Synecdoche, Universe

No Man's Sky
In the delightfully quirky, postmodern film, Synecdoche, New York, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a movie director obsessed with creating a set that realistically represents New York City for an upcoming movie. But as he tries to incorporate more and more people and bits that represent the city, the set grows and grows into a micro-city itself. As Wikipedia describes it:

The plot follows an ailing theater director (Hoffman) as he works on an increasingly elaborate stage production whose extreme commitment to realism begins to blur the boundaries between fiction and reality. The film’s title is a play on Schenectady, New York, where much of the film is set, and the concept of synecdoche, wherein a part of something represents the whole, or vice versa.

I feel much the same thinking and obsession went into the creation of No Man’s Sky, a sandbox (“action-adventure survival,” plus trading, exploration, fighting, gathering, building, mining, refining, upgrading, flying, meeting aliens, and more) science fiction computer game of enormous size and scope that attempts to cram everything imaginable into one game.  Synecdoche, Universe might be a suitable nickname for this sprawling, all-encompassing game.* Again from Wikipedia:

Players are free to perform within the entirety of a procedurally generated deterministic open world universe, which includes over 18 quintillion planets… nearly all parts of the galaxy, including stars, planets, flora and fauna on these planets, and sentient alien encounters, are created through procedural generation…

Eighteen quintillions? That’s 18,000,000,000,000,000,000. Beyond comprehension. I can’t vouch for anything close to that number, since in about 25 hours of play, I’ve only been to five or six of them in No Man’s Sky (NMS).

My first four game starts (three on similarly difficult planets, one sandbox in a more habitable clime) were all just learning experiences that, after fumbling, failing, and even dying, I deleted having played only a few hours each. My currently-running game has more than half of my game time logged, spent entirely on one planet with a couple of short visits to a nearby orbital space station. Most of my time on this one planet has been running or walking around, exploring. I’ll come back to that. Meanwhile, I’m still poking about on one planet while the rest of the universe awaits.

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Johnson’s words

Samuel JohnsonI have recently been reading through the David Crystal anthology of words from Samuel Johnson’s dictionary (Penguin, 2006), attempting to cross-reference it with entries in the Jack Lynch anthology (Levenger Press, 2004), comparing how the two editors chose their selections, and to see how the book designers chose to present them. Yes, I know: reading dictionaries isn’t a common pastime, but if you love words, then you do it.

In part, I’m doing so for the sheer delight of the reading (Johnson’s wit shines through in so many of the entries), and as a measure of the differences in book design, but also with an odd project in mind: The Word-of-the-day From Johnson. I had the notion of transcribing a single word at random every day, and posting it online, on and social media. Not something that seems to have been done before, as far as I can tell.

I’ve previously written about how much I enjoy Johnson’s dictionary, and how I recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading, not merely bibliophiles, logophiles and lexicographers. However, there is no reasonably-priced version of the complete dictionary with its 40,000-plus entries, just various selections. As good as the abridgments are, readers will soon ache, as I do, to read more than the limited number of definitions provided in these.

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Back to black

Grey scalesI had noticed of late that several websites are more difficult to read, that they opted to use a lighter grey text instead of a more robust black. But it didn’t dawn on me that it wasn’t my aging eyes: this was a trend. That is, until I read an article on Backchannel called “How the Web Became Unreadable.”

It’s a good read for anyone interested in typography, design and layout – and not just the Web, but print as well. It makes several good points about contrast including providing some important technical details about how contrast is measured.

I’ve written in the past about how contrast is important in design (here, and here for example). But apparently there’s a design trend of late away from contrast towards murkiness. In his article, author Kevin Marks notes:

There’s a widespread movement in design circles to reduce the contrast between text and background, making type harder to read. Apple is guilty. Google is, too. So is Twitter.

Others have noticed this too, even before Marks. In 2015, Katie Sherman wrote on Neilsen Norman Group’s site:

A low-contrast design aesthetic is haunting the web, taking legibility and discoverability with it. It’s straining our eyes, making us all feel older, and a little less capable. Lured by the trend of minimalism, sites are abandoning their high-contrast traditions and switching to the Dark Side (or should I say, the Medium-Gray Side). For sites willing to sacrifice readability for design prowess, low-contrast text has become a predictable choice, with predictable, persistent usability flaws.

