markdownAsides will return

Update! markdownAsides has been reborn as jQuery.sidenotes. Read more about it and visit the project page.

One of the things that got lost in the transition to my new set-up is my jQuery plugin markdownAsides. On previous iterations of this blog, I used it to transform Markdown Extra style footnotes into sidenotes. As of now, the project page for that plugin returns a 404. This is temporary and will be fixed soon.

Perhaps you think I’ve neglected it, which isn’t entirely false. But in fact, since I last wrote about markdownAsides it’s been completely rebuilt using best practices. It’s got some cool new features and works better than ever. I intend to open source it on GitHub and register it with Bower (and eventually maybe as a Node package, though it’s really intended for the browser). None of this will be too difficult, although I do have a few other things on my plate at the moment, so it may take some time. I’d like to say it’ll be done within the week but I can’t promise that.

In the meantime, if you’ve come to this site from Google or elsewhere, please be patient. I hope you’ll understand. Check back here in a week or so.

Andrew tries the blogging thing, take four (Or is it five?)

So it turns out if I go more than a year without completely remaking my blog, I get bored.

It began as a Tumblr blog. I switched to WordPress shortly after, and then eventually moved on to a Jekyll-powered static site. I was quite happy with my Jekyll setup, but it was getting… stale. I’m ready to try something new.

There are two primary reasons for this site’s existence. First, as a web developer who still has much to learn, I’m always eager to experiment with new techniques and tools. This site has been a great sandbox for me to play in. Now in its fourth iteration, it is built using Wintersmith, a static-site generator powered by Node.js. Other tools include:

  • Sass, a CSS extension language and pre-processor.
  • Compass, a Sass stylesheet framework.
  • Susy, a Compass plugin for responsive grids.
  • CoffeeScript, a programming language that compiles to JavaScript.
  • Grunt, a task runner for JavaScript.
  • Git, for version control.

You can check out the source code at this site’s GitHub repo.

The second reason is that it gives me a place to write. Writing is a valuable, oft under-appreciated skill and one that I’m always hoping to improve. I’m not a great writer by any means, but I enjoy having a place to verbally express my ideas.

A curation note: I haven’t fully transitioned all my old posts to this new set-up. This is partly a technical issue. For example, many of my old posts used Markdown Extra-style footnotes, but Wintersmith generates Markdown with marked.js, which doesn’t support footnotes. This is a fixable problem though a problem still.

But besides that, I’ve decided that I simply don’t want to transfer most of my old posts. First of all, the link posts don’t really fit the tone of this blog — I have no aspirations to be John Gruber (although, damn, that would be cool). The bigger reason is that in retrospect, frankly, a lot of it is a rather embarassing. The politically-themed posts have aged especially poorly. I guess that’s not surprising. I’m still stupid and naive, and I totally expect in a few years to look back on my writing now (perhaps even this very post!) and cringe. Maybe it’s a flaw in my personality that I’m so ashamed of the things my younger self wrote. But oh well. This is a learning process, not a school assignment. My attitude is that my posts are like longform tweets. That’s the manner in which I intend to keep writing here, hopefully with a greater frequency than in the past.

Flatness as goodness

Amidst plausible rumors that iOS 7, set to be unveiled next week at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, will receive a ‘flatter’ user interface, I’ve been thinking lately about the idea of ‘flatness as goodness.’

I quipped on Twitter recently that ‘flat’ as a design descriptor is quickly approaching meaninglessness. Maybe ‘uselessness’ would have been a better choice of word. Flat design is a real trend; my point was that rather than being descriptive in a useful way, ‘flat’ is too often used as shorthand for modern, hip, and inherently good. In this manner it is especially used as a contrast to ‘skeuomorphism,’ another trendy word whose usefulness has rapidly waned, and which is too often used as a shorthand for old, dated, and inherently bad.

A quick refresher: skeuomorphism is design pattern which mimics physical metaphors from the real world, e.g. a reading app with a page curl animation, or a calculator app that looks and works like a pocket calculator. Flat design eschews skeuomorphs in favor of a minimalist aesthetic that gives special attention to typography, color, and simple shapes. The most high profile example is Microsoft’s don’t-call-it-Metro design language used in Windows 8.

It’s wrong to say that flat design is superior to skeuomorphism in general, or vice versa. For starters, the two are not mutually exclusive. You can have a design that is both skeuomorphic and flat, or non-skeuomorphic and non-flat. Execution is more important to a design than flatness or lack thereof. While I expect many arguments in the vein of ‘flatness as goodness’ to be made in the coming weeks, that’s not a conversation that interests me.

