Kindle Letdown

I was hoping for a lot more than this:

I certainly hoped the Kindle 2 would be a LOT less than $359. It also seems like it wastes a huge amount of real estate on the keyboard, a rarely used feature in a reading device. A soft iPhone-like keyboard would be great.

I plan to wait for the Kindle 3. At the rate technology evolves, I expect them to create my dream device at my dream price in a few years.

Outliers

I recently finished Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell. I thoroughly enjoyed it and learned a lot along the way. Gladwell challenges many deeply rooted assumptions about success, most notably the belief that successful people got where they are today by nothing more than hard work and innate talent. Instead, factors like your date of birth, family, birthplace, and sometimes random opportunities exert more influence than we like to admit.

Did you know that your month of birth can profoundly impact on the rest of your life? An incredible number of elite Canadian hockey players were born in January, February, and March. Why? Read the book to find out. Hint: this information may also help you decide to hold your child back rather than enroll them in Kindergarten early.

Other things I learned…

  • How rice paddies affect math test scores.
  • How summer vacation disproportionally harms poor students.
  • Why airline pilots from some cultures crash more often.
  • Perhaps “prodigies” aren’t so special after all.

I suppose Outliers will frustrate some readers. After all, if you were born in the wrong month, or year, or to the wrong parents, then how can you succeed?

I saved the best for last, the 10,000 hour rule. Gladwell argues that to become a master, whether it’s in computer programming, sports, or playing music, you need to practice around 10,000 hours. He backs this up with several case studies. This is fascinating, because it means any of us can choose to become masters at something.

Perhaps I can be a great comic artist after all. I need to spend more time practicing, that’s all. I don’t know if I can hit 10,000 hours, but I now know that my success is possible. I was not born with innate artistic skills, nor were other great artists. They paid their dues, and so can I. This is why I recommend Outliers.

VectorDesigner Initial Impressions

I saw a new version of VectorDesigner, so I figured I’d try it again. First, take a look at an image I made in Inkscape:

VectorDesigner claims it can import SVG, so that’s what I tried first. Here is the result:

Oops.

Editing Points

Like every other vector graphics app, VectorDesigner lets you edit individual points:

To get into this mode, you select a path and then click “Edit Path” in the toolbar. Unfortunately, it is very easy to accidentally click a few pixels away from a point, kicking you out of Edit Path mode. It requires too much mouse precision leading to pain in my mouse hand.

Sadly, I cannot determine a way to select multiple points and move them as a group. This is a feature I routinely use in other vector drawing apps, so this seems like a huge oversight.

Blurry Lines

I use “blurry lines” in almost every drawing I make. I used that technique in the avatar shown above, for instance, to make the cloud over his head. I also used that technique to create the Blue Cloud of Death.

I am unable to find a way to replicate this in VectorDesigner.

Gradients and Transparency

I also tend to use gradients and transparency quite a bit. Here is how it works in VectorDesigner:

This is a very traditional approach, with controls in a toolbar, separate from the drawing. It is functional, but uninspiring. With Xara (sadly, not available on Mac), you drag directly on the drawing when editing gradients and transparencies. The VectorDesigner approach gets the job done, but direct manipulation would be far superior.

Things I Like

Some things I like about VectorDesigner…

  • The GUI is fairly clean, with minimal clutter.
  • It seems to perform well, although I have not created anything complex.
  • The price is right.
  • It is easy to Unite, Subtract, and Intersect objects.
  • I like the arrows and other line endings.

Closing Thoughts

I realize this is not a comprehensive review, but VectorDesigner lacks some features I really want. Multi-point editing is essential, as is the ability to make lines and shapes blurry. Perhaps a future release will have those features. Until then, I’ll keep looking.

A Bit More Info on Balsamiq Mockups

Peldi had some questions from my earlier post, so I figured I’d answer them here.

Arbitrary Lines

Mockups supports a Vertical Rule and a Horizontal Rule. These are two separate “line” components, each is locked to its axis. I was thinking it might be simpler to have just one line component, and let the user drag, drop, and resize the line to any position, length, or angle. This would make it more like a line from a 2D drawing tool, like this:

Shapes

Mockups has a rectangle shape, and you can resize and move it. I would suggest adding a few more drawing-tool-like features:

  • In addition to resizing the rectangle, let us rotate it to any angle.
  • As you mention, add an ellipse tool. Like the rectangle, let us drag and drop, resize, and rotate.

Honestly, if we had lines, rectangles, and ellipsis, each with resize and rotate capability, we could draw just about anything we wanted to. Hell, I could use Balsamiq Mockups to create my comics.