This trend surprises and distresses me because it seems a singularly user-hostile trend; anti-ergonomic against the whole point of the internet. Apparently it’s part of a minimalist design trend. Now I don’t mind clean, uncluttered web pages, but I balk at making them unreadable. Pale grey reduces accessibility and legibility.

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Pondering Responsive web design

Mashable graphicI’ve been building websites since the early 1990s, and have had my own websites continually since 1995. For a few years, I did website design and analysis for commercial clients – mostly small local businesses. I even taught web design at a local adult learning centre for a couple of years. Way back when the Net was relatively new, I even did some pages for local events. Although I do less coding today, mostly for my own use, I still have an interest in the developments in web technology and layout.

I taught myself the basics of HTML back when it was version 1.0, 20 years ago – not all that difficult if you were schooled in using the old word processors like Perfect Writer and Wordstar. The first word processors used similar markup styles. Some even required users to compile the text in transient files, in order to see the formatting results, because they couldn’t be shown onscreen at the same time as the markup. That’s because these programs were small, tight and efficient enough to fit in the limited physical computer memory – 16 to 64KB in the early days of computing – but not very feature rich. Ah, the good old days of the Z80 and 6502 processors.

HTML was fairly easy (for me), but clumsy. It was a flat, 2D system and building some elements – tables in particular – was awkward and time-consuming. HTML tried – with limited success – to mix design with structure in one all-encompassing language. It was predicated on the printed page – basically replicating it onscreen. The initial versions of HTML were a desktop-publishing-like environment for the screen.

But the old ways are not always suited for the new devices. Page designs and layouts done even five years ago may be outdated and ill-suited for mobile devices (as I have found from my own work). New design paradigms are needed to stay current with the ebb and flow of technologies.

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Archiving past posts

Ming the mercilessI spent a busy weekend copying posts from my previous blog (hundreds of posts, currently archived on another server awaiting my resolution) onto my hard drive. I plan to resurrect some of these posts – maybe with a bit of updating or editing – in a WordPress archive site here so I can keep them alive in that digital manner the Net provides.

But first I have to sort through a lot of old material. A lot. And the corruption of the old database in the move to that server has created some technical issues I need to resolve, too.

It’s tough. I have seven years’ worth of older content to resolve, sort through, edit and re-post. And maybe discard. What is relevant, what can be replayed, what should be saved, what is best forgotten? What matters, what is mere digital detritus? As the author, my first reaction is that they all matter. But the editor in me says “pick and choose” because what matters to me may likely not matter to anyone else.

(Of course the point of blogging is self-fulfillment…)

I have some personal and subjective judgments to make. I was fairly prolific those years, although a lot of the content is about local politics in my second term. There’s a lot of stuff there, and the topic range is large, although I seemed to be less wordy in many past posts than I am here. I’d write a shorter post, if I had the time… (“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”… see a long story on short letters).

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Small glitch, please stay tuned

Oops. Seems there’s a coding glitch in the latest WordPress update. Comments are getting attached to a header image rather than to the post they’re supposed to be associated with.

And it’s not a new glitch – the WP support forums have discussions on this that go back at least a year, albeit an earlier version of the software. So I suspect there will be a solution that involves changing one of the PHP modules. Just not sure which one yet.

I’ve posted a request on the WP support forum for some help and will try to get things fixed as soon as I know how. Meanwhile, feel free to read and comment, just keep in mind that the comments may not show in the right place. They’re still there – just need to be moved when I figure out how.

If you are the author of a recent comment that has not appeared, try reposting to see where it attaches to. I can email the content of your posts to you if you wish. Contact me for this. Meanwhile, I’ll try some tweaks at this end.

My apologies for any inconvenience. I’ll try to get it fixed ASAP. Meanwhile, comments have landed here: image attachment page.