So if flatness carries no inherent goodness, what accounts for flat design’s recent surge in popularity? Is it a fluke? Is it merely a fashion trend? Is it a reaction to the sometimes garish skeuomorphic designs found in Apple’s interfaces? That’s likely part of it.

However, I think there’s another, more practical reason behind flat design’s rise. It’s a theory I’ve yet to encounter elsewhere, and it begins with the following observation:

Flat design and responsive design are concurrent trends.

Correlation is not causation, it needn’t be said, though I do think it’s significant that responsive design and flat design have risen alongside each other.

A responsive design is one that adapts to different environments. It’s usually used in the context of web design, where websites must be built to work for a variety of browsers, devices, and — most importantly — screen sizes. The term can also be applied more broadly to include, say, an iOS app that supports both the iPhone and iPad. The latter case is becoming increasingly important in the post-PC era. For instance, rather than designing apps to fit a fixed pixel grid, Apple encourages developers to use technologies like Auto Layout so that elements are positioned and sized according to their context.

What does responsiveness have to do with flat design? If you’ve ever attempted to design an app or website, or if you’ve ever talked to a web designer/developer, you know that one the most tedious aspects they must deal with is bitmap artwork. Bitmaps allow for incredible detail, but they don’t scale easily, they take up lots of memory (which on the web means they are slow), and they must be created and edited using fancy software like Photoshop. All these things add up to make it difficult, though obviously not impossible, to create responsive designs that rely heavily on bitmap images — at least compared to the alternative. And since skeuomorphic designs usually rely heavily on bitmap images, responsive skeuomorphic designs can be tough.

By contrast, let’s look closer at the hallmarks of flat design:

  • Simple shapes. Elements are made up of simple lines and contours. Rectangles, roundrects, and circles abound.
  • Minimal ornamentation. Purely decorative elements are few. The lack of visual fluff places focus squarely on the content.
  • Minimal depth. The use of shadows, gloss, and other techniques that mimic three-dimensional depth is negligible. This is where ‘flat’ design gets its name.
  • Focus on typography. Text and other typographical elements are emphasized.
  • Focus on color. In lieu of ornamental features and false effects, the careful use of color creates contrast and attracts the eye.

What all of these features have in common is that they don’t require the use of bitmap images, and they’re easily rendered by computers. That drastically reduces the amount of friction involved in prototyping and iterating on a design. It’s way easier to change the value of a CSS property in your text editor than it is to open up Photoshop and adjust the brightness of a toolbar, or create a stretchable background for a button, or output all your artwork at two different sizes to account for high-density screens. And so forth. Even if a flat design does require the use of bitmap images, it’s way easier to work with ‘flat’ bitmaps versus ones filled with intricate details.

Check out the websites at Polygon, Medium, and Svtble to see what I mean. I don’t think it’s mere coincidence that these designs are both highly responsive and very flat.

I can speak from personal experience, as well. As of this writing (5 June, 2013), the design of this website uses zero bitmap images. Everything is rendered using either fonts (including a custom font for the logo) or CSS properties (including the rainbow gradient surrounding the page). I made these decisions in part out of an aesthetic preference for simplicity, and to create a pleasing reading experience. But I also did it because I’m lazy! I hate opening up Photoshop if I don’t have to. I love that I can do all the work of designing this site using a text editor; indeed, I designed the site specifically to accommodate that desire.

I imagine I’m not the only person who’s been influenced by this practical benefit of flat design. Perhaps in this way flat design is inherently well-suited to the post-PC era. ‘Flatness as goodness’ may be bunk, but there’s definitely some goodness in flatness.

‘Winning’ and ‘losing’

A recurring argument in tech commentary is whether market share or profit share is a better indicator of success in the mobile industry. If it’s market share, then Android is winning, because Android runs on way more phones than iOS. If it’s profit share, then iOS is winning, because iPhones generate way more profit than Android phones. This is an important debate because… well actually I have no idea.

Might I kindly submit that the market share versus profit share debate, like much of the “journalism” surrounding Apple and Google, has more to do with tech culture war shenanigans than actual analysis. Arguing over which single metric best indicates who is “winning” is reductionist and silly. There’s no good reason for it, other than to satisfy a partisan streak that, to one extent or another, resides at the heart of almost all tech commentary. I’m of the opinion that market share and profit share are valuable data points, but like any other types of data, they’re only useful when placed in the proper context.

But I guess that puts me in the minority, given the countless articles and blog posts and tweets on this subject that are squirted into existence each week. John Gruber of Daring Fireball recently linked to a Techpinions post by John Kirk arguing the pro-profit case:

Not only do the high priests of market share have it wrong, they have it exactly backwards. The company with the lower market share and the higher profits has all of the leverage. The goal is to INCREASE, not decrease, the ratio of profits to market share. Increasing market share at the cost of profits is a recipe for disaster, not a formula for success.

