Older blog entries for Ankh (starting at number 191)


I just got back from one of those trips where things keep going wrong. Upgradeable trans-atlantic flight has no business class---it felt like what Air Canada calls Premier Economy so not too bad, but no laptop pwer---and then luggage delayed a couple of days on arrival in Pisa. My laptop (a Dell D600 that I think was kindly donated to W3C by Intel) didn't start, but eventually I found that it would start if I held it on its side. Meetings in Pisa went OK, not as well as I had hoped although a lot of work was done. We did have a really nice trip to San Vivaldo (see below for pics) and San Gimignano (photos coming) both in Tuscany. The trip was the day after the Toronto pride Parade, where I took 6 Gigabytes of photos, oops.

And then on to Glasgow for the Text Layout Summit, except that a rather badly planned terrorist attack on the airport meant my connecting flight was canceled. So I got on a later flight, but my bag didn't arrive. Second time this trip. Many long calls to BA baggage on my mobile phone at over $2/minute. At which point do you give up and buy a temporary phone? once you've given them your mobile phone number there's a strong incentive not to change. A week later I am back in Canada, still with no luggage. I hope it does arrive.

The BA people gave me incorrect information, saying the bag was in Glasgow and would be delivered that night (the day after I arrived) when in fact it was in London and never arrove. Service people, don't tell lies just to keep a customer quiet. Tell the truth. Maybe British Airways says they are the "world's favourite airline" because no-one else will say it for them?

On the 'plane back from Glasgow I'd planned to do some work on my mkgallery software that I use for my photo galleries. But I didn't have the energy. The lack of laptop power was my excuse. I did get a little work done.

I upgraded (needed one of my two Special System Wide certificates that I had been saving for an upcoming trip to Japan, but I was too tired and irritable to cope without, so I did it. Boy I'm whiney today, sorry. I did get to sit next to an actress (she had been in Eastenders a few times, and was going to Toronto to be in an advert/commercial).

Our flight was delayed by a couple of hours. The captain kept us very well informed: it was because some people whose luggage had been loaded were delayed in security (this was in London Heathrow, LHR). Someone in the row behind me was on his 'phone talking about how dirty $ethnicGroup people were always causing trouble, sigh.

Of course, we arrived late, and I was glad I'd booked a hotel at Toronto airport for the night before taking the train the next day, as I'd have missed the last train. They don't understand passenger trains in North America. The rules for success are frequent, fast and cheap, and although you can lose either of the last two properties, the first is essential. Three trains a day doesn't count. There should be a train from Toronto to Montreal every ten minutes, 24 hours a day. And back again, too.

Well, I go only the 2 hours to Belleville, not all the way to Montreal. The train averages a little under 60 miles per hour, with only three of four short stops on the way. I'd expect a fast passenger train in most of Europe or the UK to be able to get up to 120 mp/h or more, and average at east 80 mp/h, on such a simple and straight track.

Text Layout Summit

It looks like HarfBuzz is making good progress. This is the next-generation text layout engine to be used by both Pango and Qt. It looks like it will also gain Apple's AAT and SIL's Graphite happy goodness, too, since OpenType isn't by itself sufficient for all the world's scripts. It also looks like it will be powerful enough (or simple enough, if you prefer) to be useful for projects such as Inkscape, Scribus and Gimp, all of which desperately need better text layout and font smarts even for Western scripts, let alone others.

Part of my reason for going was to make sure that what we (W3C) do with XSL-FO (and maybe with SVG and CSS too, as well of course as Internationalization) is compatible with what's going on in the world. That means making sure we're aware of what's going on, and enabling a two-way conversation, inviting people to participate in the W3C work where necessary too.

The Text Layout Summit was hosted by the KDE aKademy, but I didn't get to go to any of the aKademy sessions unfortunately.

