CSS Secrets: Better Solutions to Everyday Web Design Problems

Author: Arvind Padmanabhan

Book Review


Authors: Lea Verou

Publisher: O’Reilly, 2015

Front-end web designers have to know CSS very well in order to create styling that’s effective and maintainable. This is easier said than done because CSS is a complex language. To be good at it, one must learn from the masters and Lea Verou is one of them. The author presents those parts of CSS that are not obvious. She uses CSS in very creative ways to overcome limitations in the standards. Readers should already have some grasp of the basics. When they are ready to take their knowledge to the next level, this is a book that they cannot miss.

The book itself has been designed using CSS. The secrets are presented as solutions to well-stated problems. There are 47 secrets in all but readers will learn a lot more than these. All examples can be tried interactively online and the links to these examples are conveniently placed at the end of each section. Readers are of course at liberty to use their own tools (such as http://jsfiddle.net/) to try out the examples. This implies that we can learn the secrets by practice, which makes the book all the more enjoyable.

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Making Art From Google Maps

Author: Arvind Padmanabhan

The Earth from Above


Earlier today I looked up some location in Bangalore via Google Maps. One thing led to another and I ended up spending the entire morning exploring beautiful Earth via Google Maps. Most often we use Google Maps for locations and directions. We use it for intra-city navigation and occasionally for those weekend trips when we venture farther from our daily routines. Apart from these, it’s interesting to note that Google Maps can be a useful tool to discover the beauty of our planet.

It’s not that I’m somehow a pioneer in discovering the artistic merit in Google Maps. Postcards from Google Earth, Street View Stereographic, Jenny Odell’s Satellite Collections, Florian Freier’s Cached Landscapes, David Hanaurer’s WorldWide Carpets and Shaun Utter’s Random Google Maps are just some examples of artists getting inspired by Google Maps. In almost all of these examples, the focus has been on urban landscapes. The artists don’t present Google Maps as they are. Being artists, they transform the images into something surreal; they assemble collages; they saturate the colours or accentuate the patterns. In the process, they leave their signature as artists in what they create. What I created today is different.

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Are There Race Conditions in a Web App?

Author: Arvind Padmanabhan

Analysis of a chat app and resolving the problem


A system in which concurrent events come in can affect behaviour depending on the relative timing of these events. Those working with embedded systems are probably familiar with this problem. Hardware interrupts come in at unpredictable times. One layer sends a message to trigger action from another layer. Data comes in via the wireless interface. A timer expires. How does one reliably handle all these events without taking the system to an unknown state? It would be worse if the system can’t recover from such a state.

Real-time operating systems (RTOS) have some things to handle data synchronization, critical sections and race conditions. But can we have such problems in a web app? The answer is yes, as I found out recently when developing a “chat-like” app. The chat window of this app can be updated anytime by multiple users. When user A creates a new chat message, user B can also see it as long as the chat window is open. User B can then reply to user A’s message.

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Can Technology Inform and Inspire Design?

Author: Arvind Padmanabhan

At the intersection of design and technology


If you look at the development cycle of most products, design comes first and then the first iteration of the product is engineered to satisfy design requirements. What follows is testing, evaluation, re-design and re-engineering in an iterative fashion. There are of course two types of design: industrial design that deals with aspects of aesthetics, usability and ergonomics; engineering design that deals with product functionality, safety, maintenance, ease of manufacturing, and so on. Often these two disciplines are taken up by different teams and there’s no common ground; at least, that’s how historically people have been working.

Designers have for years been doing their primary work on pen and paper, doing concept sketches and perspectives. With computerization and associated tools, many designers have moved to the digital world, doing their designs with sophisticated object modeling and rendering. Yet, their focus has been on industrial design. Engineering design is left to engineers or at best considered at a later part of the development process. Some of this is changing in recent years.

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The Art of Designing Embedded Systems

Author: Arvind Padmanabhan

Book Review


Authors: Jack Ganssle

Publisher: Newnes, 2008 (Second Edition)

When I picked up this book, I half expected to read about a serious subject written in a serious textbook style. Within the first few paragraphs it was clear that this book surprises and interests, not least by its almost chatty informal style. It’s a book written by an engineer for engineers. It’s a book written by a practitioner with many years of solid experience. The author is not presenting here a theoretical framework or a wish list. He is rather condensing many years of experience from which readers can directly benefit. He gives loads of tips and tricks that engineers can start applying in their daily work.

The relevance of this book is of course obvious. Embedded systems are everywhere: in home electronics, in personal devices, in industrial automation and increasingly in tiny devices that are going to come in their billions as part of the Internet-of-Things. Now more than ever firmware developers need to learn from the experiences of others and adopt best practices. To learn from self-experience through mistakes and mishaps is something neither engineers nor their employers can afford.

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Storytelling with Data

Author: Arvind Padmanabhan

Book Review


Authors: Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic
Publisher: Wiley, 2015

I’ve been doing a little bit of data visualization for the last couple of months. The intent has been to get insights that could trigger decisions to add business value. While I’ve produced dozens of charts in the process, I’ve at times wondered if there’s a better way. That’s when I picked up this book written by an ex-Google employee who employed best practices in visualization to assist the HR department in their recruitment process.

If oil is considered as liquid gold, data is cyber gold. In the Information Age of today, data is perhaps becoming more important than ever before. Yet data remains just a bunch of numbers if we don’t see past them to understand causes, patterns, trends, forecasts, dependencies, correlations and contexts. Yes, data can tell a lot about the systems and the world they represent. It’s therefore important to analyze data. If data is cyber gold, it’s not available in a glittering form. It has to be mined, processed and polished.

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What is Design and Why Should We Care?

Author: Arvind Padmanabhan

Notes from the Design Open event at Bangalore


Earlier today I was at the Design Open event held at the IISc Bangalore. Design Open is a 2-day event that started yesterday. Packed with talks, exhibits and workshops it was a place where academics, professional designers and students of design converged over the weekend. A lot was talked about the discipline of design but also about the undisciplined creativity that needs to be channelized to produce results. So what is design?

As basic as it might seem, a single definition of design is elusive. One can have a number of definitions that may all be correct depending on the context. It’s because of this dependence on context that we have adjectives that are often used as qualifiers: responsive design, interaction design, interface design, emotional design, process design, product design, industrial design, engineering design, inclusive design, indigenous design, visual design, and so on.

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