the Flex Team at Adobe

Tomorrow evening, I'm going to the " Meet the Flex Team" event at Adobe San Francsico. So, if you're attending, be sure to introduce yourself.

January 02, 2007

Image and Meaning Workshop

Next month, I head down to Cupertino for a great workshop: Image and Meaning, A collaborative exploration to discover new visual expressions in science and technology.

If you saw me typing this, you might get the impression that I'm very calm about's just that I'm thrilled, beyond excitement and into calm, about getting accepted to the workshop. In case you're curious, for my application, I submitted my bird flu project.

December 20, 2006

New Adobe Icons and The Periodic Table of Elements

Wow! After reading the comments on John Nack's post about the new Adobe CS3 icons, I'd say there are some design issues with them. I wouldn't think to post about it myself, except that they've compared these icons to a table of elements. Well, that sort of runs into my field.

Unfortunately, the icon designs don't work for me. The chemistry metaphor, doesn't either. This chemistry metaphor falls apart, mainly because the periodic table of elements arranges the elements according to their inherent properties, but the new Adobe icons seem to be grouped according to how the programs will be used. There is also a lack of information in the icon itself. The periodic table tells much just by how the different elements are positioned relative to each other, but also by how much information is included in each square. It's not just a square with a letter or two in it. I'd feel really sorry for chemistry students if that was the case.

The table is a way of organizing information, so that you can find it quickly. The Periodic Table of Elements is based on observation of the physical properties of elements and scientific experimentation. It's a way of organizing things that have different values for the same set of properties: atomic number, number of electrons, name of the element, atomic weight, and so on. Some tables are more detailed than others, but all show at least an abbreviation of the name and atomic number which represents the number of protons in the element's nucleus. To a scientist, the element's symbol is a mathematical symbol, and she uses it in her calculations of chemical reactions.

Is anyone at Abobe using the chemistry metaphor, or was that only in the comments? Either way, I think it's a marketing mistake. Adobe may not like this, but I think the Macromedia icons were much stronger from a design perspective.

They are very pretty colors, though :-)

December 19, 2006

Budgeting for Animators, Illustrators, and Video Experts

We're working on a budget for an upcoming with funding that will allow us to hire outside talent for the first time, and where we'll be working with scientists from different fields.

We need to get an idea of the current commercial ranges, and are surveying firms and independent contractors on how they currently budget for the following positions:

  • Head animator/illustrator who will work with me to develop the overall style of the visuals, and help manage production.

  • Illustrators/animators with a solid understanding of animation, user interaction, and Flash.

  • A photographer/videographer who understands challenging lighting situations and can work with glass and liquids.

  • Copy editor (science/technical).

If you'd like to help us out, please use our on-line form to contact us. At this time, we're just looking for budget information. It will be some time before we start looking at portfolios.

Flash Player 9 Beta: first impressions

Last month I blogged about the release of Flash Player 9 Beta for Linux. I also mentioned I would post about my findings. Well, 2 weeks ago I did a clean install of Ubuntu and installed the Flash Player 9 Beta (using Automatix 2 for convenience altho the supplied installer from Adobe should install without too many issues, it's a basic .so file).

I haven't tested it yet on browsers other than Firefox but the plugin works like a charm on Firefox (2.0 in my case). Sofar I've been able to view all the Flash-content I threw at it, even the AS3 entries from our last Blogathon. And it didn't have the 'bug' that the old Flash Player 7 for Linux had (at least for me) where the sound became choppy when switching tabs in Firefox. I need to do some more testing but sofar it has been a wonderful experience! So kudos to Adobe for taking Linux users serious!

November 13, 2006

Bitmaps & Vectors Article Live

My article (Adventures with Bitmaps and Vectors) is now live. It's a work in progress, so please send in comments.

I hope that people find it useful. I've gone into more detail on subjects that there wasn't room for in the last published book I worked on.

Thanks to Aral Balkan, who inspired me with his post about vector vs bitmap.

October 23, 2006

Article on Bitmaps and Vectors

I've been working on an article explaining bitmap and vectors, and I need some volunteer editors to give feedback before it goes live. The article will be published on GalaxyGoo, and access to it will be free. To participate, please post a comment or use our contact form, and I'll get in touch with you when the ariticle is ready for review.

Aral Balkan inspired me with his fantastic example: comparing the performance of an animation of a complex vector versus a bitmap.

September 21, 2006

Serendipitous Discovery in Visualization

Assuming you couldn't read the city names, can you guess which of these adjacent countries is wealthier (their population densities are similar (78.43 vs. 108.09 people per square km))?


Continue reading "Serendipitous Discovery in Visualization" »

September 15, 2006

Where are the Women Speakers at Flash Conferences?

Every time I speak at a Flash conference, I'm asked how to find female speakers. Well, Ann-Marie, over at FlashGoddess has taken steps to make this easier for everybody, with the new (and growing) Flash Goddess Women Speakers Listing. Personally, I'm thrilled to be on this list.

September 13, 2006

Signs Should be Signs

To be most effective, signs should clearly be signs, and not buried in a decorative element. I wasn't the only guy in the new terminal of Charles de Gaulle airport who looked around a bit confused, looking for this:


Continue reading "Signs Should be Signs" »