Weeknotes are dead, long live booknotes. In the interest of experimentation and partly because weeknotes were starting to lose their appeal for me, I’m retiring that format. In its place: booknotes. They’ll be effectively the same as the reading section of the weeknotes. The rest of what I used to write about in weeknotes will move back to normal (if sporadic) blog posts.
I’m also planning to try out seasons, so this is season 1, issue/episode/whatever 1. I have no idea how long the season will be or what would warrant moving to a new season, but I figured it would be fun to try out and see how it goes.
I’m dropping my reading goal from 100 pages/day to 50, so that I have more time for projects.
Another thing I want to start doing with these booknotes is, when first mentioning a book, talk about why I’m reading it and what I hope to get out of it. (At this point I plan to do this only for nonfiction. I unofficially sort of started doing it in my last weeknotes.)
I finished The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Great book. I really, really enjoyed the parts where he made things like the circuit breaker and the windmill itself, and that’s exactly what I wanted out of it. I hope to find many more books like it, with lots and lots of making things.
I’m now reading Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map, about cholera in 1850s London. I’d heard about the book several times before, and I’m interested in the story of how they figured out what was causing the epidemic, and in learning more about the London of that time. So far (I’m a fifth of the way in), it’s great. But cholera is not great.
I need to make more time to read Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin, because I’m really liking it and just hardly ever get to it. As far as intention goes, I’m reading it to learn more about Franklin’s work as a printer, inventor, and scientist, and secondarily to learn more about his political career.
The Vitruvius is somewhat slow going but fascinating. There’s a bit about good buildings lasting forever, which made me realize I tend to think of buildings as somewhat more ephemeral and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because buildings on campus are always going up or coming down. Or maybe it’s a habit of mind stemming from all the time I spend building ephemeral software. Whatever the case, the idea of fairly permanent alteration of the landscape (not just in preparing for buildings to go up but the building itself) intrigues me.
I finished Killer Dungeon. Fun series. Not a whole lot to say about it.
This week has not at all been a fiction week for me. I’m around a fifth of the way into Claire North’s The Gameshouse but haven’t really gotten hooked yet. I can’t tell if that’s because of everything else going on (nationally and personally). I think I’ll stick with it for now.
David Cain on using paper dictionaries — this resonates with me a lot, even though by profession I build web tools; I think this may be part of why, in my personal projects, I tend to prefer making discrete, downloadable objects like PDFs and EPUBs
Robin Sloan on newsletters having seasons — I love this idea and plan to swipe it for my own newsletter, and also see what other projects it might work for (boundaries are good, and I miss publishing a magazine where the issues provided those constraints)
2020 is finally in the ground. It wasn’t all bad, but I’m glad to see it gone. Here’s hoping 2021 proves a massive improvement.
My main creative goal this year is to establish processes that help me finish the pieces of writing I start. I’ve got several old stories I want to finish and release, and of course there’s the novel, too.
Art-wise, I feel like things have settled into a decent rhythm. This next piece, which I’ll be releasing on Monday, is among my favorites that I’ve done. (It’s a reworking of a theme I’ve done before, but with better execution, I think.)
I’ve started work on an ebook edition of the next Andrew Lang fairy tale book (The Green Fairy Book), seven years since I made the last one. Whoops. I’m not very far along with it, but it’s good to be making ebooks again.
I’m also working on a typeface that I plan to use to typeset a book of poems (along with illustrations).
I switched to an iPhone 12 Mini a couple days ago, to help with that hand/wrist pain I mentioned a while back (my iPhone 11 was too heavy and too large for my hands). So far, so good.
We watched Soul. Good film. Really liked it.
My wife and I are almost finished with the first (and only) season of The Chosen, and I think it’s my favorite TV show ever. Very much hoping they make many more seasons.
We’ve also watched a handful of episodes of Paul Hollywood’s City Bakes and have enjoyed those. They always leave me with the itch to bake artisan bread, which is kind of a downside because we watch them late at night after the kids have gone to bed, when baking isn’t really a wise option.
Nonfiction reading: Finished Stalling for Time. I indirectly gleaned several parenting tips from all the negotiation stories. Recommended.
I’m a quarter of the way into William Kamkwamba’s The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, which I first heard about several months ago when my wife read it for her book club. Just barely got to where he starts building things, which is my primary interest in the book.
Very much enjoying Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin. I’m still only a tenth of the way in, though. (I’m reading it exclusively on my laptop, and with the holidays I haven’t been on it much.)
I’ve also started reading Morris Hicky Morgan’s translation of Vitruvius’s The Ten Books on Architecture. (I’m newly determined to start reading more hard books and more old books.) It’s slower going but I’m loving it. I’d been under the misconception that perspective drawing wasn’t discovered/invented until the Renaissance, but Vitruvius describes it quite clearly in the 1st century B.C.
Fiction reading: I finished The Road. Whew. It wasn’t quite as harrowing as I’d been expecting, but it was still intense and I may or may not have shed a tear or two at the end.
