The Digital Barn

February 12th, 2012 by Ian

When I heard a couple of guys from my local WordPress user group were arranging a conference in their native land of Barnsley, I didn’t imagine that they’d rustle up such a great group of speakers. It’s great that people are willing to turn out and support these small, grassroots events either by speaking, arranging or simply attending. Matt and Kimb created a website for The Digital Barn and it’s such a pretty, clean and tidy responsive design that I hope they get to use it again for another event. Despite looking like a couple of rather pissed-off bouncers, Matt and Kimb are actually really friendly guys and the success of The Digital Barn is a tribute to them. Nice one fellas. So what did I actually learn yesterday?

Barnsley DMC

Barnsley Digital Media Centre

Doing something is better than doing nothing

Jonny Allbut gave us a load of advice on successful freelancing and most of it quite practical. I felt, that those of us who don’t work alone would do well to remember some of this though: The importance of unclear responsibilities in a project, keeping expectations at manageable levels and the need for constant communication between all involved.

Troll IE

Problem?

The Microsoft Corporation supplied one of their minions to apologize to us about the abomination that is IE6. I’ve seen MS people talk before, often under the Ubelly flag, and typically Martin Beeby gave a very smooth presentation. He, like his colleagues, is under no dillusions about IE and compared working to promote IE like “running PR for Garry Glitter”. He made it clear that things have changed, in some ways. The complacency MS displayed between IE6 and IE7 (although I think in fairness, between IE6 and IE9 might be more accurate) is a thing of the past and IE10 (and 9) is chocka with standards-friendly features like the Appcache, SVG filters and the pointer API. Martin said the browser market is at its most exciting right now not just because of the the competition between the main 5 browsers but because of the collaboration companies have shown. Obviously, things aren’t perfect but they are better than they were.

One point that I think MS people sometimes miss is that it’s one thing having comparable features in browsers, but it’s another thing all-together ensuring that these features can be implemented consistently. I think a great example of this is implementing a linear gradient with opacity using CSS3. It’s great that you can now do this in CSS but if you look at the difference between doing this in Firefox and Webkit (with a nice tidy rgba value) and IE9 (with a confusing 8-digit hex code… thing) then it shows there is still one way for IE and one way for everyone else.

Craig Burgess had a simple message: build something. Nothing is pointless if you’re enjoying yourself and even if you’re creating a website full of pictures of cats in sinks, then there is the potential to learn something which you can take away and use commercially. He stressed the need for ‘devsigners‘ and ‘designopers‘, true cross-aisle skillsets. Titles are not important, nor is using the latest tech just because it’s the new hotness. What’s important is building stuff. Here, here. Incidentally, I think his website is pretty awesome so this experimenting, building silly toys and breaking stuff approach obviously works.

Some strong, relevant advice about building for the web

The command line isn’t a natural platform for a presentation, but Tom Hudson’s talk on writing Testable PHP seemed very comfortable there. His ascii sheep made a refreshing change from Powerpoint slides. In all honesty, he lost me after a few minutes. The world of unit tests and what have you is a little bit beyond my knowledge, so I won’t make myself sound more stupid that I already am.

Bruce Lawson gave the sort of presentation that could only be given by, well, Bruce Lawson. Bruce spoke at a Speak The Web event a couple of years ago, so he’s obviously a firm friend of the grassroots conference. Back then his talk on HTML5 video really grabbed me and I’ve used those techniques many times. His work on HTML5 Doctor, in my view, has helped make it one of the best developer resources on the web so if Bruce wants to make the talk all about him, then he’s earned that right. He expressed his initial doubts about the HTML5 spec because of Hickson, the “benevolent dictator” of the spec, and his personal attitude towards humanitarian eugenics. This was unknown to me and makes for some uncomfortable reading.

Assistant technology hates ambiguity

However, his opinion that HTML5 is bad news for accessibility (a11y) has since changed. HTML5 not only ‘paves the cowpaths’ but also provides so many features for the developer to work with. The example Bruce gave of autoplay in the video tag is a good one: Of course having a video play automatically is a bad for a11y (it will shout over any screenreader), but the fact that developers can all use one technique to autoplay a video is actually good news for a11y. This is because developers of screen readers now know how to consistently disable autoplay, rather than guess one of several thousand combinations of javascript-based autoplay mechanisms a web developer may have used previously. Also, nudity.