Arrows

Peldi mentioned an arrow feature in the works. One kind of arrow might look something like this:

I suppose this kind of arrow would just be a predefined polygon that I could move, resize, and rotate. If implemented properly, Mockups could include an entire palette of polygons, each would resize and rotate the same way. In theory you could even define your own custom polygons, given the ability to draw arbitrary lines and group things together.

The second kind of arrow would be much simpler: just let us specify the shape of the start and/or endpoint of any line.

Storyboarding

I agree, make this a standalone tool.

One More Idea

Take a look at the source code for the Napkin Look and Feel. This has a neat package called sketchers that draws “jittery” lines and makes polygons look like they are hand-drawn with some randomness. You might get some good ideas from that work.

Balsamiq Mockups

A few days ago, I drafted a blog entry where I imagined a GUI sketching and mockup tool. I was not aware of any such tool, so I came up with a handful of requirements:

  • Be incredibly easy to use
  • Allow rapid 2D GUI sketching
  • Support “storyboarding” to show transitions and behavior as you move from screen-to-screen

Realism Sucks

Most tools I’ve seen are not geared towards “sketching”. Instead, they let you layout GUI components that look like real GUI components. For example, check out the Pencil screen shots. Other than showing nonsense text, these layouts look too much like real GUI layouts. This is troublesome because extremely realistic mockups don’t leave enough “holes” for the imagination to fill in. (see my mention of Bill Buxton’s podcast near the end of this article)

Too Realistic

By showing people something that looks finished, you are not inviting feedback and creative suggestions. Instead you send the message that you’ve already worked out the details and this is what you plan to deliver.

Napkin LAF

The Napkin Look and Feel is a Java Look and Feel that makes your GUIs look like hand-drawn sketches:

While Napkin gives you the right look, it is not a sketching tool. While you certainly can use something like NetBeans to create GUI mockups, I feel that is too technical and limiting for many people, particularly in very early stages of design. IDE GUI builders are designed for programmers to create GUIs, not for super fast brainstorming.

Enter Balsamiq Mockups

Before I posted my blog entry, I wrote some thoughts on Twitter, and quickly received this intriguing response:

@burke_eric Hey maybe you’d be interested in my little lo-fi wireframing app? http://www.balsamiq.com/products/mockups

I checked it out, and Balsamiq Mockups is almost exactly like the tool I had imagined. Here is one of their sample mockups:

First Impressions

I tried out Balsamiq Mockups and found that it is indeed very easy to use. I created this mockup in a few minutes:

Everything works via drag-and-drop, and you can easily resize and edit components in place. Mockups saves its data in a simple XML format, making it easy to share drawings with other programmers. You can also export to PNG as shown above, and it is easy to copy/paste from one drawing to another.

I could rattle off the features, but you’d be better off just checking out the feature tour on their site. This is a very straightforward tool that works exactly as advertised.

  • A single user license is $79
  • Written in Flash, so is portable to a variety of platforms
  • Available as a desktop version (Adobe Air), or as a plugin for Confluence, Twiki, JIRA

My Suggestions

The main thing I did not see was the ability to draw simple lines and arbitrary shapes. Balsamiq gives you an extensive palette of standard GUI components, but I found myself wanting to add arbitrary lines, rectangles, and other simple shapes to my mockups. Mockups does give you horizontal and vertical lines; it is too bad they don’t offer an arbitrary line that I can drag around to any angle and location.

The other feature I found lacking was a storyboarding feature. This was one of the things I originally imagined before I knew about Balsamiq Mockups, and I only have a vague idea of what it would look like. I got the idea after listening to a podcast by Bill Buxton called “Sketching and Experience Design“, on iTunes University. That podcast was also where I learned about using sketches to leave “holes” for the imagination to fill in, as I mentioned earlier.

I’m not exactly sure how this would look and feel, but I do have this general feeling that discrete, static screen mockups are not enough to convey information. I think it is important to capture and show behavior in addition to the static screen layouts.

The story board has to be drop dead simple, allowing artists the ability to drag and drop, annotate with arrows lines and callouts, and rearrange at will.

Paper Prototyping

In many respects, pencil and paper (or a whiteboard) are superior to Balsamiq Mockups. See the Wikipedia Paper Prototyping article for some ideas. In particular, during the very early brainstorming phase, paper and pencil are probably the fastest way to crank out new ideas.

Continuing the Design Process

I think Balsamiq Mockups fits in nicely as “step 2″ in the design process. The screens created in Balsamiq Mockups are easy to share with remote team members, but are not so realistic that they stifle the imagination.

After going through a series of mockups, then perhaps you can move on to more detailed prototypes using a GUI builder like NetBeans along with the Napkin Look and Feel. Again, refer to the Buxton podcast to see how design evolves from sketches to increasingly detailed drawings.

