Archive for the 'Me, me, me' Category

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.

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!

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.

Speak the Web: Leeds

February 16th, 2010 by Ian

Okay, this is a bit late (There has already been a Speak the Web: Liverpool event), but here are some brief thoughts from last Thursdays Speak the Web conference in Leeds.

Corn on the cob?

Corn on the cob?

Stuart Smith started with a brief (and quite amusing) history of the mobile web. He made the point that it’s not just iPhone users that we should build mobile websites for and that the typical mobile user was probably using a much less capable Nokia S40-based phone. He’s right of course, but he ignored the fact that iPhone users typically use the web on their mobiles much more than anyone else, but maybe that’s because the web often sucks so badly on the standard Nokia S40/60 browser? Still, he noted that countries like Uganda had quite advanced 4G networks so we, as developers, should be mindful of opportunities in places we otherwise are not mindful of. He also showed a slide of a corn-on-the-cob vibrator. Despite the other guys’ immaculately presented slides, this won the title of classiest slide of the night.

Opera was represented by Chris Mills. His talk had largely the same content as Bruce Lawson’s in Sheffield (so I won’t go into detail again). The HTML5 slides from Sheffield have been uploaded, by the way. He presented it in a similarly energetic way though, so I wasn’t bored hearing it again! I also learned that lots of people in Russia use Opera, but not many people who speak about Opera!

I’ve read a great deal by Andy Clark, on his blog, on Twitter and elsewhere on the web. He often goes under the name Malarkey so I shall refer to him as such. His talk can be summed up, I think, thus: Design for the clients you want and build for the web browser you want. I think this was what he meant by Hard Boiled web design. The concept of progressive enrichment (as opposed to enhancement), I think has its benefits. After all, even the appearance of the pages he showed us on tired old IE looked pretty nice.

I laughed when he showed us the IE6 stylesheet he’s been using for years. So sparse. I understand the need to bully IE users onto a more advanced browser, for the good of the web. I also feel no love for Microsoft. However, this approach just seems vindictive. The bulk of IE6 users are those poor souls working in government agencies and councils, the NHS and others who have no control over what browser they use. To give them such a poor online experience seems unnecessarily cruel. If they chose to use IE6 themselves, I’d say stuff ‘em, but no one chooses to use IE6 these days. Of course Malarkey’s talk was a stark contrast to the boys from Cahoona who spoke in Sheffield: “Just give the client what he wants, regardless of whether it’s the best solution” (I’m paraphrasing). I wish them both well, but I think I’d rather work as Malarkey does. If I was in a position to do so of course!

All in all, another awesome conference. I think the audience was a bit more chatty and asked more questions than in Sheffield. Was this because Leeds has a more excitable bunch of design-types? Maybe, but I think it had more to do with how well the speakers got on. They ripped the piss out of each other in such a good-hearted way that I think it relaxed everyone. Malarkey even dropped a Hicks-approved oooOOOOh! bomb. First time I’ve seen it used ‘in anger’. I’d like to note that at both events there were some pretty friendly folk. It was a weird novelty for me that the first two people I said hello to in Leeds both noted that they had read my blog post about Speak the Web: Sheffield! Thanks once again to the guys who arranged all this.

Speak the Web: Sheffield

February 11th, 2010 by Ian
Make it shitter

Cahoona tell it like it is

Sheffield had its very own web conference in the form of Speak the Web and I had to go, due to the scarcity of such things in this town. Frustrating considering how many creative agencies there are round here. We’ve had TEDx North, which was great, but what I really wanted was something tailored for hungry designers and developers. It was held at the Showroom Cinema in town and the creators said that they wanted something akin to the atmosphere of a gig. Hence the £20 entrance fee. Although the only gig I’ve been to that cost more than 20 quid was Radiohead. But they didn’t give you a free drink.

Two chaps from Cahoona told us how they set up their agency, so of course there were the usual tales about living off pot noodles and worrying about the cash-flow. Their scotch-egg (sorry, Manchester-egg) heavy presentation was pretty well done and amusing. They had one legendary slide: “Make it shitter”. I think it was a reference to the problem that is often faced due to client-meddling. I guess their success shows that they deal with this meddling well, by caving into the request of the client, no matter how awful. I’m not 100% sure that’s how I’d run a web agency, but I understand their reasoning and hey… I’m probably never going to run a web agency. I dig their work though, especially their company website.

The nastiest slide in the world

This slide highlights the complexity of adding video to a webpage at the moment, due to nasty 'legacy' browsers

Bruce Lawson was the man from Opera. I’ve tried to use Opera on the Desktop and I always go back to Firefox (or Chrome), but he wasn’t here to pimp Opera. He was here to pimp HTML5, which Opera (especially Opera 10.5) supports pretty well. I’ve read quite a bit about HTML5 (including a lot at html5doctor, where Bruce writes) and the whole thing is quite exciting, but Bruce made it sound more realistic than I had previously imagined it was. My attitude has been that it is ‘for the future’, but now my attitude is that HTML5 is for now. The usual HTML5 video tricks were demonstrated, along with some stuff I didn’t know about, such as a totally different way that one can structure headings (Two H1s on a page? You have blown my mind!). Bruce wasn’t some crazy futurist though and he told us how, for example, we could get SVG-based graphics working in IE using VML. He didn’t go into too much detail (it wasn’t the time or the place for that) but he caused plenty of little sparks to fire in my brain.

Finally it was the turn of Brendan Dawes from magneticNorth. He was a great contrast to Bruce: all about the “Cushions”, the flash, fluff and visual niceties that make a website a website, rather than just a flat image. The best example he showed us of this, I think, was the shopping cart that smiled as you added products to it. A simple effect, but one that I can imagine makes a user happy. We were all children once and to bring that playful aspect into web design has got to have benefits. Although he may have sounded at odds with Bruce, the reality is that due to HTML5, CSS3 and some powerful js libraries, it is now possible for a good developer to make pages that are full of ‘Cushions’ but which are accessible and thus keep Bruce (and disabled people) happy. I hope they talked to each other after the event.

Brendan also pointed out that there weren’t many girls at this event and that it was a bit like a “gay club”. Firstly, a load of dudes in one place doesn’t constitute a gay club. If it did, then the Tory front-benches would be, well… less said about that the better. Secondly, we’re all well aware of the lack of women in technology. It needs sorting, but I think sometimes joking about the lack of women in tech isn’t terribly helpful.

So, in summary: this event was brilliant and all the speakers were interesting. I’m inclined more now to go to one of the local GeekUp events, which I think the people who arranged this conference are also involved with. To use the hosts analogy of a gig: it wasn’t as good as Radiohead, but it was a lot more interesting than that time I saw a side project by one of the guys out of Busted. Shudder.

The Speak the Web peeps have put up a better round-up on their page. I’m off to the event they’re running in Leeds tonight.

Links of the month – January

February 2nd, 2010 by Ian

I plan to do this more often, highlights I’ve found over the previous month. So without further ado…

A new Gill Scott-Heron album, you can listen to all the way through for free over at Pitchfork.

Some quite sharp web designers have taken to disagreeing with a lot of what Smashing Magazine throws up as biblical truth. One of the better examples of this is the article, In Defense of Vertical Navigation.

Boingboing provides some facts about sloths. They’re so happy all the time, they know what’s up. They know more than we or Boingboing could even imagine.

Ringo Star ain’t nuffin’ to fuck with. This is a fine, fine mash-up. It’s exactly what you’d imagine, plus news clips from the time, often highlighting the older folks mistrust of Beatlemania.

Hungry Horace in Sheffield

January 3rd, 2010 by Ian

Everyone with a ZX Spectrum had Horace Goes Skiing. That’s fact, surely? I did. The protagonist, Horace, was in a number of games and should be instantly recognizable to those who spent far too much of their childhoods loading games from tape. For a while now he’s been springing up round Sheffield. I’m going to leave any argument about the rights and wrongs of graffiti aside (primarily because it’s boring) but he tends to pop up in easy to see, yet hard to access places. I snapped him here, behind the famous Roneys butchers.

Horace can be seen sometimes with or without a message

Horace can be seen with a message and sometimes without one

The locals have already discussed his presence here, on the much-used Sheffield Forum. I’ll be keeping an eye out for more occurrences.

TEDx Manchester

October 11th, 2009 by Ian

Okay, so I’m a bit cheeky. I went to two TEDx Norths. I went to the one in Sheffield, where I live. Then when I saw they had some interesting speakers, I got some tickets for TEDx Manchester as well. The two were both interesting events and have been summed up better elsewhere on other blogs, so here I will make just a couple of brief points.

I preferred the Sheffield TEDx. Why? Because although the speakers sounded like they’d be less interesting on paper, they were actually more interesting. Manchester gave us talks from people with big credentials. People from all across the BBC: Radio, Childrens, the head of research & development at BBC Future Media & Technology. There were people from the Guardian and from Nokia. These guys all gave interesting talks, but they were so wide in scope. In Sheffield the deal from the speakers was thus: “I’ve made something / am involved in something. Maybe not a lot of people find it that interesting, but I’m really into it and I want to share my passion with you”. In Manchester it was more, “Facebook! Twitter! Web 2.0! Social media! Cliche!” and I got a little lost in all the buzz words. Twitter and Facebook were mentioned so frequently, I think we could have engineered a drinking game out of it. I didn’t learn anything new about either of them, unfortunately. It didn’t help that each speaker had 20mins each, which blatantly wasn’t enough for most of them. Like in Sheffield, we were played old TED talks on video. If I wanted to watch them, I would do in my own time (as I often do) on Miro, or their YouTube channel. This should have been scrapped to give the speakers more time! (Disclaimer; I think Lost is the most self-congratulatory peace of crap JJ Abrahams, nay, anyone has ever done, so his talk was especially lost on me)

Phil Griffin at TEDx Manchester

For me, the one guy who stood out was Phil Griffin. He talked about Manchester and its architecture. He told us about the tower blocks that are being torn down and the old pubs he knows that are lying dormant. This is obviously something that he cared about deeply (he even showed us pictures of the area where he once got married). This, more focused talk, was simply superb. I have an interest in architecture sure, but I’m a web developer with a much keener interest in the web. But the one man who didn’t mention the web (let alone any web2.0 cliche’s) once during his talk was easily the most fascinating speaker. He also used the large screen to display photography, rather than a dry list of bullet points (“*facebook *twitter *web2.0″).

Maybe in the future TEDx North could, and I don’t believe I’m saying this, be a little less web-orientated next time? Some pictures are available on my flickr stream.

TEDx Sheffield

September 22nd, 2009 by Ian

You’ve probably heard of the TED talks. They’ve spread in part due to their excellent internet strategy: a powerful website, a strong presence on YouTube, software like Miro and the like. TEDx is a series of talks operating in the UK under license, I believe. They don’t quite pull in the Bill Gates and Seth Godins’ of the main TED talks but, as I found out last week, they present some pretty interesting folks.

TEDx came to Sheffield so my colleague and I spent the whole day at Electric Works and yes, we had a go on the slide. The range of talks kept things interesting. It started off quite business-orientated and the highlight in the morning was definitely Mike Southon of the Financial Times. He gave an obviously very finely tuned presentation that likened business success to the path the Beatles took. It was pretty ‘fluffy’ stuff, but I’m no business-head so that was probably fortunate. As the day progressed, the talks got a bit more creative-y. Highlights for me were Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino from Tinker it! bigging up the Arduino open-source hardware project and Andy Huntington with his little magic noise boxes (my name for them, not his). I wanted my own.

Andy Huntington at TEDx Sheffield

Andy Huntington at TEDx Sheffield

By the afternoon, the suits had all disappeared and the crowd was a little more geeky (I mean that in a loving way, obviously). That’s understandable, considering the breadth of topics. TEDx Sheffield was a day that did inspire, the only bad thing I thought was that they played us videos of previous international TED talks. I could have stayed at home to watch those, guys. I took some (not especially great) pictures that you can view on my flickr stream.

Japanese food in Sheffield

August 12th, 2009 by Ian

Rckt team at Wasabisabi

My colleague and play-pal, Andy, left for Japan (aka weeaboo land) this month and as a treat we at rckt took him for a Japanese meal. y’know? Just to test the authenticity of the whole thing! I was put off initially, because I hate raw fish but it turns out that both the Japanese and the restaurants that claim Japanese culinary skills are all over that. It’s all about the steak now! So we went to Wasabisabi on London Rd, Sheffield for a meal. It was not only a novelty (the food is cooked in-front of you) but also it was very delicious. Recommended.

I friggin love giraffes

March 1st, 2009 by Ian
Giraffe

Giraffe

That’s all for this week.

One man’s mission to occupy his time…

January 26th, 2009 by Ian

Proving that job seekers allowance isn’t the worst thing in the world, my pal Andy has started blogging again.

He’s pretty funny, but I give him 2 months. Max.

Computer hardware that looks a diagram of human organs #1

December 16th, 2008 by Ian

USB to PS2 Adapter

Part of a new series courtesy of my insatiable hardware buying thirst. Did I spend too long looking through science text books at school? I feel a meme coming on.

This 1st post on the new (and absolutely superb) WordPress 2.7 is brought to you by the Beavis and Butthead part of my brain. Thank you.

Stacking Cattle: a blog

December 9th, 2008 by Ian

‘Stacking Cattle’ is the title of a new blog written by a pal of mine. He’s so 2002! He’s going to be using terms like ‘blogosphere’ and ‘multi-faceted media node’. Anyway he’s funnier than me (at least online) and recent subjects include comedians, inappropriate links to lemonparty and racist S60 applications. I’d suggest taking a look, if only because it keeps him off the streets.