One person in our group did try out the Mandriva Flash USB Linux that was given away, and was very impressed with it. He said it was the first Linux that had set up the display on his laptop at the right resolution so it actually worked. I tried it on my HP desktop at home yesterday and it worked there too, which was cool as the computer uses an ATI graphics card which until recently was supported by neither the Free nor the closed source drivers.


kelly, binary thinking is not of course limited to Wikipedians. Them or Us, Bad or Good, White or Black (or, Black or White, depending on context), ignorant or wise, male or female, people like to sort others into categories. Only a white sock wearer would be so stupid as to think this was sensible.

In some societies it seems that there is a strong link between the divisions into categories and "good or bad". It seems to be stronger in much of the US than in much of Canada, for example, which perhaps helps to make Canada more accepting of difference. But that's a generalization, and of course you can meet people in either country at either end of the spectrum (and I have, many times). Just as you can find reliable or unreliable Wikipedia articles, or good or bad articles in pretty much any publication, The Register included.

You have to expect that people will do this categorising and judging. The judging part isn't good of course, but people will do it anyway. "You're not one of us, so you're not such a good person" seems instinctual. When it turns into "you don't agree with me so you're not a good person" something has gone even more badly wrong. Which brings me to...

zbowling, boy what a rant! The speaker (from MSNBC) is right of course, although I don't think the episode was the first example of hypocrisy from Bush. Any leader of any group is under pressure from dissenting views, all the time, and again it may be unreasonable to expect perfection (although people do); on the other foot, it's not clear that the Bush regime is any less corrupt than those it sought to depose, nor that there are fewer deaths or injuries under the Bush colonization than before. At any rate, thanks for the link to the video!

federico yes, I like very much the 50mm f/1.8 lens that I have for my Canon D400; there's an f/1.2 but it's too expensive for me right now. I rented a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens a couple of weeks ago and liked that too, especially the image stabilisation, but it would cost more than a thousand pairs of socks! I'll post some of the pictures, or links to them, when I have found time to put them online. I especially like your hanging-dye-bottle picture! The warm colours in the others are great too. It's something I liked about a recent trip to Italy (San Vivaldo in Tuscany). More Italy pictures coming too :-) but I have not processed those in any way, they are just out of the camera.

Going Home

I'm about to return to Canada after being away for a couple of weeks. I went to Pisa, where the slowly-falling-tower lives, and on the way Al Italia lost my bag. It arrived a day or so later. We had XML Query and XSL Working Group meetings in Pisa, and then I flew to Glasgow, where British Airways lost my bag. I've been at the Text Layout Summit, which was interesting and I think useful. It was co-hosted by aKademy, the KDE conference, although I didn't get to any of the aKademy sessions unfortunately. Tomorrow morning I go home, but my bag still isnt' here. Maybe I can fly naked. Calling the British Airways lost luggage number has been a very expensive and unpleasant affair: I think I've spent over an hour on hold, and I'm using a Canadian mobile phone with both trans-atlantic and roaming fees, yay. I kept hoping the bag would arrive soon and didn't go and rent another phone. Sigh.

HarfBuzz is interesting, and it appears that it will be used by both Qt/KDE and Gtk+/Gnome as the text shaper. So applications in the open source/Free world will start to have access to more advanced AAT and OpenType features, and internationalization will take a big step forward.

I'm also still working away at my scans from antiquarian books, and at least partly as a result, the GIMP image editor is now significantly faster: I routinely work with images that are hundreds of megabytes in size, say, 10,000 pixels on a side. The GIMP developers are very receptive to (sufficiently specific) comments about performance. And today someone offered to help with lq-text, the Unix text retrieval package that I first released in 1989. So that's pretty cool. Oh, and at LGM2 in Montreal someone offered to donate some scans of some old Russian books of alphabets, but unfortunately I lost the person's address (an SK1 developer from the Ukraine) so if you're reading this, sorry, please email me, e.g. liam at holoweb DOT net!)

