Windows Explorer in Windows 8

I read this post on Improve­ments in the Win­dows Explor­er ear­li­er today with quite a bit of excite­ment. There’s a lot to learn in here about the thought process that goes behind the Rib­bon UI which was devel­oped at Microsoft and is final­ly reach­ing the Explor­er win­dow. I, per­son­al­ly, wel­come the changes and think it is great that they are expos­ing so many pow­er fea­tures but with the abil­i­ty to make the inter­face as min­i­mal as need­ed for some­one who won’t use them. As some­one who’s get­ting into more UX design, par­tic­u­lar­ly when it comes to Rib­bon UI appli­ca­tions, this sort of stuff is invalu­able.

Gru­ber men­tioned it in an aside piece, point­ing out that Apple and Microsoft are real­ly diverg­ing in terms of UI design1. This is cer­tain­ly true when com­par­ing the (still in Alpha) Win­dows 8 Explor­er win­dow with the UI changes in OSX Lion. While it is fair to argue that Microsoft­’s UI is busy, I think Apple has gone a bit too far in the oth­er direc­tion. My largest gripe is that all the col­or has been removed from most icons, mak­ing it a bit hard­er to dif­fer­en­ti­ate one gray square from anoth­er. The rib­bon can be min­i­mized in any Rib­bon UI program—resulting in what are func­tion­al­ly just graph­i­cal menus. There is a tool (odd­ly, with a gray gear icon) in the Find­er which is “Per­form tasks with the select­ed item(s)” which gen­er­al­ly accom­plish­es the same task. Of course, it is just a menu and lim­it­ed to prac­ti­cal menus sizes (no dif­fer­ent than a right-click con­tex­tu­al menu at all).

Con­text menu in the OS X Lion Find­er, or, as I like to call it: the pud­dle of gray blocks

The Win­dows 7 Explor­er dia­log is sim­i­lar­ly sim­ple, with a menu-ish tool­bar pro­vid­ing some con­text-sen­si­tive tools along the top. This inter­face looks a bit like Inter­net Explor­er 8, but that is still dif­fer­ent enough to most Win­dows pro­grams that I think many users just nev­er got used to the con­trols. In IE, the main pur­pose is brows­ing. Hid­ing set­tings, etc. aren’t need­ed most of the time and I’d wager many users don’t even know about them. How­ev­er, I think any­one using a file man­ag­er is often look­ing to do more than just browse those files.

Windows 7 Explorer
The rel­a­tive­ly stripped down Explor­er inter­face in Win­dows 7

Win­dows 8—assuming that many of these fea­tures don’t get stripped out or watered down by some larg­er com­mit­tee (as has hap­pened to Win­dows releas­es in the past; thus Vista)—seems to try to cater to both casu­al users by way of the col­lapsable Rib­bon and even the Metro UI (which will pre­vent many users from even see­ing the Explor­er win­dow) as well as to pow­er users who think that reduc­ing the num­ber of clicks to show hid­den items from five down to two is awe­some. Try­ing to have it both ways may very well not work, as is too often the case.

But, right or wrong, the Find­er in OSX Lion is still going to be near­ly as lousy after Win­dows 8 as it was when OS X first launched2. At least the Win­dows team is will­ing to lis­ten to crit­i­cism and make some dras­tic changes.

  1. Fair to point out that Gru­ber did­n’t men­tion any crit­i­cism of either, though if I had to place mon­ey on where his pref­er­ences lie, I’d go with Apple. []
  2. There seem to be near­ly as many Find­er replace­ments for OS X as there are Explor­er replace­men­t/add-ons for Win­dows. How­ev­er, the pop­u­lar­i­ty of the $40 Path Find­er real­ly sug­gests how cum­ber­some Find­er can be. []

Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor

I’ve been a fan of fan­ta­sy pret­ty much my entire life. No mat­ter how much I got a cer­tain amount of enjoy­ment of the scant­i­ly clad women war­riors from artists like Frazetta or Lar­ry Elmore, much of the—uh, armor?— that some women wore did­n’t seem like it would be of much help in a sword fight. Or keep them from freez­ing to death in a cool breeze. Or even just stay on them, for that mat­ter.

Some­one has cre­at­ed a handy Tum­blr blog so we can all enjoy know­ing that there are plen­ty of sen­si­ble women in the make-believe worlds of fan­ta­sy. Enjoy some of the great art at Women Fight­ers in Rea­son­able Armor.

I may even make some self-res­cu­ing princess art for my daugh­ter from some of these.

Void in US Manufacturing

I often hear from oth­ers and even find myself say­ing “I’d pay more for a ver­sion of prod­uct X if it were made in the U.S.” Accord­ing to this Forbes piece by Steve Den­ning, most com­pa­nies could­n’t man­u­fac­ture or even design a lot prod­ucts here, even if they want­ed to. The facil­i­ties and know-how all got shipped over­seas along with the jobs and mon­ey.

