The Greying of the Web

October 20th, 2016

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed that websites are getting harder to read. Designers seem to be infatuated with grey type and small sans-serif fonts. It’s especially bad when I’m trying to read on my phone. I use Firefox’s readability mode a lot, which strips out extraneous content and increases the font size, but it doesn’t work with many sites, and even with strong reading glasses there are sites I can’t read.

I’m not the only one who is having trouble. Kevin Marks has seen this too, and has a long article in which he looks at some of the reasons behind this trend. I hope some people notice it. (Yes Google, I mean you).

It’s been getting harder for me to read things on my phone and my laptop. I’ve caught myself squinting and holding the screen closer to my face. I’ve worried that my eyesight is starting to go.

These hurdles have made me grumpier over time, but what pushed me over the edge was when Google’s App Engine console — a page that, as a developer, I use daily — changed its text from legible to illegible. Text that was once crisp and dark was suddenly lightened to a pallid gray. Though age has indeed taken its toll on my eyesight, it turns out that I was suffering from a design trend.

There’s a widespread movement in design circles to reduce the contrast between text and background, making type harder to read. Apple is guilty. Google is, too. So is Twitter.

Managing Word’s Style Options

October 19th, 2016

Styles are one of Microsoft Word’s most powerful features, but sometimes it seems that Microsoft has done everything in its power to make them harder and  confusing to use. My pet peeves are the horrible Style Gallery in the Ribbon and the drop-down styles list that can’t be sorted.

But it is possible to get Word to behave more or less logically and this article from Woody’s Office Watch explains how to do it. Word’s style controls are scattered around the interface and the article covers all of them. I added this to my list of Word tips at work as I’m sure I’ll be referring to it again.

Microsoft Word, since 2007, has developed a confusing mish-mash of lists, galleries and dialog boxes to view, select and manage styles.  We’ve received a few questions about finding style options so this article will try to make sense of it all.

It’s a guided tour to the various Style setup, configuration and management options spread around Word.

For an introduction to the subject see Word Styles from the beginning

Rayleigh’s Curse Lifted

October 18th, 2016

I first came across Rayleigh’s curse when I took an optics course in university. It limits the resolution of an optical system and was thought to be a fundamental limit. Turns our, it’s not. The team that discovered this has probably earned a Nobel.

Rayleigh’s curse limits the minimum distance that can be distinguished with visible light: on the order of 0.1 micrometer (a bacterium, for example, has a size of 2 micrometers), “which is a great limitation to our ability to see finer details,” says Luis Sánchez Soto, Professor at the Faculty of Physics at Complutense University of Madrid (UCM).

In cooperation with scientists from Palacký University in Olomouc (Czech Republic), the physicist has managed to break this limit, reaching resolutions up to 17 times lower than those purported by Lord Rayleigh.

Considering the Coming Megadrought in the American Southwest

October 15th, 2016

Drought is one of the consequences of global warming; the other, paradoxically is extreme storms. The US southwest is especially sensitive to the effects of global warming and megadroughts lasting decades are the likely consequence.

Second, about the time frame, obviously there’s a possibility of a once-in-500-year multi-seasonal rainfall, but that’s not expected, to say the least. Will the region recover from this drought? If it lasts two decades, I think its livability, its habitability is finished. And when people figure that out, they’ll move, perhaps in droves, depending on whether something triggers panic-selling.

That is, the area will be livable, but by a lifestyle without modern infrastructure, since it takes a certain critical mass of population and wealth (economic activity) to keep modern infrastructure going. Think of the infrastructure in small towns, where people are leaving and populations are declining, versus the more viable lifestyle available to vigorous larger towns and cities, where there are jobs. Now add multi-decade drought to those small-town lives.

Where will the jobs be if Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and Las Vegas have no water? Where will California agriculture be if farms go dry? And finally, consider the Dust Bowl again. As many as 3.5 million refugees migrated west, to California. Where will those refugees go if they’re forced to leave California, the heart of the dry zone and pressed against the ocean? Utah? Unlikely. North perhaps, swamping the Pacific Northwest with people, or given a slower migration, back across the Rockies.

If you want a more visceral take on what might be in store for the southwest, read Paolo Bacigalupi’s excellent novel, The Water Knife. Fair warning – it’s grim.

Back in a bit

October 4th, 2016

Yes, I’m still here. I’ve been shamefully ignoring this blog for the last few weeks. Part of it was the eye problem that I had (a corneal scratch that is now almost healed) and part was just the hot malaise of summer.

I should be posting again more or less regularly after Thanksgiving (Canadian Thanksgiving is next Monday).

2016 Hugo Awards

August 22nd, 2016

The 2016 Hugo Awards were announced last night at MidAmericon 2 in Kansas City. The Hugos are a fan award voted on by supporting and attending members of the annual World Science Fiction Convention. These are the winners of the major fiction awards:

Best Novel: The Fifth Season,by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
Best Novella: Binti,by Nnedi Okorafor (
BestNovelette: “Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, translated Ken Liu (Uncanny Magazine, Jan-Feb 2015)
Best Short Story:“Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld, January 2015}
The strong showing by female authors is notable – all the fiction awards went to women – and the quality of the winners is a slap in the face to the puppy movement. has an article about the Hugos and the puppy controversy.
The 1941 Retro Hugo Awards were also awarded, and you might expect A. E. Van Vogt, Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov cleaned up.