As a palate cleanser, I’m almost done with Phil Tucker’s Killer Dungeon, final volume in the Euphoria Online series. Definitely more of a popcorn read. I don’t play games and thus don’t particularly care about the LitRPG statistics parts, but the rest is fun.
I did end up hitting my reading goal for the year, by the way. In 2020 I read 105 books (up from 67 in 2019), thanks to my goal of reading 100 pages a day. And no, I didn’t use picture books to easily meet my goal. (I read 42,546 pages in 2020, up from 28,000 pages even in 2019. These page counts include books I bailed on, by the way.)
Another in-progress bit of design, this time from a writing app I’m working on. (Which I’m thinking of as a potential replacement for Storybook.)
One of the core ideas I want to explore with this app is a pane-based layout system, similar to what you get in Blender and After Effects, and in tiling window managers. Here’s what Blender looks like:
There’s a lot going on there, but fundamentally it’s just panes. You can split a pane, merge it with another, resize panes, and change the type and/or contents of a pane.
There is also usually the idea of a workspace, where you can switch between different pane layouts for different types of work. (In Blender, for example, there are workspaces for modeling, shading, animating, compositing, and more.) Photoshop has echoes of this as well, though it’s not fully pane-based.
A brief analysis
Some of the advantages of panes (at least in my mind):
Flexibility. You can create the workspace you need, with things arranged the way you want.
Simplicity. You can see everything in a workspace, with nothing hidden under another window. (This isn’t completely true, though.)
Responsive. Because the layout needs to adapt to a variety of configurations, each pane needs to work at pretty much any size.
I’m not sure yet what to call this, but you can easily switch between tasks, whether that’s changing a pane briefly or switching workspaces.
And some of the disadvantages of panes:
Fiddly. Because it’s malleable, you end up spending more time tweaking the layout.
Connected. Resizing a pane resizes the adjacent panes on the other side of the divider.
Complexity. There can be (and usually are) panes that you don’t have visible in your workspace, with state about your project. Some things are hidden after all.
Because I’m interested in interface design, and because I’ve long wanted to explore this particular space, I’m going to try applying the pane idea to writing. I’m not sure it’s a good fit, but if it’s not, I want to find out which factors determine that, and which types of activities would be better candidates for a layout system like this.
Panes on mobile
Designing for mobile first, I immediately ran into the hard, cold fact that a phone screen is too small to split into panes.
This got me thinking about what panes do, at a more abstract level. My conclusion: panes let you have multiple things open at a time, in a way that preserves state (where you are in each pane, to use a spatial metaphor).
With that in mind, it seems to me that the closest analogue would be a screen for each pane, with a way to switch between them — similar to the way Safari handles the open tabs in iOS in portrait mode on a phone. This model allows for switching between tasks in a reliable, persistent way on a device with a small screen.
I first brainstormed some possible pane types and came up with this tentative list:
Draft. Where you do the writing.
Outline. A foldable outline or note cards or something in that vein.
Feedback. Comments from beta readers and editors.
Notes. Your notes on characters, locations, etc.
Labels. Working off the idea that you can label a chapter/scene/paragraph, this would be a pane for working with labels (navigating and managing the list of labels, seeing what has been tagged with a given label, etc.).
History. A way to see previous drafts. My plan involves a branching model ala Git, though, which would include experimental drafts, so this probably needs to be renamed.
Mobile pane design
I made some quick sketches and considered turning them into a prototype, but going to wireframes instead seemed a better use of my time (it’s much easier to iterate on wireframes).
Here’s the current state of the prototype (made in Figma with variants and auto layout and Smart Animate). It’s not finished, and it’s still a bit rough, but you can at least start to get the idea:
And some of the screens:
Some of the things I’m thinking about at this point, that I plan to validate and iterate on through testing:
Whether the switcher makes sense as an overlay (what we’ve got here) or its own screen. Leaning towards an overlay so that the other panes are near the bottom of the screen, closer to the user’s hand.
Whether a right-handed overlay is problematic for left-handed users. (Keeping in mind that the button for the switcher is already on the right side of the screen, and so the user’s finger will already be in the vicinity. But that may not make a difference.)
Whether a list like this is the right way to display panes, or if a visual of the actual panes (like the app switcher in iOS) would be better. For visual-based work this makes sense, but for work like writing that’s largely text-based, I’m not sure. This will affect the type of transition used when switching between panes, too.
When you add a new pane, what the pane type should be and where it should be navigated to. The same type/contents as the active pane? The same type but reset to the beginning of the project? Some default pane type?
Whether switching a pane’s type (by tapping on the pane type icon in the switcher list) makes sense in this context. I believe it does when you’re working with actual panes on a larger screen, but it may not fit.
Once I’ve got this sorted out (by testing and iterating), I’ll follow the same process to design the UI for working with panes at larger screen sizes.