PDF forever?

The Portable Document Format, or PDF, is everywhere. But it’s still a format that causes headaches for the average person. […] It’s not often, of course, that the PDF gets this level of notice. The PDFs origin story is a bit more boring than that of the MP3, which was built around the contours of Suzanne Vega’s unaccompanied voice on “Tom’s Diner,” and the ZIP file, which came to life in a brutal legal battle that was egged on by the whims of BBS users. But the PDF still has a story, and that story is that of a format that promises to be even more valuable in the decades to come. […]

Sadly, if the proposition that the PDF is secretly the world’s most important file format is false, that’s probably only because of the number of draft copies of those many, many memos and reports sitting on our hard disks (or in some variety of cloud storage, or on someone’s USB drive) in some variant of Word format. Which means that we’ll all be fine as long as we all keep on using some variant of Microsoft Word.

Somehow the headline Microsoft want to hold your organisation’s documents hostage would be closer to the truth.

[Via kottke.org]

Speaker-to-Animals speaks

Paul Ford is at it again in Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, explaining Bitcoin (and why the notions that lie behind it are simultaneously batty and beguiling to those who may be susceptible to Engineer’s Disease) to civilians. 1

[After a basic explanation of what Bitcoin does…]

That all of this adds up to money is ridiculous, and we should probably mock it more than we do. Consider Bitcoin a grand middle finger. It’s a prank, almost a parody of the global financial system, that turned into a bubble. “You plutocrats of Davos may think you control the global money supply,” the pranksters seem to say. “But humans will make an economy out of anything. Even this!” To be frank, central banking never really ground my gears; it’s just another one of those vast enterprises that we cower beneath, like network TV or religion. But I can see how it would piss people off. Bits gonna coin.

As usual with Ford’s work aimed at a general audience, he does a good job of relating why this stuff is so important to those who care about it in terms that the rest of us can understand without getting bogged down in technical niceties.

If the geek nation had any sense, it’d just grant him the title of Speaker-To-Animals right now and get it over with. They could do worse.

British. Not entirely Great.

Mary Beard is right: the new set of 10p coins do look awfully ‘Theme Park Britain.’ I get the urge to keep the designs simple, but English Breakfast followed by Fish & Chips isn’t a very inspiring combination, and World Wide Web is utterly uninspired. 1

‘T’ clearly ought to stand for TARDIS. Granted, Gallifrey isn’t in the UK, but the Doctor is this generation’s combination of Gandalf and Merlin and he/she is a far more potent and positive symbol of Britain’s contribution to the world’s imagination over the last half-century or so than James bloody Bond! 2

Generally, it’s not a set of images that suggests a confident, forward-looking nation.

[Via Mary Beard]

Beneath the Shorteners!

Russell Davies thinks we’re missing out when our browsers hide URLs from us:

[For a while…] domain names and URLs became part of the fun of the web. While the more commercial parts of town got excited about the money changing hands for cars.com, the bohemian quarters were creating baroque constructions like del.icio.us or mucking about with ridiculously domains.

He’s right that our web browsers not ‘wasting’ screen space on displaying a URL in full is a bad thing, though I’m less taken than he is with the joy of broken-backed English language words and phrases being rejigged as domain names just because they ended in .us or .in or whatever. It seems to me that when faced with a shortened URL, the least your browser could do for you is present you with the unshortened version of the URL in a pop-up before you click on it. That way, you could both appreciate whatever degree of wit the site’s owner was trying to convey in constructing that URL , and in the interests of clarity.1

Still, I do like the slogan he suggests for the movement to have browsers devote some screen space do displaying domains again:

Beneath The Shorteners, The Web!

Damn straight!

[Via Russell Davies]

Yearning for Shoggoths

In the wake of Guillermo del Toro’s big night at the Oscars, here’s hoping someone will finally give him the money to show us his take on an Old One:

[From a New Yorker profile written when he was between films, having left the ill-fated effort to film The Hobbit and not yet turned his attention to Pacific Rim.]

Even though del Toro’s team had three months to experiment, the challenge was immense. The frozen city, for example, could emerge only after the artists had settled how the Old Ones moved, ate, and slept. “If you spend enough time strolling in the street—seeing a cathedral, seeing a door opening and closing in a building or a car—you understand the ergonomics of human beings,” he said. With a few key shots, del Toro needed to conjure, wordlessly, the lives of the aliens.

He could, you know. He really could.

Give him however much money he wants, send him off with Ron Perlman and Doug Jones and a bunch of creature designers to lead and see what comes back. Whether it’s a shoggoth or Baba Yaga or the ghost of Lobster Johnson or Hellboy in Hell, it’ll be worth seeing.

