Smarty pants

Ah, Interstellar. On one hand, I like seeing really ambitious movies, like they used to make decades ago. On the other, what is it with this new generation of prestige directors who are not satisfied with understandable plots, because, well, then they’re too simple? Nolan, Aronofsky, M Night Shyamalan, Paul Thomas Anderson, they remind me of teenagers exposed to philosophy in school, drunken in narcissistic intellectual self-regard.

The plot twists from Interstellar remind me of this excerpt from a great South Park episode.

South Park mind benders

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Naturalism in film

Recently I went to see the film Mr. Turner. I had high expectations, what with the positive reviews and my interest in the painter Turner, from my teenage years attempting to learn watercolor painting.
What a sore disappointment. I walked out of the theater frustrated at having wasted two and a half hours. I like naturalistic films, and I don’t require a lot of plot or dialog to enjoy movies, so I wasn’t getting impatient with Mr. Turner. I thought something would emerge by the end. Alas, what you get is pretty much surface. When you read in reviews that the film’s titular character communicates by grunting, take that literally—he barely mutters more than five sentences. And calling those grunts communication is being generous.
It felt as though watching BBC’s Planet Earth documentaries with David Attenborough’s narrative turned off.

I compare Mr. Turner with Boyhood, which can also be considered a naturalistic film. More so, even, as Linklater didn’t set out with a finished screenplay, and went along, reacting to the evolution of his actors across 12 years. By commercial-movie standards, nothing much happens in Boyhood. Yet we get good dialogs, views into the motivations and tastes of the characters, and the feeling that we’ve been there with them.
I’m all for realism, but realism, by itself, is not enough to make a film worth my while.

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Reading on screen

I’ve been on typography spree lately, motivated partly by esthetics, partly by my increasing dissatisfaction with reading text on computers.
Here are some things I’ve learned:

  • Font size in points is misleading. There is no standard, and “11pt” may not mean any particular dimension in the font is actually 11pt. By the way, a point is not a dot but 1/72 of an inch. At the same point size, Verdana is noticeably bigger than Times New Roman.

A point is not a normalized unit.

  • Thin fonts may appear rickety or washed out in a computer screen. You may be better off choosing fonts that are thicker or “blacker”. For example, Georgia, shown in the picture above, was designed for screen reading, and is thicker than Times New Roman.
  • Size is the most important factor for readability. In the web, we’re at the mercy of web designers. Some choose large sizes for text, some small. We end up reading text at smaller sizes than we should.
    Perform a little experiment: take a page printed in 11pt Times New Roman, or a book you’re reading. Sit in front of your monitor, at your regular distance, and open a text document, set at the text size you usually read in (disable any zooming). Now hold the printed material in front of the monitor, at your normal distance for reading. Put the texts side by side, and adjust the font size until the screen text matches roughly. Is it surprisingly big?
    For me, it was. In order to match the sizes I read in printed material, I need point sizes around 18–20 on my desktop computer. Since I usually tried to read at 13-14, it’s not surprising that I’d have eye strain. Here’s a document that advocates setting size to 3 times the lowest value at which you can read.
  • Your browser can help. In particular, both Firefox and Chrome will allow you to set your preferred “base” font size. This does not work on pages whose text size is specified in absolute units (pixels or points). It does work, however, with sites that set font sizes in relative units, like percentages, “ems” or medium/large/small/…
    Many websites are designed with relative font sizes. Examples are Google, Wikipedia, New York Times. Some that use absolute sizes: Facebook, EL PAIS, Guardian.
    Firefox and Chrome also let you choose the default fonts. Default fonts will be used only for pages that don’t specify their own. Few sites defer to your choice of font, but there are some notable ones: Wikipedia and IMDB, for example.
    I recommend that you set Georgia as default serif font, and Verdana as default sans-serif.
    Lastly, you can use zoom, and both Firefox and Chrome will remember the zoom setting on a per-website basis.
    Safari, regrettably, doesn’t offer the same convenient settings.
  • One last thing: it is worthwhile to adjust your monitor’s brightness and contrast settings.


  1. Reducing eye strain:
  2. Font comparisons:
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A moveable office

This laptop elevator, and the three-button mouse, are my best computing purchases in a long time.

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Farm milk, from a vending machine. Give me more of this kind of progress, less of 100% online wearable computers.

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Required reading

What a horrible expression, “required reading”. I only find it acceptable when it’s literal, such as when teachers include required text in an assignment. I’m sure the world has always had self-righteous idiots wanting to put themselves in a pedestal, but I’m not so wise or detached that I can view this behavior with coolness.

In my area, software development, for example, we currently have some fervent dogma on how one must think in order to write software properly. Amazon brims with reviews declaring this book or that required reading, and this or that practice unacceptable. Mostly transparent self-promotion and back-patting. Unfortunately, some of these people have jobs in good companies, some even have leadership positions, and get to set agendas and “best practices”. It’s baloney, but it gives upper management some reassurance that “things are happening”.

I became hooked on programming when I started to read “Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs” by Abelson and Sussman. In the preface, it contains a quote by Alan Perlis. Part of it:

“What you know about computing other people will learn. Don’t feel as if the key to successful computing is in your hands. What is in your hands, I think and hope, is intelligence: the ability to see the machine as more than when you were first led to it, that you can make it more.”

I think this applies very widely, not just to computing. Those are good words to live by.

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Sensitive or introvert?

I’ve begun 2014 digging into introversion. Recently the concept seems to be getting a fresh coat of paint, especially with Susan Cain’s TED Talk and her book “Quiet”. A slightly different take is offered by the Highly Sensitive Person theory. You can take the HSP test. I like the HSP theory better than plain introversion, but both are similar.

Now, I bought a book on HSP, as well as the aforementioned book Quiet. I mostly skimmed, I didn’t find either too interesting. Quiet, in particular, annoyed me. I wholeheartedly agree that being an introvert has a bit of a social stigma, but Quiet strikes back by attributing to introverts a lot of great victories, from the iPhone to the Theory of Relativity, and to extroverts a lot of resounding defeats, like the 2008 recession. It’s that simple, huh?
If Einstein or Steve Jobs were alive, they’d probably be appalled at how often their names are thrown in to justify arguments – as if the name alone is all that’s needed. Incidentally, Cain posits that Steve Jobs was an extrovert, and Wozniak an introvert. I have my doubts.

Here’s the thing. Introverts/sensitives or whatever you choose to call it, can sometimes have a hard time socially. We’ve all been dragged to a party by a well meaning extrovert friend who wanted to perk us up. We typically learn to become protective of our time alone, and of our ideas under development. We learn to accept it when people tell us we think too much, without retorting that maybe they think too little. Most of us introverts/sensitives would really enjoy it if more department stores used subdued music, if flyers and cheesy sales slogans were not pushed at us, and if people cut us more slack in parties. The funny thing is, I think many extroverts would want the same things.

Sign me off any crusades. I refuse to join the Introvert Pride movement, if there is one. And I don’t think there’s a lack of awareness. Or have we become that self-deluded?

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