Closing Thoughts

Balsamiq Mockups is a great tool, allowing you to rapidly create GUI mockups that do not look overly realistic. It is basically a domain-specific drawing tool, and it does the job very well. Balsamiq Mockups makes it very easy to collaborate with other developers by utilizing a simple XML file format.

Although I proposed a few ideas (simple lines and polygons, plus storyboarding), tools like Balsamiq Mockups are powerful because they are so simple. I am not actually convinced that adding full storyboarding is necessary; perhaps this is best left to another similarly simple tool.

Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

There are spoilers in here, you’ve been warned. I have not read a single review, these are my opinions after seeing the movie just now.

  • Every underground chamber is well lit, even at night.
  • A torch is always available, as well.
  • Scary looking natives have nothing better to do than hide in chamber walls waiting for intruders.
  • Unlimited numbers of bad guys can never shoot Indiana Jones, regardless of how many machine guns they wield.
  • Every other scene must show IJ casting the classic hat shadow.
  • He finds artifacts nobody else could find for hundreds of years just by blowing away some webs and pushing on some key rocks.
  • The bad guys always have operatives in far away places, always able to locate him. (They are geniuses when it comes to following and tracking Dr. Jones, but apparently complete morons when it comes to shooting machine guns or finding the artifacts themselves.)
  • Good guys can fall 50′ onto rocks and never break bones.
  • When a waterfall is involved, add a few hundred feet. No problem.
  • I did not detect the Wilhelm Scream in this movie. Amazing, considering how formulaic and predictable everything else was. Oops…according to Wikipedia, they DID use the Wilhelm Scream.
  • Didn’t they have a car chase in one of the other movies?
  • Space aliens? Are you kidding me?
  • A monkey army?
  • Gunpowder tossed in the air floating towards the box?

I give this movie 2 out of 10 stars. The first star is for the ants, which were cool. The second star is for my boys, who loved everything about this movie.

Dumbest Generation?

Wow, 8 reasons why this is the dumbest generation is way off target. Let’s review the list, put together by author Mark Bauerlein.

1. They make excellent “Jaywalking” targets.

The article starts with a weak argument that today’s young people “…are encased in more immediate realities that shut out conditions beyond — friends, work, clothes, cars, pop music, sitcoms, Facebook.”

Apparently “pop music” and “Facebook” are bad. But where is the evidence? Let’s continue.

2. They don’t read books — and don’t want to, either

Again, he presents no evidence. My gut tells me he is right: people read less today, particularly “young” people. But I’m also sure that has something to do with the availability of more information online. Why dig through books when I can look up something in a few seconds on Wikipedia? Does that make me “dumber”? Prove it. You may be right, but I think some evidence is in order.

3. They can’t spell

From TFA:

Lack of capitalization and IM codes dominate online writing. Without spellcheck, folks are toast.

Actually, my quote is the entire explanation put forth in the article.. Maybe people adopt shorthand writing styles because it is a PITA to text on most phones? I am detecting a distinct trend in these wacky reasons we are so “dumb”. This guy does not like technology.

4. They get ridiculed for original thought, good writing

He uses MySpace as the first example, where (apparently) buddies make fun of you if you write clearly. Huh? OK, I’m sure you can find lots of examples of this. But again, are these cherry-picked examples evidence of widespread dumbness?

He then goes on to criticize Wikipedia:

Wikipedia writing is clean and factual, but colorless and judgment-free.

That is because it is an encyclopedia. It is supposed to be judgment-free. They call it NPOV, which is actually quite smart.

5. Grand Theft Auto IV, etc.

Holy shit. Go read the article. I don’t even know where to start. He somehow connects video games to “Thousands of Massachusetts public school graduates are ending up in remedial reading and writing classes in college…”

What absolute rubbish. Maybe we ought to look at poverty, single parent households, and other such factors before pointing fingers at video games.

6. They don’t store the information

The fact that we can easily look up information on the Internet makes us dumber. I don’t get it.

7. Because their teachers don’t tell them so

Here we go again. Another “blame the teachers first” article. Sigh.

8. Because they’re young

No, no, no!. I think I first read this in a book called “The Invisible Future“, but I might be remembering that wrong. (thanks to reason 6?) The general idea is that EVERY generation since the dawn of time has always thought the young “next” generation is dumber, that society is decaying, etc. This must be wrong, of course, or by now we’d be in complete disarray.

Iron Man Review

Bad ass movie, I LOVED it. I will see it a second time this week. I give it 9 out of 10, losing 1 point for unrealistic physics. Most notably, repeatedly decelerating from full speed to dead stop without injury.