I need to remember to check back often enough to see if people reply when I do talkback stuff. Hmm.

Tomorrow I take the train to the Libre Graphics meeting in Montreal. After that I'm off to the W3C Advisory Committee Meeting and then www2007 in Banff (near Calgary, not to be confused with Calvary)p>At both LGM and WWW2007 I'll be talking about what we're doing with XSL-FO 2.0. XSL is a way to format XML documents, for example for print or screen. There are two parts, XSLT and XSL-FO. We just published XSLT 2.0 this January (at the same time as XML Query, as they both build on XPath 2.0) and now we're working on XSL-FO 2.0. It's pretty exciting, as we're considering standardising a whole lot more sophisiticated layout stuff than things like CSS give you, much of it stuff that people have been doing for hundreds of years with print and that are understood pretty well. So I'll show some examples of the sorts of things we're thinking about, and talk about how people can get involved.

Csv, yes, it's a big improvement, but from the perspective of graphic design and typography (the user interface of text and communication, if you will) there are still (as always, it seems!) some improvements that could be made. The most obvious to me is that the counter box is not aligned with the other boxes, and alignment is lost elsewhere. I'd get rid of the "Options" heading since the entire dialogue box is about choosing options such as destination folder. I had a quick go at improving it, I hope you don't mind:

EOG save-as dialogue

It raises a HIG question that's been endlessly and uselessly debated... The alignment of the labels in dialogue boxes is always difficult, as there's no single approach that works in all situations. It's similar to the problem of designing a table of contents for a book.

The best guiding principle is of proximity: put related things nearer to each other than to other, unrelated things. For example, a section heading should be nearer to the text it heads than to the preceding section, something Web browsers by default tend to get badly wrong. So, the label should be strongly associated with the value in most cases.

Now, the values are encased in vast and unavoidably ugly boxes which are the most visible things in the design. So we try to turn an ugliness into a strength by aligning them all, to give strength to the design. But if the value boxes are aligned vertically and the labels need to be near them, in a left-to-right world our choices become putting the value to the right of the label, or right-aligning the labels. In a right-to-left environment obviously the choice is the same, but in the other direction.

Of course, other factors come into play. One is familiarity with badly designed dialogue boxes that are already out there. Since familiarity is the most significant factor in comprehension, this is very important, and may be enough of an argument in itself to make an ugly dialogue box that flies in the face of what we know about human perception, but works better because people are accustomed to it. The use of Fraktur typefaces in Germany might be counted as another example of this.

Another factor is whether the labels or the values are the primary items of interest to the user, and this of course varies depending on the dialogue, the user, the application, and also the user's familiarity with the dialogue. I love Alan Cooper's idea of designing for the "perpetual intermediate" and assuming that people are only vaguely familiar with the dialogue, if at all. In that case the ability to scan down quickly and relate labels and values is most important, leading again to the right-aligned version. But sometimes people need to compare labels, or the labels perhaps are sorted alphabetically in a large list, and then left-aligned labels would be best, with the values to the left of them. But the HIG and I disagree in this area I think.

Oh, I should mention that I'd be tempted to treat the filename preview differently, since presumably it might be arbitrarily long and not fit in the dialogue box, but I don't know enough about the possible forms they may take to give a good suggestion I think. or maybe the dialogue resizes as they grow.

dwmem2, you're missing something about GNOME I think. The idea is not to get rid of all configurability, but to get rid of useless configurability (e.g. whether the rate of acceleration of the panel when it auto-hides should be linear or quadratic). That is, remove useless features without impacting functionality, and to get to a point where most things work without needing to be configured.

How well GNOME is succeeding at this can be argued, not least because it's very subjective, but I see it as a big improvement, even though sometimes I miss configuration options that I used to enjoy :-).