One exam­ple that struck me:

The lithi­um bat­tery for GM’s [GM] Chevy Volt is being man­u­fac­tured in South Korea. Mak­ing it in the U.S. wasn’t fea­si­ble: recharge­able bat­tery man­u­fac­tur­ing left the US long ago.

Some efforts are being made to res­ur­rect recharge­able bat­tery man­u­fac­ture in the U.S., such as the GE-backed [GE] A123Systems, but it’s dif­fi­cult to go it alone when much of the exper­tise is now in Asia.

Inter­est­ing, giv­en that my neigh­bor here in Franklin, TN—Nissan—will be man­u­fac­tur­ing the bat­ter­ies for the Leaf in near-by Sym­r­na, TN (one of their larg­er plants in N.A.) by next year. I think it is far too ear­ly to make any claims as to the via­bil­i­ty of one choice over the oth­er, as both cars just hit the mar­ket and pro­duc­tion lines have prob­a­bly yet to even hit any sort of reg­u­lar­i­ty. How­ev­er, that seems to be a glar­ing hole in the argu­ment that bat­ter­ies, at least, can­not be made in the states.

Or, on the oth­er hand, it may soon serve to prove that point. Only time will tell. I, for one, am root­ing on Nis­san to make it work.

On Jobs’ Retirement as CEO of Apple

I’m an Apple fan and as much as I’d like to write some­thing on Steve Jobs’ retire­ment, the Inter­net is pret­ty much already filled to the brim with rumi­na­tions on the top­ic. If you do choose to read a piece on this, I sug­gest MG Sei­gler’s piece at TechCrunch. It sum­ma­rizes why Jobs’ leav­ing is broad­er than just a tech news piece and delves into what is next for Apple.

I will sum­ma­rize why this mat­ters to me: Apple was formed a few months before I was born and Jobs retired on my 35th birth­day. I have grown up with Apple in a very real sense. From play­ing “Ore­gon Trail” on an Apple ][ to car­ry­ing a device ripped from a sci­ence fic­tion nov­el as my phone, these devices have real­ly mat­tered to me. The atten­tion to detail in them and the amount of vision it took to get them in my hands has always been phe­nom­e­nal. The fact that so many oth­ers are tak­ing note of this change in lead­er­ship means that they meant a lot to all of us, regard­less of what com­put­er of phone we use. It was always so much more than just that.

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

It took me sev­er­al tries to get inter­est­ed in Lev Gross­man­’s nov­el, The Magi­cians: A Nov­el. I had avoid­ed read­ing any­thing about the novel—other than it was high­ly rec­om­mend­ed and had won an award. I had no idea what to expect aside from, most­ly like­ly, some mag­ic hap­pen­ing. The open­ing of some kids walk­ing down the side­walk in Brook­lyn just did­n’t catch me the first or even the sec­ond time I start­ed. I final­ly gave it chance and was so glad that I did. By the time I got to the Beast enter­ing the class­room, I was mes­mer­ized. By the end of the book, I was floored. It was­n’t real­ly a par­o­dy of fan­ta­sy nov­els (too much respect shown for the genre) but it also was com­plete­ly irrev­er­ent take all the same.

It was sim­ply a pitch-per­fect, mod­ern take on the clas­sic fan­ta­sy sto­ries I grew up with (name­ly, the Chron­i­cles of Nar­nia). And I could­n’t wait to read more about the world(s) Gross­man wrote about.

Well, with­in a month or so of my lis­ten­ing to The Magi­cians on audio­book, I read about the planned sequel; so good news for me. I got that nov­el the day after the hard­back hit book­shelves and fin­ished it just last night.

Audiobooks vs. Print

I read the print ver­sion this time, as I knew I would­n’t have the patience for an audio­book this time around. This may seem like an odd idea if you’re not famil­iar with audio­books (or if you read a bit slow­er than they tend to be read at), but I’m a rel­a­tive­ly quick read­er. Giv­en the speedy pace of the first nov­el, I fig­ured (cor­rect­ly) that I could devour this nov­el in about a week.

Anoth­er odd thing I’ve dis­cov­ered about lis­ten­ing to a book on audio and then read­ing sequels (pre­quels, etc., too) in print is that you tend to keep those char­ac­ter’s voic­es in your head. Both The Magi­cians and The Magi­cian King are read by Mark Bramhall whose voice and inflec­tions cap­ture the snarky atti­tudes of the char­ac­ters per­fect­ly. I seri­ous­ly can­not praise his nar­ra­tion of the first book enough. And though his pace is con­sid­er­ably faster than the last audio­book I fin­ished, I knew I just would­n’t have the patience for it this time.

