Aptera on Jay Leno’s Garage

Readers of this blog know that I want an Aptera, a new superaerodynamic electric car scheduled to come out sometime Real Soon Now. One of my friends who’s a real car freak pointed the Aptera out to me, and also more recently pointed out that Jay Leno, also a real car freak, has test driven the Aptera in a segment on Jay Leno’s Garage:


As we watched Jay made a crack about his century-old Baker Electric, and when I expressed shock my buddy said, “What? All the early cars were electric.” Maybe not entirely true, but the Baker had an 100 mile range, better than some modern electric cars. I think a quote Sergey Brin dug up put it the best:

β€œTHE fundamental reasons why the electric car has not attained the popularity it deserves are (1) The failure of the manufacturers to properly educate the general public regarding the wonderful utility of the electric; (2) The failure of [power companies] to make it easy to own and operate the electric by an adequate distribution of charging and boosting stations. The early electrics of limited speed, range and utility produced popular impressions which still exist.”

This is from the 1916 issue of Electrical World. Oh, my:

Well, the Aptera has been delayed in the past, and even I can only wait so long. Here’s hoping the Aptera will not follow in the footsteps of its predecessors, and will instead usher in an age of new electric cars.

Writers in Their Creative Spaces

the centaur in his native habitat: a forest of books
Recently a few friends (most recently Jim Davies) have sent me pointers to the Where I Write project, which shows off the creative spaces where many science fiction and fantasy artists do their writing. Some of the writing setups are amazingly spare; others are simply amazing. Check it out!

-the Centaur
Pictured above is one of my “creative spaces”, though a fully accurate picture would probably show me at my local Barnes and Noble writing group or at Borders with the laptop and a Javakula from Seattle’s Best Coffee.

What Do I Actually Know How To Cook?

blearweh: lebanese baklava
As I was reorganizing the Library I decided to add a section for “Cooking” and found I had posted only pound cake recipes. That raises the question … what do I actually know how to cook? I came up with the following list of things that I can cook sufficiently well worth recording:

  • B’learweh – Lebanese Baklava, a flaky pastry
  • Tabbouleh – Lebanese parsley salad
  • Kibbey Nayye – Lebanese steak tartare
  • Lebanese Red Wine Vinegar Scrambled Eggs with Lavash
  • French Toast
  • Olive Oil and Garlic Marinated Buffalo New York Strips
  • Kafta – Lebanese Meatballs
  • Lahem Mishwa – Lebanese Shish Kebabs
  • and of course, Pound Cake

There’s a subtle theme there. There are a few other things that get made in our house that I make to other people’s recipes – Hummus, Cleveland Burgers, “California Dreaming Style” Grilled Chicken Salad – and a few other things that we eat that my wife or friends typically prepare. I’ll try to go through these recipes and post as many as I can.

-the Centaur

Fast Push That Emergency Fix

Fortunately, the problem had a quick fix.

The problem, for those of you who browse the site in standards-compliant browsers, was that the last column of the Library’s three-column layout was not showing up in Internet Explorer – and only Internet Exporer, one of the world’s most popular and, unfortunately, least standards compliant browsers.

The solution: make the layout wider, so the max image width used in the blog does not cause the first column to widen.

ie vs firefox

In the top half of the picture, you see Firefox 3.0.14 on the Macintosh running the (corrected) version of the Library of Dresan home page. In the bottom half, you see Internet Explorer 7 on Windows Vista, running in a VMWare partition on my Mac, from approximately the same position on the same page. From a graphical and typographical perspective they’re both doing a fairly creditable job of rendering the layout. Everything looks roughly OK.

However, they’re not doing the same job interpreting the width of the layout. I haven’t debugged the precise problem in detail – this is a voodoo quick fix – but essentially Internet Explorer interprets the widths of the columns and their spacing and padding different than Firefox. The result: images, which on Library of Dresan blogposts are always a maximum of 600 pixels wide, roll over the end of the column, also 600 pixels wide, making it jog out. You can see that in the stairstep on the second half of the image.

Part of this is my error; prior to my quick fix all browsers were showing at least slight stairstepping. But all browsers I tried – Firefox on the Mac, on Windows, and on Linux; Chrome on the Mac, on Windows, and on Linux; and even Safari on Mac and Windows – handled this correctly except IE, which widened the whole column. This made the three columns wider than the whole width of the container, and the third column had to jog halfway down the page so that it could fit, effectively becoming invisible to people just entering the site, unless they were willing to scroll a lot in the hope hidden features would leap up at them.