It’s a very microeconomics-y piece about margins and price elasticity, the basic point of which is that it’s entirely possible to squeeze disproportionate amounts of money from relatively small slivers of a market; indeed, Apple’s been doing it for decades.

Okay, sounds good. The problem I have is with Kirk’s main thesis, which is that Apple is totally, unambiguously dominating its competitors:

Apple may or may not do well in the future but right now, and contrary to popular belief, they are winning the smartphone wars and winning them handily.

The word “war” implies that for one side to win, the other must lose. The entire post is written in the context of a war between iOS and Android. But while Kirk does a good job explaining how Apple is smoking the competition in terms of profits, he doesn’t connect that premise with his conclusion that Apple is “winning.” His argument only makes sense if you assume profits equal success, and more profits equal more success. To boil his case down: profit share is more important than market share, because Apple makes more profits than its Android competitors despite its paltry market share, and of course profits equal success; therefore, Apple is winning. Huh? It’s a circular argument, where the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises without resorting to tautology.

In truth, profits do not ipso facto guarantee success in business, especially in the volatile, disruptable world of technology. Followers of Apple should know this better than most, after witnessing the company’s stock price collapse in recent months despite record profitability. Yes, profits are nice. They pay the bills, and Apple’s cash war chest provides them security in case of pesky unforeseen circumstances. But after a certain point, which Apple arguably zipped past tens of billions of dollars ago, what good are profits if they aren’t being invested back into the company? They already have a giant Dr. Evil-sized mountain of cash too big for it to spend wisely. Apple may want to consider Matt Yglesias’s suggestion to sacrifice a few points off their insane profit margins in exchange for some more market share.

Market share is desirable for the network effects it creates. Essentially, the more users a platform has, the more developers are incentivized to create great apps, and in turn, the more users are attracted to the platform. Conversely, the fewer the users, the fewer the apps, and in turn, the less attractive the platform becomes.

The iPhone, iPad, and iOS should not be seen simply as money generators, but rather, like the iPod before them, as strategic investments vital to Apple’s future. The iOS platform needs more than money to sustain it. It needs a healthy ecosystem of developers and customers. To be clear, Apple is currently doing extremely well on each of these fronts, and market share is only one factor in this equation. But it’s not unimportant.


Regarding Android, it represents almost the reverse case of iOS. Profits aren’t completely unimportant, but market share takes precedence. That’s because Android isn’t a product of Samsung, or HTC, or any of the “also rans,” but of, hello, Google! Profit-sharers with their pie charts have a tendency to talk around this fact, but if you want to do a comparative analysis of iOS and Android, you have to look at it from the point of view of Apple and Google. If Samsung disappeared in a poof tomorrow, Android would live on; one or more other phone vendors would simply take its place. If Google disappeared, however, Android would cease to exist as we know it. Android is clearly a Google endeavor.

From Google’s perspective, the profitability of Android smartphones is important insofar as it wants vendors to continue making great devices. But Google gives away Android for free, so profit isn’t really a huge concern, at least directly. So what is Google’s objective with Android if not to generate profits?

Android is a strategic investment in Google’s core business of online services. The biggest threat to Google is that people stop using Google Search, Maps, Gmail, and YouTube and start using alternatives. Today that’s almost inconceivable, but anyone familiar with the words “Microsoft,” “Blackberry,” and “Nokia” knows that it’s not as distant a possibility as it may seem. Android was created because Google had a vision of a post-PC world controlled by its competitors and acted to stop it. In that, they’ve been wildly successful. Google is now a primary player in the post-PC revolution — or, if you’ll forgive me, the game of phones. (I’m so sorry.)

Most of Android’s challenges are unrelated to profit or market share. Why do all the best apps continue to be developed for iOS first, despite Android’s larger market share? Why does it lag behind iOS in customer loyalty and satisfaction? Why hasn’t Android’s success on phones translated to more success in tablets? These are real problems, but like those facing Apple, they’re not insurmountable.

Another important distinction is that Android is not nearly as vital to Google as iOS is to Apple. If Android were to disappear in a poof tomorrow, Google would be worse off, but their core business would remain intact. Google’s online services are used overwhelmingly even on iOS devices, and their supremacy in that field is so great that it will likely take years before a worthy competitor emerges to unseat them. However, if iOS were to disappear, Apple would implode. They’d be completely screwed.

Fortunately for both companies, neither of those scenarios is likely to happen. I’d say Apple and Google are extremely well-positioned for the future, financially and strategically. I can very easily envision a future a decade from now where both companies continue to thrive. Whether that comes to pass depends greatly on strategic challenges each will face in the next few years, particularly with regards to the still-nascent Internet/cloud revolution. (But that is a topic for another post, one which I intend to revisit leading up to Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference in June.)


