Baby Calculus

May 7, 2014 — Leave a comment
I bought my son this book - never too young to start prepping for college.

“Daddy, what’s an asymptote?” I bought my son this book – never too young to start prepping for college. 


Every year it gets closer and closer: the future. And what are you doing to make it a better place? Have you figured out what you really want in life? If not, how do you know if you are moving closer or further away from it?

If you don’t know where you’re going – any direction will do.

~ Lewis Carroll (to paraphrase the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland)

So what are some noble goals for 2014? Let’s take the obvious and most self-centered approach. Like the late great MJ said “If you want to make the world, a better place, take a look at yourself and make that – change.”


Healthier, smarter, stronger, more focused, organized, and disciplined – more prepared to accept any challenge and take advantage of any opportunity.

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

~ Seneca (Roman philosopher)

Healthier - To be healthier I plan to continue running – I will most likely miss this year’s Houston Marathon (first time in 5 years) since I have not been training (what with the new baby consuming my life). But I should be able to do the half and perhaps still get in some marathon at some point in the year. Running is, in my opinion, the best sport. Where else can amateurs compete on the same track, in the same event as the world’s best athletes? Football fans NEVER get to play in the SuperBowl, and few soccer fans will ever take the field in the World Cup. But I ran the New York Marathon and competed with the world’s fastest (I came in 32,5523rd). Running every day also helps clear your mind, lowers stress, and helps make you more focused and disciplined throughout the day. In my opinion, it is the best resolution you can make. Do it.

Smarter – Read more. Read more books. Read more books on smart interesting subjects.  Read more books on smart interesting subjects that you would not normally read about. The popular view on the source of creativity and innovation is that it comes most often from people exposed to a wide variety of subjects. Ideas that are mundane in one discipline are breakthrough in another. Read stuff you have no business reading. You’ll find yourself making better, more insightful analogies and metaphors as you relate your cross-department communication challenges to those faced by Napoleon in his war against Austria (don’t use that one – come up with your own).

Organized – I don’t know about you, but 2013 was an information explosion for me. Between my wife and I we took more than 13,000 photos and movies (up from 9,600 in 2012 – yes, I track things like that). I’m working on setting up a workflow that works better than just sync everything to iPhoto – I already backup up to external drives but this amounts to having multiple copies of everything and all these terabytes of files are starting to be a burden on my subconscious. I’ve synced about 20K photos to Flickr (they allow unlimited photos now) but they have a lower resolution. While that works for the web, it doesn’t for later printing. Anyway, I’m still working on this – that’s why this is a post about resolutions not solutions (interesting how those words are so similar but different in meaning. A resolution is not a re-solution…hmm..never mind).

Miscellaneous – I have a lot of projects related to my work at Base22 I’m hoping will really take off in 2014. More about those later. I’ve been writing more and Cody Burleson and have both talked about writing a book forever.

What else…oh…family tree research – I think I got all the easy paths mapped. Mayflower pilgrims, knights, governors, and general’s daughters – those are the well documented, easy to follow paths. Once all the low hanging fruit is gathered, you are left with the hard ones. All those poor farmers and pioneers, soldiers, and illiterate immigrants. I’ve got over 3,000 names filled in so far. Some branches reach back to the 1500s, others I cannot find a path through the fog of the civil war. I’ll keep trying though. Its a fun jigsaw puzzle that really brings history to life. Unlike a jigsaw puzzle however, a genealogy puzzle doubles in size every time you lay down a new piece.


Anyone that says they have their family tree traced back 400 years is probably talking about one or two branches, not the whole tree. Remember – 400 years ago – you had 65,536 great-great-(14 times)-grandparents all alive at the same time. go back 20 more years and you have 130K. Show me an accurate tree traced back 400 years an I’ll send you a crisp $100,000,000,000,000 Zimbabwe Dollar bill.

My main project right now is learning how to get a 4 month old to sleep through the night. All my energy is dedicated to that all consuming problem. Current theory: his naps during the day are too short and by night he is sleep deprived and “wired”.

My final goal this year: blog more (thus this post). It helps me organize my thoughts, I get free stuff in the mail from people that want me to review their books and gadgets, I get unsolicited advice from strangers, and sometimes, I help someone out. The internet is made of random thoughts and the kindness (and arrogance and ignorance) of total strangers – I just want to do my small part.

Happy New Year everyone.




I work with a team of philosophers. During a recent discussion, we settled on a philosophy that I think is important to share with anyone interested in design for the web or creating software. It may sound strange when you hear it so I want to explain first. You see, technology is alway changing and this makes “Knowing” anything dangerous. I use the word “Knowing” in quotes with a capital K to differentiate it from the word knowing as you might commonly use it.