[oops, had to turn computer off for a storm and then forgot this; hope the talkback stuff still makes sense]

Back home from a trip to Raleigh NC. I got my paper written, although I'm not happy with it. Next is to get Linux running on this desktop PC I got in December. THe only Linux distributions I have laying around don't grok the ATI X1300 video card, and the monthly bandwidth cap here makes me reluctant to download one. So ordering a CD is probably easiest, and it's a good way to support Mandrive if I order theirs.

apenwarr, interesting comparison. I like your footnote: Canada is oh so often a compromise between US and Europe, it seems. The strength of the "old boy network" varies from country to country, but even in the UK the pull of the college tie, of the university scarf or the school socks (i.e. you were at the same educational establishment) is strong.

salmoni, you can get adaptors for M39, although don't expect auto-focus :-)

Yes, "bokeh" can be a lot of fun; I've always been fascinated by depth of field effects.

haruspex you're right, I meant aperture, I was oversimplifying. But the point of the f/1.8 is not only to maximise shutter speed, but also to minimise depth of field, so that the subject is in sharp focus but the background is blurred. It's especially popular with portraits.

OK, posting a diary is a good way to procrastinate on writing a paper for a conference.

I bought two new canon camera lenses yesterday, here in Raleigh (at peace camera on Peace Street. I got the 17-87mm with image stabilisation (IS) and also the 50mm f/1.8 portrait lens.

It's interesting to look through the viewfinder of an SLR camera with an image stabilisation lens system: what ou see is the reduced-shake view, so as you move the camera the view seems to jerk slightly or to lag a little, as at first the camera (or lens) corrects for the motion. It's slightly nauseating but I'm getting used to it, and the sharper pictures are definitely worth it.

The 50mm lens supports f/1.8, which means the shutter of the camera can open very wide, letting in a lot of light but at the same time giving a narrow "depth of field", so that someone's face can be in sharp focus but the background be entirely blurred. Makes for good portraits but does not have the IS feature, so you have to hold the camerra very steadily or use a tripod.

I'd been planning on getting the lenses on eBay, but Peace Camera had them used at lower prices than I've generally seen there, I could try them in the store, there was no shipping fee, and of course it was less worrying. The Canon lenses go on ebay like hot cakes. Actually better, as I don't think heated baked goods are suitable for mail order purchase :-)

chalst, introducing or enforcing more strictly any sort of gun control will (of course) almost certainly increase gun-related crime, because anyone with an unregistered gun is now committing a crime, even if they don't fire it. Statistics about crime are awfully hard to compare!

North Carolina — I've got meetings next week hosted by Red Hat in Raleigh. A participant in the W3C XML Query Working Group recently changed affiliations, and I'm hoping that we'll see Red Hat get a little more involved in some of the "enterprise-level" XML stuff that's going on. There are a number of open source XQuery implementations that are pretty good, by the way. Maybe I'll also get a chance to take some photos. Any student willing to have his ankles photographed, let me know :-)

loui, I always liked Pat Lashley's MonaEyes program on NeWS -- it was the Mona Lisa painting, but the eyes followed the screen pointer. But you're right, the motor-driven xeyes is even more fun! Also, clinical studies have suggested that people get better results in exams if they do them barefoot. Really. The theory I heard back in 1982 was that shoes make the feet too hot, and this encourages the blood to flow into them, making them pink, and making less blood available to the brain. Whether that's the correct explanation I have no idea, but study barefoot!

A couple of years ago (ouch) someone (Rich Salz) had a go at making a verion of my text retrieval package which used autoconf. Unfortunately this broke the code, and I started to have another go but, as with pretty much every time I have tried in the past, I didn't have more than a couple of hours to spend on it in any given month, and that's nowhere near enough time to do anything useful with the GNU configure packages.

If you're interested in helping out (and I'll ask Rich this too) or if there's a better alternative these days, please let me know (liam at holoweb dot net; mention the colour of your socks in the Subject for a faster reply :-) )

I've also been working on making the package play safe with UTF-8. It's not far off, although there are problems with the curses-based viewer and front end (I might just abandon the front end but the viewer is maybe useful). I know there are going to be problems with RTL/LTR indicators and snippets, though. Sigh.