Matt Brailsford didn’t talk about Umbraco (the CMS which he is a great proponent for) but instead Knockout.js – a javascript library to help with building applications. This was a very practical presentation and it’s probably best represented on his blog, where he gives a step-by-step guide through a number of simple examples.

Everything you know is wrong

A conference without some controversy can sometimes just be a big old congratulatory backslapping exercise, so it was left to a couple of the speakers to bring us all crashing down to earth.

What these two said struck a particular chord with me so I think I’ll write about them later in the week as what they said probably requires a bit more thought in order to do them justice. Thanks again to the Digital Barn lads (and Barnsley DMC) for giving us all such an opportunity.

Unfeasibly pretty time lapse of earth from space

November 20th, 2011 by Ian

Earth | Time Lapse View from Space, Fly Over | NASA, ISS from Michael König on Vimeo.

Google get social with Plus & pretty themselves up

July 10th, 2011 by Ian

There have always been a good number of reasons for using different Google services, aside from the price. GMail gives us many gigabytes of IMAP-accessible email. YouTube: HD streaming video. Maps: a powerful API and a photograph of every pavement in Britain! But one area that Google has always been a bit lacking is in producing attractive UI design. Functional, yes. Pretty, no. But over the past couple of weeks, that has all changed.

Ripping off Facebook?

Obviously it’s been a big month for Google because of Google Plus. This is, without a doubt, a social network with the ability to take down the mighty Facebook. The similarities are so obvious that I don’t know how they can get away with it. Facebook’s best features: wall posts, galleries, etc. are all there and in the same place as on Facebook. One way it distances itself from Facebook is in the privacy settings. You no longer have to share absolutely everything with absolutely everybody. I can finally ‘befriend’ my mother! Adding someone to a ‘family’ circle, for example, means that they won’t necessarily see absolutely everything you post. Of course, in my opinion, no Zuckerberg is also killer feature. I trust the giant faceless Google even more than I do the rather dodgy Facebook figurehead. I think maybe just because at the very least, I can take my data from the service whenever I want. Google+ is a great service on it’s own merits though, and now part of an increasingly well tied together package. There is still a lot of work to be done: For example Google are telling companies and organisations to hold off creating accounts for now and hear is actively disabling non-individual user accounts.

You'll be seeing this black bar a lot from now on

You'll be seeing this black bar a lot from now on

Regardless, the visual feel of the place does not feel half-done and Google have rolled out a simliar new look and feel across all their services. From Calendar to new GMail themes, the new styles are an improvement across the board and help tie everything together.

YouTube gets love too

Cosmic Panda Youtube mascot

The Cosmic Panda mascot

Another large part of this aesthetically pleasing drive is the somewhat oddly named Cosmic Panda. This is billed as a “new experience” which provides a less cluttered, clearer YouTube experience. It’s the little features that I like most: The simple pointer cursor when you hover over the scrubber – making accurately picking the time to skip to easier. Full-page-width video is shown by default, so there is none of that silly loading a video, clicking once to make it grow to a reasonable size, then a wait for it to re-cache the video at another quality setting. User channel pages (such as this) are also more visually pleasing, although the aspect of the video thumbnails seems like a bit of an odd choice. 266px by 100px? What sort of a ratio is that? It leads to some very odd thumbnails indeed.

I also like the feedback they’re running on this. It allows you to click on each part of the page you have an issue with and leave a note. This works really well. So well that it’d be nice if I could take a system like this and use it with clients (nudge nudge, Google). Choosing to be part of Cosmic Panda will change things globally, so all YouTube video pages you visit (no matter where from) will have the new theme applied. Unlike the other refreshed interfaces that Google has forced upon us recently, this is optional. My recommendation is give it a try, it only takes one click to set everything back to how it was.

All in all, good work Google. They have done the UI design equivalent of the girl in the movies who takes her glasses off and suddenly we all see that she’s not just smart, but pretty as well.

If I understand Google+ correctly, you can follow/befriend/whatever me on the service here.