[Via Longform.org]

In search of warriors

Kim Frank went In Search of Warriors:

A story told by my grandfather sparked a fascination. Far to the east lies a land, wild and vast, inhabited by the legendary warriors who rescued my grandfather. Mongolia. For fifteen years, I’ve returned to this country, seeking to understand the raw beauty and tenacity that shapes those who call it home.

Widescreen landscapes, populated by souls far hardier than me.

[Via MetaFilter]

Climbing Mount Tsundoku

Over at Tor’s web site, James Nicoll found a sympathetic audience for his thoughts On Acquiring More Books Than It’s Possible to Read:

Every new book on the wall, each epub tucked away in my Kobo gives me a delicious tingle of anticipation. Sure, the math says I probably won’t get around to reading any particular book I acquire. It also says that I might. I will take might any day of the week. Better might than definitely won’t.

[Via More Words, Deeper Hole]

Smart City, Surveilled City

Geoff Manaugh ponders the extent to which a Smart City is a Surveillance City:

The smart city is more than just a city that watches and listens. City dwellers are constantly generating data about themselves, down to the vibrations of their footsteps. Consider a project called Big Glass Microphone by the California-based design consultancy Stamen. Big Glass Microphone turned the fiber-optic telecommunications infrastructure embedded beneath Stanford University into a terrestrial eavesdropping tool. Able to pick up seismic disturbances created by delivery trucks, passing cyclists, and even the footsteps of lone pedestrians, the campus’s fiber-optic network became an underground tool for monitoring events on the surface. It is an invisible burglar alarm underfoot.

The impulse is to imagine that in a decent-sized metropolis one voice, one instance of eye contact with a camera, one check-in by your smartphone to a wireless hotspot will be lost among hundreds of thousands of others. But the one thing we know computers are good at is remembering things, filing things away, retrieving them again when someone decides to take an interest in the whereabouts of a given person on a given day.

If we’re lucky, such technology will be frittered away by private companies who deploy all that technology in the interests of deciding who we are and which starlet we’ll find most appealing/eye-catching the next time our line of sight interacts with an advertising billboard they control. If we’re unlucky, all those data feeds will pass through a government data centre for copying/archiving on their way to the advertisers, just in case.

[Via Flowing Data]

Not theirs, ours

Jeremy Keith is getting nervous about just how and why Google and Firefox are planning to nudge web users into improving the web their way:

One of my greatest fears for the web is that building it becomes the domain of a professional priesthood. Anything that raises the bar to writing some HTML or CSS makes me very worried. Usually it’s toolchains that make things more complex, but in this case the barrier to entry is being brought right into the browser itself.

Or, to put it another way (as he does at the end of his post): This isn’t about you or me. This is about all those people who could potentially become makers of the web. We should be welcoming them, not creating barriers for them to overcome. Damn straight.

[Via Waxy.org

Parallel lives

Veteran tech journalist Charles Arthur has found himself forced to try surviving with just an iPad to get through his daily workload:

A couple of weeks ago, I opened my Macbook Pro as usual. The keyboard lit up, as usual. I waited – there’s that pause while the display gathers itself (it’s a 2012 model) and the processor pulls everything together and presents the login window.

Except this time, nothing. The display didn’t light. There was the quiet sound of the fans going, but nothing. Oh dear. [So…] I turned to my iPad Pro.

That was, as I say, a couple of weeks ago. Since then I’ve been doing everything I’ve done on this iPad – a 12in iPad Pro, with Smart Keyboard. That means email, writing articles for papers, editing chapters for my book, composing The Overspill’s daily Start Up post, and so on.

A few years ago, this would probably have been impossible. I wouldn’t have contemplated it. Now? Getting along fine. In a number of ways, the iPad is preferable – particularly weight and connectivity. In only a couple of ways is it worse (the most notable being “lappability”). […]

I feel his pain, in the light of my recent failure of my Mac. My hardware is a lot more limited – I have an iPad Mini 4 and a Logitech Bluetooth keyboard where he’s using a 12-inch iPad Pro with an Apple Smart Keyboard – but it’s been interesting to read a professional’s take on how to make this work on an iPad. I came across what sounds like the same problem in extracting YouTube embed URLs yesterday when I was posting about black ice skating, so it’s both comforting and daunting to realise that he’s having problems with that issue too.

I suppose the big difference between our respective situations is that Charles Arthur is a journalist and author and he needs to complete his work so he’ll still get paid, whereas my problem is entirely with using my iPad Mini to write this weblog and my income doesn’t hang on making this work. 1