Gilles Vandenoostende

Hi, I'm Gilles Vandenoostende - designer, illustrator and digital busybody with a love of language, based in Ghent, Belgium.

Why Microsoft Word must die

I’ve disliked Word (and the entire Microsoft Office suite) for almost as long as I can remember. It’s terrible for doing actual writing in, has a terrible compatibility track record, but it also articulated precisely what I always felt was so clumsy about using it:

[…] Arguments raged internally: should it use control codes, or hierarchical style sheets? In the end, the decree went out: Word should implement both formatting paradigms. Even though they’re fundamentally incompatible and you can get into a horrible mess by applying simple character formatting to a style-driven document, or vice versa. Word was in fact broken by design, from the outset — and it only got worse from there.

Bingo.

The truth is that today, for most people, you don’t need a giant, expensive, bloated piece of software to actually write. Especially if you’re doing it for a living.

Unless you’re old and still use snail-mail on a regular basis, most of what you write never gets printed as-is. It either gets sent via e-mail, is copy-pasted into a CMS’s text-area, or passed along to a graphic designer whose job it is to properly typeset your prose in Indesign (or Photoshop, or Illustrator, etc…) before publishing. None of these parts of the process benefit from the text coming by way of a .doc(x) file, and in fact it’s likely an active hindrance*. And its implementation of versioning is so byzantine that most people would rather just save extra copies of their files than actually figure out how to use it**.

In my experience, nothing of worth ever goes straight from Microsoft Word into the public’s hands. So why pay through the nose for the privilege of using (or having your employees use) a sub-optimal tool?

Personally, I use iA Writer for all my writing needs. It’s dead-simple to use, has a nice font to stare at, and its output is just plain-text, so it’s universally compatible and it’ll likely never become obsolete or unreadable. And if you write for the web (or need rich-text formatting), it comes with Markdown support so you can effortlessly export structured, valid HTML with minimal effort on your part. And your designers, type-setters & developers will love you for not handing them yet another shitty Word file set in Times New Roman.

* A hindrance, because Word’s rich-text engine makes selecting text harder than it should be, by “helpfully” snapping your selection to include some extra word, white-space, or punctuation you don’t want, or (in the case of web-publishing) frequently adding a whole bunch of invisible in-line styles that mess up the CSS styling of the website it ends up on, should you ever carelessly copy/paste your copy into some CMS.
** Hands up if you’ve seen this file-naming pattern before: website-copy-v5-DEF-NO-REALLY-THIS-IS-THE-LATEST-VERSION2 copy.docx

3D Printing with graphene

Graphene is a two dimensional material consisting of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb or chicken wire structure. It is the thinnest material known and according to mechanical engineering professor James Hone, of Columbia University, graphene is strongest material ever measured, some 200 times stronger than structural steel. Graphene conducts electricity as efficiently as copper and outperforms all other materials as a conductor of heat. Graphene is almost completely transparent, yet so dense that even the smallest atom helium cannot pass through it.

3D printing is rapidly approaching Diamond Age proportions. This won’t be within consumer-reach any time soon, but the implications for product design using graphene (also known as carbon nano-tubes) are promising. Also: space elevators.

France's phone networks tapped by the NSA

Le Monde writes:

According to the documents retrieved from the NSA database by its ex-analyst, telephone communications of French citizens are intercepted on a massive scale. Le Monde has been able to obtain access to documents which describe the techniques used to violate the secrets or simply the private life of French people. Some elements of information about this espionage have been referred to by Der Speigel and The Guardian, but others are, to date, unpublished.

If it wasn’t so galling, you’d almost be impressed at the ridiculous scope of these spying operations: 70 million phone calls per month according to this article. And I’m guessing every single country in the world is under — at least — the same level of surveillance.

A Short Translation from Bullshit to English of Selected Portions of the Google Chrome Blink Developer FAQ

1) Why is Chrome spawning a new browser engine?

The WebKit maintainers wouldn’t let us attack Apple directly, by changing WebKit in ways that would make it perform badly on OS X and iOS.

Because they share a rendering engine, developer effort to ensure Chrome compatibility currently benefits Apple platforms for free. To prevent this, we must make Chrome and WebKit behave differently.

This guy gets it.

Servo and Blink

Yesterday Mozilla (and Samsung) announced they are starting work on a brand new web-rendering engine called Servo; a replacement for Gecko, which has arguably become a little long in the tooth, and is being pummeled mercilessly by Webkit in the marketplace. I’m excited for them: sometimes reinventing the wheel is exactly what’s needed in software, when legacy cruft becomes a hindrance to moving stuff forward.

I’d love to see Servo disrupt the current era of Webkit dominance.