My wish is that the tech press and commentariat waste less energy on measuring the comparative success of iOS and Android, and recognize that Apple and Google are acting under a very different set of circumstances and objectives, not all of which intersect with one another. The post-PC market is big and dynamic enough for more than one player to thrive.

It’s not about “winning” or “losing.” Jay Yarrow at Business Insider generally does a good job avoiding this trap in his rebuttal to the profit caucus. But though his post is full of good points, I still think he’s a little too caught up in the notion that for iOS to win, Android has to lose:

If you work at Apple, or you love Apple’s products this should be burning you up. You should be furious that Android, which you believe to be an inferior product, is on more phones than iOS, Apple’s software.

It’s tempting to view the Android-iOS — and by extension, Google-Apple — rivalry as a zero sum game where one’s glory necessarily means the other’s downfall. That kind of binary, black-and-white dynamic lends itself well to exciting headlines and gripping narratives, but it’s not very illuminating. The truth, as always, is more complex. If “winning” is defined as one entity triumphing over another, then neither Android nor iOS are winning. But if we use a more nuanced understanding of success, it’s entirely possible that both Android and iOS are winning. Indeed, I believe that’s exactly what’s happening.

When you play the game of phones, you win, you die, or both you and your competitor coexist in a state of healthy competition.

A name-changing moment

If I ever have kids, they will be named according to domain name and Twitter handle availability — or or their equivalents at that time — and I will be sure to reserve both as soon as their names are chosen.

My preferred web domain for this site has always been andrewclark.com. Given how generically Anglo-Saxon my name is, this is a dream I expect to remain unfulfilled. If namestatistics.com is to be believed, “Clark” is the 21st most common last name in the United States; “Andrew” is 35th most common first name. As of this writing, a Google search for “Andrew Clark” returns 58 million results.

Andrew Clark is a Professor of Population Genetics at Cornell University. Andrew Clark is a wedding photojournalist. Andrew Clark is Director of Choral Activities and Senior Lecturer on Music at Harvard. Andrew Clark writes for the Guardian. Andrew Clark is an economist at the Paris School of Economics. Andrew Clark is a London-based artist with a “self-confessed objective of subtlety.” Andrew Clark is a third-year resident at the University of Florida College of Dentistry. (This one particularly stings, as I could probably walk to this guy’s house for lunch.) A Google search for “Andy Clark” returns 74.5 million results, many of which likely overlap, though that hardly makes me feel better.

One of my best friends has a brother named Andrew Clark, which the kind of anecdata that probably shouldn’t matter, though I have to say, it’s weird being in another person’s room, surrounded by trophies and art projects and belongings adorned with your name.

Worse than the non-possession of andrewclark.com is the knowledge that it isn’t being put to good use by someone else. A visit to the address is met with the promise that “andrewclark.com will be back shortly.” How fantastic. I don’t know with certainty the name of the guy who currently owns andrewclark.com (I have a hunch), but he can go straight to hell.

I shouldn’t need to explain the desire to own the domain for your name. Beyond the aesthetic and minimalist appeal, there is a practical component to controlling your personal brand. I’ve been thinking about this more since I read in the news that bobmenedez.com and robertmenedez.com belong to political opponents of Senator Robert Menendez, and are used to spread negative information about him. Why this so deeply concerns me I can only poorly explain: As a young person, I have yet to rid myself of the delusion that I will one day be truly important, important enough to have enemies determined to slander me. Perhaps I am also burdened by my complete irrelevance to anything and everything. It is possible that nothing in my life will ever be significant enough to rival “andrewclark.com will be back shortly.” I say this not to be modest or because I have especially low self-esteem, but because in all likelihood it’s true — and it’s probably true for you, too, dear reader, so deal with that. As long as I’m over-sharing, I’ll confess that I have a deep personal fear that a young Canadian named Andrew Clark will become an overnight pop star. I’ve always liked my name (hi Mom and Dad), but if this happens I will not hesitate to change it.

Until a few days ago, the domain for this website was contentioninvain.com, a tongue-in-cheek reference to a quotation few people are familiar with and too long to be a good URL. It was meant to be temporary until I could think of something better. I never could.

Resigned to the fact that I will never possess andrewclark.com or any of its variants (yes, I’ve checked andrewclark.net), I’ve done the next best thing and changed the primary domain of this site to andrewphilipclark.com. It’s actually longer than the previous domain by a letter, which is one of the reasons I didn’t make this change sooner. Anyway, it seems like a sensible thing to do.