Now, I could have dug into CSS manuals and tried to fix this the “right” way, and indeed I plan to. However, there was a quicker, better, way: experimentation. Before I even knew for sure what was the problem I browsed to the front page of the Library on a Windows machine, downloaded the page to a local HTML file, and started hacking out parts of the file until something changed. I was very quickly able to show that there was nothing wrong with the right column itself; even reduced to a few lines and an image it wasn’t showing up.

So I then went to my test file, research, which I had gotten to work in IE before I launched the style change to the whole library. One difference between that page and the broken page I immediately noted was the fact that the images were smaller; then I started to suspect the stairstepping phenomenon. That needed a fix on all browsers, so I simply made the content column slightly wider – from 600 to 610 pixels, fixing a gaffe I shouldn’t have made in the first place – and widened the overall page from 1000 to 1024 pixels.

The result: it worked, in all browsers I have available to me right now. And, because my buddy Nathan had impressed upon me the importance of using CSS stylesheets, I was able to push the fix by simply uploading the revised stylesheet to the Library and reloading the page.

Shouldn’t have happened – I shouldn’t have made the column too narrow, Internet Explorer shouldn’t be misinterpreting the white space, I shouldn’t have pushed the template without testing it on Internet Explorer, and Blogger should have a better preview function so I could have tested it successfully offline without pushing it to the entire blog. But a quick fix was possible, because I used reasonably good site design practices, the scientific method, and a healthy supply of beans and vinegar.

-the Centaur

Curse you, Internet Explorer…

…the template looks fine in Firefox!


UPDATE: The template looks as intended in Firefox AND Chrome for Mac AND for Windows AND for Linux, and for Safari for Windows and Mac as well. Grrr…

Launch early, launch often

Please pardon the dust, but I am doing that long-threatened major overhaul of the Library’s templates.

I realized that I was waiting until the overhaul was “perfect” and that was putting the overhaul on hold. I’ve read too many things recently – about the telegraph, the transcontinental railroad, even about creation of Google – in which immense success came from plucky people who didn’t wait until things were perfect, or even necessarily known to be possible, before they threw their ideas up on the wall to see if they stuck.

So, I know my new template is not done, but it looks better than what I had before, and more importantly is more navigable. More work to do … but for now, complain, and I’ll fix it.

-the Centaur

More Computer Hugs

ashwin ram My colleague Ashwin Ram (pictured to the left, not above πŸ™‚ has blogged about the “Emotional Memory and Adaptive Personalities” paper that he, Manish Mehta and I wrote. Go check it out on his research blog on interactive digital entertainment. It highlights the work his Cognitive Computing lab is doing to lay the underpinnings for a new generation of computer games based on intelligent computer interaction – both simulated intelligence and increased understanding of the player and his relationship with the environment.

They’re putting out a surprising amount of work in this area; you should go check it out…

-the Centaur
P.S. The title of the post comes from my external blogpost on the paper, “Maybe your computer just needs a hug.”

Frost Moon Back In the Hands of the Editor

frost moon

Frost Moon, the first novel I wrote that ever got serious interest from a publisher, is now back in the hands of the editor. Things are looking good, we’re on the same page for the first twelve chapters … though, sadly, their 2009 schedule has filled and there’s no way the book is going to come out before the beginning of 2010.

Now it’s the race to finish the edits of Blood Rock by the end of October, so I can send it to my beta readers and start work on “Liquid Fire” for National Novel Writing Month

Wish me luck!
-the Centaur

Real Estate Opportunities for the Far-Seeing Investor

I don’t know why this strikes me as so funny, but it does:

Exoplanets, also known as “extrasolar planets”, are planets outside our solar system, orbiting distant stars. To keep track of this fast-changing field, the Planetary Society presents this list of exoplanets. Here you will find a complete and up-to-date registry of known exoplanets and what is known about them.

Perhaps it’s because when I see “find out more”, “explore our catalogue” and “go directly to listings” related to land masses I expect them to have a list of foreclosures or beachfront properties. Nevertheless, the search for extrasolar planets is hot, and is only going to get hotter:

fomalhaut b

Remember, “a new life awaits you in the Off-World colonies. The chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure!”

-the Centaur

Initial image and text from the linked pages on the Planetary Society web site (not to be confused with the Planetary Organization). Fomalhaut B image courtesy of NASA and Wikipedia. Full disclosure: I have been a member of the Planetary Society since, like, forever.