Concerning Old Books

Apr 13, 2012 by in Experience Design, Technology

a box of booksThere are few things sadder than a pile of old technical books. They live on dusty bookshelves and in torn cardboard boxes as testament to the many things we never accomplished in our lives. Some cover fads that came and went before we even had time to peruse their contents. Others cover supposedly essential topics we turned out to be able to program perfectly well without – topics like algebra, geometry and software methodology.

The saddest thing about old technical books is that by “old” what we really mean is anything published more than three years ago. We no longer burn books in civilized countries so these 3+ year old books simply take up space. We can’t throw them out. We can’t sell them on eBay. We can’t even give them away.

You can imagine how surprised we were during a recent spring cleaning in the Emerging Experiences facilities, then, to find nearly decade old books that seem remarkably relevant to the 2012 technology landscape. We found a dozen books on beginning, intermediate and advanced JavaScript which, somehow, has become a first-class development language over the past year. There were half-a-dozen books exhorting readers to pay careful attention to their CSS. We found an academic tome on Human-Computer Interaction. We even found a copy of Dietel & Dietel’s classic How To Program C++ book. On the upcoming Windows 8 platform, C++ is set up to be the language discerning developers will be using to do both game and interactive programming as managed code takes a back seat at Microsoft for the first time in ten years.

The greatest treasure we pulled out of ye olde cardboard box, however, was a stack of Flash books. Unlike the case with JavaScript and C++, we do not think Flash is making any sort of comeback. Flash is dead. What is not dead are the visual concepts those fantastic Flash developers came up with as well as the algorithms they came up with to implement those concepts.

Take for instance the New Masters of Flash series. These are first of all beautifully designed books. They are written by a slew of masters of the technology who are each given a few pages to discuss their inspirations, provide a cool concept and then show how they approached the solution. Cool concepts include animating a 3D chessboard, animated typography vis-à-vis The Matrix, creating a pointillism artistic mask for text and images, and taking a simple shadow effect to its logical extremes. The highlight of the book is probably Irene Chan’s introductory essay on feminism, art and the role of websites. It’s not something one would expect to find in a technical book and speaks to the amazing community that developed around Flash.

What particularly amazed us about these Flash books was the number of ideas we have stolen from Flash over the years in our interactive WPF and Silverlight applications. Things like naturalistic flip books, fluid dynamics emulators and parallaxing – often considered cutting edge stuff in the XAML and XNA worlds — were already old hat in the Flash world a decade ago. Even more wondrous were the vast number of concepts we found in these books that have never been implemented in either WPF or Silverlight. A slightly greater number have been done in CSS + JavaScript, but still only a fraction of what could be found in these books.

All of this is simply a way of observing, once again, that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, even in software where we often pretend that we are in constant Kurzweillian motion and slouching toward the Singularity. It is also a recognition of the essential role Flash has played in interactive media. Flash has shown us what can be done and, in many cases, we have yet to surpass what it accomplished all those years ago. Flash is dead. Long live Flash.

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