Source: via Google

To know something is to be aware. Ideally this awareness comes through your own observation, but it can also come through the observation of others who communicate it to you through argument, debate, and discussion. Since we can never completely observe reality, not even in theory (since scientists tell us the very act of observation changes reality at the smallest levels), we can never completely, 100%, “Know” anything. Don’t misunderstand me, we obviously require an amount of certainty in order to take action and to function as humans. We only have one life and we can not risk it crossing the street unless we “Know”, for sure, that it is safe to cross. Knowledge protects us, it strengthens our resolve, it propels us to action.

In real life, we must make certain everyday assumptions: the air we breath did not turn poisonous between breaths; gravity will continue to work today the same way it worked yesterday. But we never fully “Know”, with a capital letter K and we should not pretend to. To Know is to be certain beyond the need for further evidence, argument, research, or discussion. When you “Know” something, you begin to lose patience with those wishing to keep the debate open. You can see why this type of Knowledge can become dangerous. Knowledge is a Pursuit, not a destination you can ever fully arrive at – like a hyperbolic curve approaching an asymptote, we may never fully get there, but we do get close enough to remove reasonable doubt, to act with confidence, while still keeping our eyes and minds open for new information. Experience is important, information is important, but Knowing – Knowing with absolute certainty is dangerous because it closes the mind to new information.

As humans, when we try to seek out and protect a particular type of knowledge that we call the “truth”. via Google

Source: via Google

Truth is valid knowledge.

Knowing the truth then is being aware of reality through observation, inquiry, or information. We learn overtime to trust our intuition about the world and over time we feel safe enough to proclaim certain things as truth but we must always be on guard against over using the Truth label. Truth is not something you know, but something you pursue. The pursuit of truth is science. But the moment you think arrive at truth, it becomes something else – something unscientific. Science is the constant pursuit of truth which recedes like the horizon. We can see the horizon. We can move towards it. But we can never reach it. This is not a fuzzy call to undermine faith in reality. But a reminder to always seek new evidence to reinforce even the most well travelled truths.

Why does a web designer need to split these hairs?

This conversation is important because as designers, we make decisions that impact the lives of millions of people. To make these decisions we need to be confident that we have found the right solution to the right problem. But we must never fully close the door to new information. We must be confident enough to promote and defend the designs we craft, but never so arrogant that we stop seeking more information and validation. The constant, un-ending pursuit of knowledge is the core activity that drives user centered design. The moment you find yourself “knowing” what is best for the users, take a note to validate that by actually asking the users and listening to what they have to say. If it has been more than a month, or a year since you spoke to a real user and validated some of your core assumptions about what they like and do not like, your not doing your job. You do not have to slow down or stop the project, but remind yourself that in the end, you do not own the site – the user does. While you can approach knowledge of who they are and how they will react and understand the page, you will never fully get there. There SHOULD always be doubt. And when in doubt, ask the user.

When you write content, normally you do not have to worry about the length of your sentences (unless you are on Twitter). Most web pages and applications you use will automatically wrap your sentences when you get to the end of the page. But as a designer, it IS your job to worry about this and every other detail that effects how the page is used, read, and understood. There are many factors that effect the readability of text on the web:

  • Font selection (Ariel, Helvetica, Comic Sans)
  • Size of the font (10px, 12px, 50px)
  • Color and contrast (Black is readable on white, not on black)
  • Spelling and Grammar (my old grade school nemesis)
  • Word choice, idea density, complexity, image usage, grammar, language, etc…

Each of these deserves its own post. But today I’m talking about line length. Having the right amount of characters on each line is key to the readability of your text. How wide should a column of text be, to optimize readability?

Short answer: approximately 55-100 characters depending on your audience and the medium! This is the common rule of thumb and from my own experience and research I agree with it.

The optimal line length for your body text is considered to be 50-60 characters per line, including spaces (“Typographie”, E. Ruder). Other sources suggest that up to 75 characters is acceptable. So what’s the downsides of violating this range?

  • If your text is too long – if a line of text is too long the visitor’s eye will have a hard time focusing on the text. This is because the length makes it difficult to get an idea of where the line starts and ends. Furthermore it can be difficult to continue from the correct line in large blocks of text.
  • Too short – if a line is too short the eye will have to travel back too often, breaking the reader’s rhythm. Too short lines also tend to stress people, making them begin on the next line before finishing the current one (hence skipping potentially important words).

It turns out that the subconscious mind is energized when jumping to the next line (as long as it doesn’t happen too frequently, see above bullet point). At the beginning of every new line the reader is focused, but this focus gradually wears off over the duration of the line (“Typographie”, E. Ruder).