Also finding time to work on my pictures from old books, inbetween a W3C XSL FO Workshop, XQuery and XSLT 2 work and so forth. Plus trying to get the house painted!

Sorry to see Advogato go; it might be over the top to say it saved my life, but, when I first found it, I was working in a very corporate environment where it had taken me six months to get Internet access. So it did save my sanity. Plus I got to meet some really interesting people, both here and in person.

I'm not going to say I have a blog somewhere else. I tried starting an XML blog and there's also an RSS feed for my pictures scanned from old books.

I'd consider hosting Advogato but my Web hosting now for the most part is supported by ad revenue, and I don't think putting ads on Advogato would be appropriate.

House - We need to get the house repainted, but first we have to repair the board and batten siding on the house; I wrote a short note about the process. I hope soon I'll have enough articles about how to do house stuff that I can link them all up together and make something useful.

Open Source - I was at TypeCon in Boston last month, talking with various people about Web font embedding. This week I was on a conference call arranged by Waldo Bastien of the OSDL DTL Technical Board, totalk about fonts for Linux.

Open source operating systems happened largely because programmers used them. In other words, the system had to be one that people wanted to use for programming, so that programmers would naturally gravitate towards it.

Similarly the various Free and open source desktop environments are getting more useable (especially Gnome I think) because of a focus on their (mostly, but not entirely, non-programmer) users.

I'd like to see Linux be a solid platform for the majority of graphic designers. For that to happen, we need quite a few pieces of infrastructure. Some would say we also need a number of applications, such as PhotoShop, InDesign and Quark Express, Illustrator, Freehand, FlightCheck, impositoin softweare, colour management, and of course font management such as Extensis Suitcase. In the open source world most of those applications are replaced by Free (or at least Open) ones, or become facilities provided by the operating system or shared libraries.

For fonts, we need better user-level management, such as the ability to sort and enable/disable fonts by user-defined groups; we need system-level functionality, such as the ability to manage multiple verisons of fonts; we need application and library-level functionality, such as glyph choosers, better support for more scripts and for mixed writing directions, and user interfaces for choosing fonts by script and language, or by glyph coverage.

There's a lot to do, but there are a lot of people interested in making it all work.

Images from old books - I'm up to over 1200 images now, and thinking of spending time on redesigning the site a little, on improving navigation, and especially on improving the metadata to offer more ways to search.

My Web server has, under my home directory, over 76,000 HTML files, so it might take a while to deal with them, even though most (I hope) are generated from XML by scripts, mostly Perl, XSLT or XQuery, or some combination.

I went from Extreme Markup, an XML/markup conference in Montreal, to TypeCon, a type and typography conference in Boston. From people many of whom think that style is just irrelevent rubbish that gets in the way and it's all about to content to people many of whom think content is just irrelevent rubbish that gets in the way of the design :-)

Both conferences were packed with thought-provoking presentations and cool people. TypeCon had more naked ankles. The conferences overlapped (ironically since a major topic at Extreme is computer representation of overlapping and interwoven herarchies), so I missed the start of TypeCon, but I was there in time for the trip to the Boston Printing Museum where there are also some really kind and interesting people, and where you can see literally hundreds of thousands of drawings for (mostly Linotype) typefaces, as well as old presses, a working Linotype machine, several non-working Monotype machines, visit the library, and of course sign up to be a Member :-)

Came back to Montreal by 'plane, now on the train to Belleville (via Kingston) and thence 45 minutes' drive home. I hope I'll find time to work on helping pango/gtk+/fontconfig to cope better with Expert sets and opentype features, although it's more likely I'll do things like send fonts and mockups to developers so they can understand the problems: sharing understanding is more useful than sharing code, sometimes.

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