Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

September 26th, 2008:

Scarcity Leaves Its Mark

Whether or not an unexamined life is worth living, examining what goes on inside your head is a lot of fun. I’ve become interested in psychology late in life (after treating it with contempt when I was a cocksure young rationalist) and identifying my biases and tracing them back down to their sources has become a minor hobby here.

My recent study of CSS reminded me of one of those biases: I hate windowing. I just hate it, and hate it so deeply I don’t even notice the hatred anymore. If you were to look over my shoulder as I work, you’d notice that I don’t use it. Whatever app I’m working in gets the whole screen, and when you can see the desktop at all, it means I’m in neutral and nothing useful is going on. I came to the insight after practicing fluid layouts in CSS. BTW, If you’re interested in learning how to do fluid layouts, I haven’t found anything better than Nate Koechly’s Web article “Intricate Fluid Layouts in Three Easy Steps.” Nate created the Yahoo UI Grids CSS system, which I may begin using once I learn enough CSS by building things from scratch. I like YUI because it supports fixed widths. Fluid layouts are not mandatory.

This is good, as I find fluid layouts peculiarly repellant. Things like this suggest a live frog nailed to a tree, squirming in agony. (Drag the corner of the window around and you may start to see what I mean.) Part of it is my long history with fixed page layouts in magazine and book work, and part of it is a desire to focus and not be distracted by things going on in other windows. The bulk of the bias, I think, proceeds from the same reason that the Greatest Generation were tireless savers and hated to waste anything: They grew up in conditions of scarcity. I ducked the Great Depression and WWII, but I followed personal computing from its rank beginnings, when displays were 16 X 64 character text screens or worse. I learned computers starving for screen real estate.

The IBM PC gave us 24 X 80 displays, but that was never enough. Text windowing systems like TopView seemed insane to me, and back in April 1989, when I was doing the “Structured Programming” column in DDJ, I wrote and published an “anti-windowing system” that treated the crippled 24 X 80 display as a scrollable window into a much larger character grid. Full-page text displays eventually arrived: The MDS Genius 80-character X 66-line monochrome portrait-mode text display (left) sat on my desk from 1985 through 1992, when Windows 3.1 finally made text screens irrelevant. (Lack of Windows drivers for the display soon forced MDS into liquidation.) It wasn’t until I bought a 21″ Samsung 213T display in 2005 and started running at 1600 X 1200 that I first recall thinking, “Maybe this is big enough.”

And only just barely. People who were born with a 1024 X 768 raster in their mouths may not be able to figure it, and I guess there’s really no way I can explain. It’s just me. Starve a man for screen space for thirty years, and he is unlikely to want to share what he has with more than one app at a time. Scarcity leaves its mark.