SYWP June Roundup: Web Matrix and Post Formats

June 19th, 2011 by Ian

The South Yorkshire WordPress User Group (SYWP) has been going for a few months now: another group under the banner of the GIST Hub. For me it’s been very useful. Not just from a WordPress point of view (in which I have some professional interest) but it’s also a great place to share general web knowledge. A couple of our members suggested that I take notes, so I post these here and on the SYWP blog. Before I start, I’d just like to say thanks to everyone who contributed. Both talks provided some good food for thought.

Kimb’s adventures in MS WebMatrix

You read that right: Microsoft are all up in OpenSource now. Kimb (@mkjones) had tried it previously but after a great talk by @androidrobb last month, he decided to try it again. His objectives were as follows:

  • Install WordPress on a classic ASP server.
  • Do it without using XAMP etc.

MS WebMatrix logoThe WebMatrix installer seemed very ‘Microsoft’: i.e. It offered to install lots of confusing things with very ‘branding’ sounding names. He ended up installing a lot of things that he didn’t actually know what they were. Kym works in a MS-heavy environment (the NHS), so to someone who’s not played in MS-land for years, it’s a little confusing. The good news is that unlike his previous experiences, installing the web platform did not seem to meddle with existing IIS settings.

One benefit of this whole process is that for IT bods who do not trust OpenSource stuff, they’re more likely to let it through if it’s actually being installed by legit MS software.

(Around this time Jag brought up a reference to the film ‘Magnolia’. I don’t think anyone understood.)

Installing WordPress however is simple. When you choose to install WordPress it automatically prompts you to install MySQL. It will even prompt you to choose a root password, all in within the nice (well, functional) GUI. The process is smart enough that, when you come to install a second WordPress website, it knows if you’ve already got MySQL installed. You choose where on the HDD to install it and there you go. Well, not quite. You’re dumped in the browser at the first of the famous 5 minute install™ but your config.php is populated with all the right stuff. In many ways, this is a lot like the infamous scourge of the cheap web-hosts: Fantastico. Kimb suggested that you do this process twice: once on the web host and once on your local machine. As he showed us a screenshot of his environment, complete with IE7, there was a burst of excitement and jealousy from fellow NHS workers. They’re all still on IE6. What a hellish existence (Chrome 11, represent).

As I said during @AndroidRobb‘s talk, the WebMatrix database editor interface looks pretty good. No need to dip into PHPMyAdmin. With some playing about with permissions he got the db editor to talk to his external server with a similar Web Matrix setup. That said, I use the very pretty Sequel Pro, so that’s not so much of an issue for me but I think it’s pretty nice to have everything together and I guess that’s exactly what MS are going for (and what Adobe would probably go for with DW if they didn’t have the Photoshop empire to rely on).

During his talk he used the word ‘synergised’ once. He did not make coffee this time though. 7/10.

Chris Hart on Post formats

The septagon was one shape that Chris sadly did not utilise

The septagon was one shape that Chris sadly did not utilise

As Chris (@ch8rt) brought up his first slide it was clear that he’s forged a career as a designer. It featured 3 shapes: a circle, a square and a triangle. His presentation was about the new WordPress post formats, but his attitude was that of a Factory Records era Mancunian artwork revisit. Or something.

Initially post types seemed pretty cool. We’ve all been mucking around with categories for ages now, to try and theme posts depending on the type of post, ala Tumblr. Unfortunately WordPress only gives you a limited number of available post-type formats (aside, gallery, link, image, quote etc…) and this is not expandable. That’s not a very WordPress way to go about things imho. These are activated by ‘add_theme_support’ which is in our friend the functions file and at least we can choose which of these to use (so the whole load are not forced on you). Theming is simple with has_post_format(‘video’) or you can drop the post_class() in for your stylesheets to utilise.

The chosen posts formats are displayed in the ‘Posts’ admin menu, which is one nice advantage.

This direction is a little lacking and feels like a somewhat undeveloped and immature solution. People didn’t seem that keen, but it must be remembered that we’re all hardcore WordPress devs here (ha!) at #sywp but we could build systems for our clients using post formats that would be a lot easier than the whole categories nonsense we often subject people to.

He’s made his talk, shapes and all, available here.

Next month…

People were obviously very keen to talk about gallery plug-ins, which conflicts with my fear of plug-ins and love of complete control over your markup. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong. Once again, events plug-ins were mentioned. People just want to find an events plug-in that works, but other more cynical people (well, me) say sod it. Just use Eventbrite.

We also talked about the 3.2 Release Client and decided the most interesting thing was the distraction-free writer which might be aimed at iPad owning, iA Writer using Stephen Fry fans. Possibly.

People want me to give a talk, but I’m so left-field, I’d probably do it on Expression Engine. Forgive me, SYWP.

Undercity by Andrew Wonder

May 24th, 2011 by Ian

The 1st to watch out for is not hitting the third rail [..] the next thing you have to watch out for is not being hit by trains and the third thing you have to watch out for is not being seen.

Wombles ain’t got nufin’ on these guys.

Walter’s Lego Meth Lab

May 8th, 2011 by Ian

Breaking badWhilst waiting for the next series of Breaking Bad to start (just 2 months now), someone (Orion Pax on Flickr) has obviously been busy. I love the detail on this, especially the bullet holes in the door. It reminds me that, “this is my own private domicile and I will not be harassed….bitch!

via The Brothers Brick

Sheffield BarCamp 2011: The tourist’s perspective

April 23rd, 2011 by Ian
The mighty grid

The mighty grid

For those of you who are similarly clueless as I was, a BarCamp is somewhat of an unconference, “an ad-hoc gathering born from the desire for people to share and learn in an open environment“.  Attendees are encouraged not only to come and listen, but also to talk as well. There were 4 rooms at this event and those who wished to speak simply affixed a post-it note with the title of their talk onto a grid on the wall. I played the role of a ‘tourist’ because I brought nothing to the party: I had never been to one of these events before and being the shrinking violet that I am, simply sat back and took in as much as possible. These events are held all over the world, but at this Sheffield event there were no sponsors nor was there an entry fee. It was arranged with help from the GIST Foundation massive. and hosted at Sheffield Workstation over the weekend of the 16th of April. A great location because a) free Wi-Fi and b) it’s opposite real-ale haunt the Rutland Arms. Unfortunately, due in part to a (reasonably epic) duel-headline tour in the evening by …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of the Dead and Rival Schools I had to leave for Manchester earlier than I would have liked. I did however promise the man of a thousand Twitter accounts, Jag that I would publish online some of what I experienced. For the pathetically short time I was in attendance I found the BarCamp enlightening, so here is some of what I learnt, and how I could apply it to what I do.

Documentation and Storytelling

The first session I attended was on documentation by Dee Vincent-Day (@deevincentday). Her job is to work with developers and document their work. I do not envy her job. However, it sounds like she has it down and I got the impression that she was a master of social engineering, with a different approach to different developers! I found it surprising (from the discussion amongst other BarCampers) that documentation is often fed into MS Word and propriatery management systems like the infamous Sharepoint. She talked about how although documentation may add to the cost of a project initially, there are savings later down the line, especially if developers move on from projects/jobs. Having been burned by this first hand, I appreciated this. I think it’s great that there is someone who is there to purely help developers document.

Gem (@ruby_gem) presented a more fluffy topic: Stories. Here, I use the word ‘fluffy’ not negatively at all, but the concept of story telling is a higher level concept than my practical-focused little mind is used to. I liked the idea of creating a story for everything (and Gem was adamant that a story can be created for everything). The form of these stories should follow:

  1. As a
  2. I want
  3. So that

Often when I have my UX hat on, the question running through my mind is simply “what do we need”. But these more involved (yet still simple) stories seem like they’d serve me better in communicating with clients, managers and pulling together a spec. The rearrangement of this into “In order to > As a > I want” would better serve some situations. She was also keen on drawing pictures to illustrate needs, but when dealing with more technically minded folk, then a simple table of figures would serve best. (Edit: ‘Writing Stories’ has all been much better explained on ruby_gem’s blog)

Attention grabbing and Mobile Development

For ‘Getting attention on FlickrMartin Cunningham (@martin88) told us the importance of interacting with the community. On Flickr can involve joining groups, providing constructive criticism and favourite-ing others photographs. My personal efforts on Flickr are a complete joke, however the lessons that Martin has learnt can be applied elsewhere. I deal with a lot of organisations who realise the potential and power of social networks and online communities, but they often forget that simply being there isn’t enough. One needs to engage, and Facebook, YouTube or wherever else you think it’s important to promote yourself have equivalents to the Flickr techniques that Martin mentioned. Of course, his flickr account is worth a look!

Trevor Ward (@thewarpedcoder) spoke specifically about the Titanium development platform. As a front-end guy, this has attracted my attention before as it utilises existing HTML/JavaScript skills to produce native applications. However, it was great to see it in action as Trevor walked us through some of the processes. It looked pretty simple, certainly when compared to learning Objective-C! I also didn’t realise the extent to which Titanium can interface with a device’s sensors (cameras, gyroscopes, GPS etc) which is obviously the biggest advantage over mobile-orientated native-web development. It seems like a pretty mature, ordered way of producing mobile apps for both Android and iOS. He was upfront about the limitations (i.e. this isn’t for building 3d multiplayer fps frag-fests!) but I’m left with the feeling that I should spend some time poking around in Titanium. Speaking of gaming….

Collecting stars, flying spaceships

Video Game Bucket List

Video Game Bucket List

Many talks at this BarCamp provided me with things I can take back to my daily work life. Two, however, were simply fun. The first of these was Katie Fenn’s (@katie_fenn) talk on the Space Shuttle. As an aviation nerd myself this was pretty interesting, and it was nice to hear someone who obviously loves the Shuttle take such a critical look at it. Katie detailed the massive cost overruns and tragic accidents but still felt the whole adventure was worth-while. I agree. Katie: I believe your talk is online somewhere but I can’t find it. Send us the link, because it’s worth another look. Liam (@losvaive) took us even further away from earth and into the realms of fantasy with his ‘Video Game Bucket List‘. I hadn’t heard the term ‘bucket list’ before, but apparently it’s a sort of ‘things to do before you die’ checklist. His talk was focused on games that provide things sometimes beyond their design so his recommendations were not the unimaginative stuff like “Killing Talibs in COD 7 PWNZ!11″, but more subtle ideas like “Complete HL2 by only firing one shot” (which is possible, apparently: you only need one bullet to shoot a lock off a door) and “build a giant 1000ft golden phallic tower (complete with balls, natch) in Minecraft“. Incidentally, I’d love to see the screenshot of the latter again. It was simultaneously awe-provoking and terrifying.

My first BarCamp

My first BarCamp experience was excellent. A good crowd, as per most GIST events. I’d re-attend in a heartbeat, maybe as less of a tourist. God knows what I’d talk about but I’d be open to suggestions. I am a little sad that there were a number of talks I missed on such things as QR codes, Fractal Geometry, APIs and more, but I guess that’s the nature of a BarCamp. Thanks to all who arranged and took part in this event and if I’ve misunderstood or misrepresented what you were trying to say, then please let me know!

Expose in Chrome

April 17th, 2011 by Ian
Expose in Google Chrome

No more ctrl-tabbing

To enable, type about:flags into url bar and then enable Tab Overview (it’s probably the top option in Chrome 10.0.648). Alternatively, if you have less than 3 fingers or no trackpad, then try Ctrl – Cmd – T.

Via advice on Reddit

Les Savy Fav in Sheffield: beard-core

March 18th, 2011 by Ian

One of my favorite bands hit Sheffield recently. The last time they were nearby it was in Manchester and I missed them for a date with a girl who only now, having finally seen Les Savy Fav, can I truly stop resenting. If you like rock and you miss LSF when they’re in your town, you’re a complete and utter quentin.

Appropriately awesome LSF poster by Laura Siragher

Appropriately awesome LSF poster by Laura Siragher

If you’re new to LSF I personally recommend that you start your adventure with their collection of 7″s, the appropriately named ‘Inches‘. I did. That got me hooked. Although that’s not to say their latest album ‘Root for Ruin‘ isn’t maintaining the quality I’ve come to expect. But I’m not going to focus on that. I think a great contrast to LSF would be another recent Sheffield Corporation gig; Melissa Auf Der Maur. Like LSF, more than competent musicians with a history of awesome albums. Another personal favorite. But when she played in town, it was a pretty damn disappointing delivery. Full marks for turning up, but that’s it. I know Sheffield isn’t the biggest town on the tour, but we like music too (if I was a music journalist I’d insert a quote from Reverend and the Makers here… but I’m better than that so no). I’ve paid my 15 quid. LSF, in contrast, got a nice A++ for effort. Why?

How to sell records in 2011

Since the gig, I’ve been imagining LSF are the sort of band who know how live music has to work in this time of mp3s, crappy laptop speakers and a fanbase who just won’t leave the house. A live show needs to bring it, and LSF brought it big time. Whilst I’d personally be perfectly happy to go to Corporation and see them perform a technically good set, LSF know this isn’t enough. They’ve heard of this thing called ‘showmanship’. It is their best weapon against pretentious tedious gigs, and their delivery system comes in the form of a big ball of bearded power: front-man Tim Harrington. Don’t get me wrong, LSF don’t need gimmicks and would be A-ok without Harringtons presence, but the energy that the bearded-one brings to the room is immense. If you’re standing near the back of the room and the lyrics are being delivered right into your face (literally)… that’s a show. That’s value for money. That’s the sort of effort that makes it worth getting out and supporting a band.

Les Savy Fav frontman connects with fans

Connecting with fans

Harrington made the grimy floors of Corp his bitch. He roamed the room doing questionable things with bananas (whilst singing the Banana boat song, naturally), slowly loosing layers of clothing. It was not sexy, but it was sexual. He climbed through the room, over bars and ledges. Fans held up the thick microphone chord that trailed behind him so he could connect with others. Musically. Physically. Emotionally. I’d seen such behavior from LSF on YouTube at big US outdoor shows. I thought, “Sure, they put the effort in when it’s a big show back home, but will they really bother in some northern city they’ve probably never heard of?” Well I was wrong. They did and they deserve credit for it. This was one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to.

Interpol don’t give a shit

Often when American bands come to town they blatantly don’t care. I’m looking at you, Interpol. It’s another box ticked and they slump on stage, looking cool but ultimately lifeless. Not LSF. They obviously believe in live music. This gig was part of a tour organized by the DrownedInSound people. I hope everyone felt that Sheffield was a worthwhile stop, because we enjoyed it. Probably almost as much as Tim Harringtons greengrocer.

Giraffe-zilla will devour us all

October 31st, 2010 by Ian

giraffezilla

Artist Shuichi Nakano’s “Searching for Paradise” paintings depict Godzilla-sized animals towering over the urban sprawl of Japan.

via Pinktentacle

What this Windows Phone 7 advert tells us about the assault on iOS

October 21st, 2010 by Ian

I work in design agencies, so operate under an unspoken agreement to hate on any effort Microsoft make to take sales away from Apple. A new mouse? I think you’ll find that the Mighty Mouse is the premium device, sir! Windows 7 now has a simplified ‘dock-like’ task bar? Tshk! OS X perfected this years ago!

Now comes Windows Phone 7: a desperate assault on castle iPhone. I thought I’d be happy to join in with pretty much everyone I follow on twitter and slag off the new advertising campaign that has been divised to accompany the new mobiles OS’ release. The most common complaint I heard was that this advert makes potential customers look like, well, douchebags. Maybe, but I think beyond that the advert tries to sell a very good point: We will help you get what you want quicker so that you can return to the real world. This is a great approach and a smart advert. How so?

Read the rest of this entry »

8-bit takes on the snowboarders

July 13th, 2010 by Ian

It is, I believe, rather gnarly. Yo.

Duxford Flying Legends 2010

July 11th, 2010 by Ian
The Joker - Bearcat

The Joker - Bearcat

Duxford, Cambridgeshire has for a long time been ‘plane nerd mecca to me. It’s been ages since I went to a proper airshow, so it was great to once again attend the Flying Legends show. Many of the airframes are now over 70 years old and it’s amazing how many they get into the air at once. They don’t exactly fling them round (well, with the exception of the superbly demonstrated Grumman Bearcat), but they put them through some pretty tight turns and rolls. It’s great to see how gracefully the Spitfires are handled and for me, I think that was the highlight: A formation of various marks of Spitfire playfully soaring over the length of the runway. I’ve uploaded a bunch of shots to Flickr. I only own a compact, so a lot of the shots are from the museums.

The business end of the A10

The business end of the A10

The whole set from Saturday is available in my Flickr stream.

BBC nail Beardyman caption

June 23rd, 2010 by Ian
Beardyman: King of Sound and Ruler of Beats

Beardyman: King of Sound and Ruler of Beats

Any idea why the esteemed beat-boxer was on the news?

Via Dailyrnail.co.uk (read that again)