Meanwhile, the Google Chrome team announces they’re also working on a new engine called Blink. There’s two ways to look at this move:

  1. Webkit, like Gecko, has been around for a long time and that legacy might in fact be acting as a detriment to further innovation. So it’s a good thing Google is making a new engine, even though Webkit is the best rendering engine currently out there.
  2. Or, you can take the cynical perspective: Google is only interested in advancing its own interests, and deeply embroiled in a massive war with Apple over who gets to dominate the mobile web. It’s not necessarily interested in advancing the web, but only in getting a proprietary leg up on its competitors.

That second possibility could end up being very bad for the web indeed. If we learnt our lessons from what Microsoft did back when it was in a position of dominance that is. Since I don’t particularly trust Google to not “be evil” anymore, I’m more inclined to take the second stance on this issue. Google’s in a position of power with Chrome, and I don’t particularly trust them to not put their own interests before those of an open & consistent web.

Opera's adopting Webkit, and why Microsoft should follow their lead

The Next Web writes:

Opera has announced that its range of Web browsers is now being used by 300 million people each month to navigate the Internet across mobile phones, PCs, tablets and more. The Norwegian firm is marking the milestone with the announcement that it will transition its browsers over to the open-sourced WebKit, in a move that will eventually end the development of its own rendering engine.

A very sensible decision. I’d advise Microsoft’s Internet Explorer team to do the same for a couple of reasons:

1. Webkit is king

Due to the rise of mobile (and your own company’s inability to lead in this domain), Webkit has become the de-facto browser-engine developers are targeting first* before any others. Right now, supporting IE is a pain in the ass (initiatives like modern.ie are little more than a stop-gap solution, since not everyone is willing or able to sacrifice huge chunks of their hard-drive to run all the Windows VM’s just to test their work in IE). As a result, people aren’t going out of their way to support IE any more than they have to (see the whole prefix drama last year).

Let me give an example of what this means: Google’s Chrome experiments website is populated with loads of cool Javascript demos, almost all of which are made by independent web-developers in their spare time, for free. Meanwhile, Microsoft  has to pay companies to make showcase web-apps optimized for Internet Explorer.

Ballmer’s infamous “developers, developers, developers“-schtick clearly hasn’t reached the IE team. They don’t own the web-developer’s hearts and minds, and nothing they can do can win them back (not that they ever owned them to begin with). Switching to Webkit would allow users of IE to reap the benefits of other browsers’ popularity.

And who knows: Maybe with a more level playing field, maybe browsers can start competing on UX and features, rather than on how accurately (or not) they render sites. MS might actually win some people back.

2. Time to play catch-up

Right now, IE is still stuck in an almost archaic 12-18 month release cycle. Both Chrome and Firefox are constantly updated year-round. In the time it takes for IE to go up one version number, Chrome goes up 10. Switching to Webkit would allow Microsoft to make up for a lot of lost time in one fell swoop.

3. People aren’t nostalgic about IE

Switching to Webkit would be a more productive use of time and money than making ads like this. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a glorious ode to the 90’s people of my generation will certainly remember. But while it’s one of the best Microsoft ads I’ve ever seen**, strategically I think it sends the wrong message.

Nostalgia isn’t the right sentiment for promoting a browser that’s already crippled by a dated image. For people to be nostalgic about something, they have to remember liking it in the first place. Same reason you wouldn’t make a nostalgic ad about DOS to promote Windows 8. Maybe I’m an exception, but I remember Netscape Navigator’s spinning globe a lot more fondly than Internet Explorer’s blue “E”.

So to wrap up: good on you Opera. I’m looking forward to what you can contribute to an already great rendering engine.

 

* Some people are weary of this Webkit-dominance, drawing parallels to IE’s dominance in the late 90’s-early 00’s and all the horrors and stagnation that came with it. But Webkit is different because it’s open-source and has multiple stakeholders, including web-native companies like Google. I don’t think any of them are willing to let the web rot like Microsoft was back then.
** That’s not saying much. At least this one doesn’t have scary hard-core schoolgirls.

The Hobbit: an unexpected masterclass in why HFR fails and a reaffirmation of what makes cinema magical

Filmmaker Vincent Laforet took time out to go watch Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit 3 times in a row:

Tonight I went to see his latest film in all three flavors of its release: 3D HFR, Standard 3D, and in 2D.

On one end of the spectrum I had one of the most disappointing cinematic experiences in recent memory, and on the other extreme I fell into the film and enjoyed it very much – all watching the EXACT same film mind you…

I went to see The Hobbit last night (in 2D) and loved it. After reading this I’m glad that I did, but I’m also perversely curious to see if the 3D HFR is as awful as a lot of people are saying. Seeing as the movie was a lot more dynamically shot in places than the original LoTR movies, I can certainly see how it could be torture for some people.

The last movie I saw in 3D, Tintin (also from Peter Jackson) put me off of 3D for good because of the action scenes. 3D cinema is almost fascist art: the director literally forces you to focus on the part of the picture where he wants you to focus, and any deviation of your gaze is met with instantaneous punishment in the form of broken immersion at best and a splitting headache at worst.

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