Epic Fantasy

I recent­ly watched por­tions of a Comi­con pan­el on the sub­ject of Epic Fan­ta­sy with some of my favorites: George R.R. Mar­tin, Patrick Roth­fuss, Kevin J. Ander­son, and oth­ers. As they don’t seem to have a firm con­cept of what Epic Fan­ta­sy is, oth­er than pos­si­bly the books are large, I’m going to co-opt the term to describe The Magi­cian King. Worlds are saved, heroes take long jour­neys, drag­ons are dealt with, buck­les are swashed (or what­ev­er), and prob­a­bly count­less oth­er fan­ta­sy tropes are dis­posed of. Of course, Gross­man han­dles these all with his lat­er­al approach that made The Magi­cians so won­der­ful.

Com­ing in at exact­ly 400 pages (in hard­back, any­way), the scale of the book is clos­er to its Nar­nia lin­eage (and pos­si­bly, The Hob­bit) than The Lord of the Rings, and that’s fine. Gross­man often relies on pop cul­ture (some more obscure than oth­ers) to short­cut long descrip­tions of this or that medieval-ish fan­ta­sy thing. A drag­on? Well, it looks like a D&D drag­on; what more is there to say about that? The char­ac­ters are the rea­son to read this sto­ry, any­way (though Gross­man does a fine job at mak­ing sword fights and oth­er Swords & Sor­cery bits plen­ty fun).

I was so glad that this nov­el focused on the sto­ry of Julia. The Magi­cians makes it clear that she goes through a lot dur­ing the time Quentin is at Brake­bills, but explains essen­tial­ly noth­ing of it. It makes for a com­pelling sto­ry and here and fol­lows in the Narn­ian tra­di­tion of sub­se­quent nov­els telling sto­ries about less-promi­nent or tan­gen­tial char­ac­ters in the pre­ced­ing tale.

I tweet­ed last night that I could­n’t wait to read more sto­ries in this uni­verse, but to be hon­est I’m okay if this is it. I have no doubt that more tales could be made. I mean, it isn’t if Gross­man has­n’t cre­at­ed an entire uni­verse in which to expand this. How­ev­er, if it means water­ing down the sto­ries or sim­ply retelling what amounts to the same adven­tures, I’ll glad­ly pass. I will, at least, be read­ing what­ev­er he writes next, though.

The Windup Girl

I fin­ished the audio­book of The Windup Girl, Pao­lo Baci­galupi mul­ti-award win­ning nov­el about life in a dystopic Thai­land after glob­al warm­ing and genet­ic engi­neer­ing have wrecked much of mod­ern soci­ety. Baci­galupi is a won­der­ful writer and it is an imag­i­na­tive sto­ry, wor­thy of the praise and awards that were heaped on it after the book’s release near­ly two years ago.

The Story

The sto­ry fol­lows the inter­sec­tion of a half-dozen-or-so key char­ac­ters who have all found them­selves in the Bangkok. While each char­ac­ter has a great deal of depth, it is real­ly the city and—through the lim­it­ed lens we’re allowed—the world that Baci­galupi describes that are the star.

Often, the sto­ry told in a nov­el falls into one of two cat­e­gories: an epic tale start­ing from small events lead­ing to world-chang­ing epochs and their after­math or (and this is case with The Windup Girl) we are giv­en but a nar­row win­dow into a greater world. Baci­galupi gives hints at the var­i­ous events that brought about the lives we are pre­sent­ed in this sto­ry though very lit­tle is giv­en as to where those lives go after­wards. We are just pre­sent­ed with a glimpse on the cross­roads of these char­ac­ters. While I found myself want­i­ng more of their sto­ries, I want to know more about the rest of the world even more so. I want to know about the inner work­ings of Agri­Gen. I want to know just what went down in Fin­land. And I want to know if life in Japan is as lux­u­ri­ous as it sounds when com­pared to the rest of the world in The Windup Girl.


The audio­book is per­formed by the excel­lent Jonathan Davis. The first audio­book per­for­mance I lis­tened to of his was Neal Stephen­son’s Snow Crash, one that remains a high mark of nar­ra­tion in my mind. His wide range of accents and voic­es tru­ly feels like a cast of per­form­ers. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, unlike Snow Crash, the pace felt too slow in The Windup Girl. Davis’ paus­es and cadences went beyond dra­mat­ic and bor­dered on tedious at var­i­ous points. The book isn’t a par­tic­u­lar­ly long nov­el but yet the per­formed at such a slow pace, the audio­book was ter­ri­bly long. For ref­er­ence, Snow Crash is 480 pages and the Davis-per­formed audio­book just over 17 hours where as The Windup Girl is 361 pages and the audio­book by the same per­former is 19 and a half hours long1. Though I’m a fan of Davis’ work and look for­ward to list­ing to more of his read­ing, this par­tic­u­lar per­for­mance drug on more than I cared for.

Slow pace aside, the audio­book is good and the sto­ry is great. I high­ly rec­om­mend it and tru­ly hope that Baci­galupi takes us back to this world again very soon.

  1. I’m aware page isn’t a stan­dard­ized met­ric, but I can’t account for that increase in length oth­er than very slow per­for­mance. []