Technical manuals and academic papers are more densely written (although I wonder if this is to convey the impression of knowledge and complexity that might be undermined by a big, easy to read letters on the page).  Smart people like to read things that make them feel smart. The pages of academic pages and published studies are densely packed with small fonts, but most still honor the rules of readability.

Most columns are 65 characters in length.

Nature: The International weekly journal of science; Most columns are 65 characters in length.

If its a children’s book, and you are teaching people to read, you might only have a few words per line (i.e “See spot. See Spot Run. Run Spot Run!”). Young adult books also have large fonts and thus fewer words per line - Charlotte’s Web is recommended for readers 9 to 11 years old and is on the low end of the scale at 55 characters per line.  Young readers need larger fonts and more space to separate each word for clarity.


Children’s books like Charlotte’s Web use a larger font and only 55 characters per line.

Printed newspapers have the shortest columns widths of printed material with 25-35 words in a column inch.

nyt paper - 35

For centuries, page design has been influenced by the so called “golden ratio

The golden ratio as applied to page margins and width is used in many books.

The golden ratio as applied to page margins and width is used in many books.

When the Renaissance genius Leonardo_da_Vinci put pen to paper he did so with a careful observation of the golden ratio.

Da Vinci was obsessed with the golden ratio but not readability, all the text was written in a mirror image with 85 characters per line.

Da Vinci was obsessed with the golden ratio but not readability, all the text was written in a mirror image with 85 characters per line.

Early printed books used “justification” to get exactly the same amount of characters per line by breaking words with hyphens and varying the amount of spacing. This makes the page look better but its not always the best for readability. Automatic justification in programs like Microsoft Word is even worse for readability because it can create huge gaps in the sentence and the brain has to work harder to read them.

Early typeset printed documents fudged the spacing to "justify" the margins (50 characters per line)

Early typeset printed documents fudged the spacing to “justify” the margins (50 characters per line)

Some other considerations:

  • Search engines prefer titles with 70 characters or less.
  • Plain English recommends short sentences. Robert Gunning faults marathon sentences in his book How To Take The Fog Out Of Writing. Though he admits to the possibility of long sentences being balanced and readable, he notes that only highly skilled writers such as Charles Dickens and Thomas Wolfe can write a marathon sentence with clarity. He adds: “But even these accomplished writers produced marathon sentences only occasionally. On the average, they wrote fewer than 20 words per sentence.”
  • In an app or special device, like the kindle, you have the ability to completely focus on the text.
The kindle has 50 characters per line

The kindle has 50 characters per line

My favorites:

New York Times - 77 characters per line.

New York Times – 77 characters per line.

usa today - 55 - 85

USA Today has 55 characters on lines next to images, and 85 on the long lines.


These are not absolutes, but when you look at the most readable sites and applications on the web, and by that I mean not the prettiest, or most aesthetically pleasing, because something can look great, and maybe have the impression of usability, but be difficult to use in reality. Sometimes I find myself looking at beautiful page, but not wanting to read the text. The following pages have great readability in my opinion. Keep in mind, if the content is interesting to you, you will find a way to read it no mater what the obstacles. But as designers, we should at least make sure we do not get in the way.

When you design something, there are two ways to do it. You can go big, and invest your whole heart and soul into it. You can pour time, money, and passion into the endeavor and hope it pays off. Big design is risky. You take chances, and if your do it right, and create something special, the world will love you.

The other approach is to stay with the classics. It took me a long time to learn this. My first lesson was Halloween. Every year, Halloween at the Shoemate house brings performance anxiety. I get my knife out and I stare at the blank face of the pumpkin. I know that a REAL artist would go big. By the end of the night a real artist would carve this pumpkin into some kind of 3d masterpiece that would give neighbor kids nightmares and go viral on the internet. And if I took my time, planned it out, refined the design, thought it through, I could, and have, pull off something awesome. But the truth is, I didn’t plan, and I don’t have time to go big. I still don’t even have my costume picked out.

So if you can’t go big, if you lack the time, skill, or energy to do it right. Then fall back on the classics.

  • Triangle eyes, square notch at the bottom for pupils.
  • Triangle nose.
  • Square toothed smile.

Simple. Fast. Easy. Classic. The classic jack-o-lantern works.

Getting dressed up for a wedding? Black suit, black tie, white shirt – classic.

Making content for a website? Don’t have time to make a fancy info-graphic? That’s ok. Headers, bulleted lists, simple images. Classic.

The classic is a classic for a reason: It works. It’s not boring, you won’t look bad, you don’t need an excuse and if anything, it makes a bolder statement.

Picasso often said: color weakens. So he used just black and white. If you use color, do it deliberately. Boldly. No grey. If you want black – go black. Know what you want and do it.


By the way: Picasso Black and White on exhibit at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts