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Friday, November 24th, 2006 - 9:14 AM

"Christmas Presence"

Christmas Header

It seems Christmas comes earlier every year, and you won't find me complaining. I think I heard people describing seeing the first signs of Christmas retail in September this year. Now, I'm not wild about the retail and sales side of early Christmas, but when it comes to celebrating and thinking about the holiday a bit early, I'm all game. For instance, 104.1 the Fish, one of our local Christian radio stations, started playing exclusively Christmas music this week. I have no beefs with that. In fact, I love it. It really brightens my mood. Some of the songs are not overly inspiring or thought-provoking: I'm not crazy about Jingle Bells, Rudolph, Frosty and Old Saint Nick, but the general theme gets me hoppin'. I remember always being crazy about Christmas music in my childhood. In fact, I used to say that Christmas music was my favorite type of music.

I just heard Silent Night by Mercy Me and Amy Grant again on the radio. I heard it for the first time last Christmas season. Now there's a song with a nice sound!

Christmas Header

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Thursday, November 23rd, 2006 - 11:13 PM

"Light Bright"

A week or two ago I found a LED head lamp for a very good price at Target. It stood out to me because it has four different modes:

  1. Flood
  2. Normal
  3. Flood + Normal
  4. Red

All four modes are ridiculously bright and sufficient for lighting a darkened path. Even the red is blindingly bright. Quite honestly it is the brightest head lamp I've seen. I'm excited to do more hiking with my new gear. One more thing to check off my official Big Lots Backpacking Wish List. Pretty soon I'm going to have to cross off the "Big Lots" part because I'm finding stuff elsewhere.

When I was playing with the various modes of my new headlamp, two distinct characters emerged. In the Star Wars vein, the hero has a blue device, and the sinister character is empowered by red.

Laser Biff McChewalot vs. Master Rouge Chuckles

By the way, I noticed something weird when playing with my new head lamp. It seems that the red setting appears brighter than the other modes shining directly in my eyes - with protection from my closed eyelids, of course. When I shine the lamp in my closed eyes and cycle through the 4 modes, I stopped on the brightest, and it was the red one. Weird. I wonder if closed eyes are more sensitive to red light or something. Haven't a clue. Any one of the modes is too bright to shine directly in my open eyes though... it's almost like looking directly at the sun (not a good idea).

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Friday, November 17th, 2006 - 12:43 AM

"Bottoms Up Menus on the House"

I can't remember ever seeing a menu on the bottom of a web page before, have you? I'm not talking a list of links, but a "drop-down" sort that has one or two branching levels. I am duplicating the primary navigation bar on Camp Jonah's new site, both on the top and the bottom of the page. Yesterday I added drop down functionality to the top menu. Obviously the same detail needs to be provided on the bottom, so I determined to alter the Gibson menu css to create "toss-up" or "Bottoms Up" menus as opposed to "drop-downs". I don't reckon I've ever seen such an inverted menu implemented before, though I'm sure it has occurred somewhere on the web. It is of course a necessary variation for a menu near the bottom of a page; otherwise some of the links would potentially drop below the browser's viewable region. It was an easy change to the CSS to invert the positioning of the menus. If the two menus had identical color schemes, it would take just one line of CSS code to invert the bottom menu (a context selector). Since I created both green and red buttons and menus, I had to redefine a number of CSS rules. Most of the CSS was not duplicated; however, for aside from the inverted positioning of the menu groups the structure remained the same. Here is a demo page that uses both the normal pure CSS menu and the inverted one.

Bottoms Up Menu

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Wednesday, November 15th, 2006 - 7:53 PM

"The Holy Grail of Menu Systems"

The CSS Holy Grail 3 Column Layout

In the world of modern web design using Cascading Style Sheets, there are several layouts notoriously difficult to produce with lean, standards compliant code. Perhaps most notable of these is what is refered to as "The Holy Grail". Some may argue about how many of these details come into play, but a Holy Grail layout should be:

  • 3 vertical columns of content:
  • 2 fixed width columns on the right and left, and
  • stretchy, fluid center column that fills the browser's remaining horizontal space not taken up by either side column
  • fully W3C standards compliant CSS and XHTML with no tables
  • using only CSS, each column can be re-ordered (eg. the center column can become a side panel, or the left column can become the right column) - and this done without actually changing the content's order in the source XHTML
  • a footer beneath is "pushed down" to be directly below the column with the longest content
  • any of the 3 columns can have the longest content and thus push the footer down
  • the columns can be set to fill or appear to fill the same vertical space and extend all the way down to the footer - by way of a background element or otherwise
  • all this must be possible without using Javascript or excessive extra divs or markup
  • oh, and it has to work in every browser - even the horrible IE

That said, no I haven't solved the Holy Grail. The last revision of Esotropiart was a fluid layout with great cross-browser success in several of the above mentioned goals. I didn't have need to solve all the issues addressed in the Holy Grail, however, and have never tried to investigate a full solution. There are plenty of coders out there far more intelligent than me doing just that (A List Apart, Position is Everything, Eric Meyer), and I figure it's not worth the hassle until I have an absolute need to employ such a layout in a real world project. There is currently no known solution that addresses all the issues listed above - thus the title "Holy Grail" is well deserved. Later revisions of CSS (W3C recommendations) will most likely solve this and many other banes of the design community. CSS3, for example, will support multiple flowing content columns. Perhaps the greater responsibility lies with browser companies to implement the recommendations W3C comes up with (particularly Microsoft, with their horribly destructive track record).

I regularly use quite a number of advanced CSS layout techniques: some self-invented, and others learned from the masters. The whole 3 column Holy Grail pursuit hasn't really surfaced in my world of design. However, there is another Holy Grail that I personally have more interest in and use for. It is the Holy Grail of Menu Systems. I want a drop-down menu that will:

  • be composed of entirely semantic markup - perhaps simple unordered lists or anchors - no tables!
  • can be either horizontal or vertical in format
  • flyouts will align with their controlling element no matter what - even if the text is resized by the user
  • CSS can be used to control the appearance without having to weed through a horrible mess of code
  • no Javascript is necessary - just CSS, using pseudo classes (primarily :hover) and context selectors
  • menu will function properly with near pixel perfect results in every browser
  • any number of hiearchical levels can be added (menus inside menus)
  • top level items don't need to be the same width

For a couple years I have - on and off - looked for a decent menu system and even written a couple rudimentary DHTML versions myself. However, none of these has addressed all items on my want list above. It seems to be one of those things where people give up on idealism and use DHTML (Javascript), assuming a workable pure CSS alternative doesn't exist. The problem with the DHTML approach is that very few of them produce indexible links, meaning that search engines will not index pages linked to from the menu - NOT ACCEPTABLE!. Other designers use the latest in CSS technology and produce menus that only work properly in one or two browsers - USELESS. While I'm tempted to use these simpler, idealistic methods and ignore the fact that they don't work in [junk browser] Internet Explorer, that would be unwise. Unfortunately 90% or so of the general population still uses this overrated, blindly accepted Microsoft product, so a menu system must definitely work in IE.

Last week I came across a site I had not seen in previous searches, the author of which is a genius in his own right. Steve Gibson and his research company have come up with the absolute answer to everyone's menu woes. For years, hobbyists and the great minds in the web industry have been trying to achieve some of the finer points contained in my Holy Grail menu demands. No one has truly delivered. The Gibson Research Company has accomplished what no other has been able to. They have created the perfect menu system. It uses no client-side scripting, is composed of simple XHTML unordered lists, and is powered by some genius, yet fairly simple CSS. The menu has been tested to work in basically every modern browser, even many older versions. GRC is offering the results of this noble work to the public domain, meaning that anyone and everyone should use it! Look no further for your menu solutions. Sure, it doesn't fade or have fancy (excessive) sliders or animations, but it will perform masterfully in all browsers.

Please visit the Gibson Research Company site to read about and download the source code. The CSS is very well documented, so you shouldn't have much problem implementing and adapting it for your purposes. Click here to see a demo implementation I am developing for Camp Jonah. Feel free to look at the externally referenced CSS file. I deleted all the components from the stylesheet to include only those controlling elements necessary for my purposes. I obviously altered the visual rules (text and border color, background, etc.) to match my layout as well. Plus, there are a few rules that you won't need because they are elements specific to my layout. I suggest downloading the original CSS file from GRC so you can decide which elements to omit or alter for your needs. Be careful to test in multiple browsers after each change, however. I made a bunch of changes only to find out later that something I did made the menu stop working properly in IE (surprise, surprise, I know). It was something as simple as deleting a border rule (I didn't want the border-top that creates a depressed button illusion) - which makes no sense and shouldn't keep it from working, but that's IE for ya!

Camp Jonah Menu

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Wednesday, November 8th, 2006 - 1:08 AM

"The Untitled J and J Project: The Ultimate Movie"

Jackie Chan vs. Jet Li

News broke last month (rumored for a while) that Jet Li and Jackie Chan will finally meet on the big screen. Apparently Jet and Jackie have no intention of writing Wu Shu Poetry together because Fearless was Jet's Final Martial Arts Epic. I guess as long as each subsequent movie he makes can be classified with a new and obscure genre title, Jet's fearless statement is forgivable. This new film, allegedly telling the mystical story of The Monkey King, is toted as a "family film". As much as I respect what appears to be a conscious decision toward a change of focus, I'm glad Jet isn't disappointing his fans by giving up on film altogether. Maybe we can all help him out by coming up with new genre titles for him to use. For example, Twin Warriors was a "Tai Chi Discovery Workshop", and the Once Upon a Time in China series can be grouped under the new genre, "Untouchable Mystical Skill Master Extravaganza". Let's just hope Jet continues to Wu and Shu us all in one way or another.

I have always respected both Jet and Jackie for their intentional avoidance of projects with copious amounts of trashy and immoral content (for the most part). The fact that this new project is being labeled a "family film" intrigues me. Perhaps it will be more of a comedy than anything else. If only Bruce Lee was still alive: sometimes I wonder what sort of movies he'd be making now. What a trio that would be!

I'm glad Jet Li and Jackie Chan are finally realizing what incredible results their collaborative genius can produce. No matter what the final product is, I am jumping in anticipation. It will be interesting to see what influences and styles will emerge from these starkly different yet equally talented artists. Not to mention that one Yuen-woo Ping will be the stunt choreographer! Is there a martial arts movie made in the last 5 (30) years that he isn't involved in? Can you say "Matrix", "Kill Bill", "Kung Fu Hustle", "Fearless", "Unleashed", "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", "Once Upon a Time in China", "Drunken Master" and a host of others? I just hope the three great minds don't do real world battle, while ironing out the intricate details. Jackie especially must be getting used to choreographical freedom, as he is a noteworthy fight and stunt coordinator. Oh boy, the possibilities for this movie are borderline ridiculous. Eat it up fans!

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Tuesday, November 7th, 2006 - 11:32 PM

"Natural Language Search Engines"

Why do attempts at developing natural language search engines almost always fail miserably? What is meant by "natural language"? Why should you care? Natural language, aka plain English (Portuguese, Spanish, Mandarin, and so on) is a logical construct of words, phrases and expressions that intelligent beings use to communicate meaning and intent. Most modern search engines have very little understanding of intent and thus return millions of results that have little or nothing to do with what a person is looking for. This is because search engines break apart typed queries into single words and weigh their importance. Many common words are thrown out of the equation, deemed as insignificant by the powers that be.

Natural language search engines attempt to, among other things, bring these overlooked words back to help determine the user's intent. Ask.com is one of the more well-known "natural language" search engines. In reality, Ask.com is little more than a group of experts who constantly build a vast database of links and answers to common queries, and the realtime intelligence of their technology leaves much to be desired. Ask.com has already experienced severely lacking success and has lost its place as a significant proponent of true natural language technology. A number of similar "pseudo-smart" services are on the scene - some more successful than others. Most rely on a combination of automated and human interaction with web content in order to form complex web indexes, a constant behind-the-scenes work in progress. Seemingly little has been done in the way of interpreting the language of a query in order to answer questions on the fly or make bold assumptions as to the desired web destination or information hiding in the typed words. Many search engine developers have concluded that such logical, realtime interpretation is downright impossible.

A few days ago I caught mention of yet another search engine startup called Powerset. What caught my eye was the sentence that mentioned something about natural language search. The company is still in its beginning stages, and there is no workable (publicly accessible) search engine or demonstration that I am aware of. A select few have been exposed to the promising technology's results, but little specific is written about the experience. The entrepreneurs behind Powerset are intentionally keeping things hush-hush, I suppose either in fear that someone will steal or squash their idea or so they can dodge humiliation if hopeless failure ensues. At any rate, Powerset has received quite a bit of attention from techies everywhere. The effort purportedly has quite a few million dollars of venture capitalist backing already. It will be interesting to see where they do or don't go with it. I for one am very interested in intelligent web search results, especially stemming from full English sentences and questions. I'm tired of wading through billions of unrelated results. To be honest, I've never been overly impressed with Google's (to name a giant) search results. Sure, the speed and number of results are great, but relevance to my intent is rarely something to write home about.

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Saturday, November 4th, 2006 - 11:05 PM

"Autodesk 3D Studio Max 9 and Maya 8 Launch Tour"

Wednesday evening, good ole Jim and I went to the Autodesk 3D Studio Max 9 and Maya 8 launch tour presented in Portland. I'm on the Alias/Autodesk email list, so I got the announcement a few weeks ago. Jim has a degree in Computer Animation. I invited him to go with me because I figured he might be interested. The tour relates to the release of the two highest profile 3D animation software packages, now owned by one company, Autodesk. The event was free, so why not go, eh?

I am quite interested in 3D animation (more the modeling and rendering), but my experience is limited to cheaper software like Bryce, Ray Dream Studio, Poser, and Blender 3D. 3D animation seems to me to be a virtually impossible field to break into, so I never considered it as a viable pursuit. In my dreams, however, I would go after it. I dabble with what I can here and there as a hobbyist.

The 2-hour plus presentation was divided into two parts: demonstrations of each of the two new software titles. Both presentations were blindingly fast and not very informative for a dullard like me. I don't have exposure to either Maya or 3D Studio Max, so it was a little over my head. I actually understood most of it, but I guess it didn't interest me greatly because I know I'll never have such an advanced tool. Both titles are priced anywhere from about $2000 to $7000 - pretty ridiculous. They pretty much target the architectural, video game and film industries. The average hobbyist or small business is not going to dabble with such applications (well, legally anyway).

Quite easily, the most impressive part of the demonstration was the hordes of free stuff in the lobby. There were dozens of pizzas, pop, and cookies. Jim and I actually had quite a filling meal from the occasion - all for free! That was quite exciting. Perhaps I'll attend more such free demonstrations!

Seeing the latest and greatest made me realize that Blender 3D, an open source up and coming 3D tool has a long way to go before catching up with the high production tools. In all honesty though, I really don't need an app that has panels with hundreds of confusing controls, like Maya and 3ds Max. I just want a powerful modeling and rendering app. Blender is really coming along. I don't think a talented animator is at all limited in the Blender environment. It has been proven by the release of the open source 3D animation movie, Elephants Dream (whose message I don't understand particularly, nor is it the best executed project I've ever seen, but it's still cool like a long parenthetical statement).

Grass I painted in Maya
Maya Personal Learning Edition was provided for free at the event on a CD. I installed it and played around with the paint effects tool... truly fun, yet a total waste of time. This "Lite" version is based on version 7: a bit old. Most of the cool features demonstrated at the new release event (pizza feed) are not available, and of course it isn't really usable for anything, since it's just a demo version. I don't like anything that holds back: watermarked renderings, limited save and export, etc. I'll stick to my current, cheaper options.

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