Back in a Bit

Nail ’em up, I say

The headmaster of the secondary school I attended is a man by the name of Tony Hill, and there he is grinning down from the header of their site (one of the best-known designers’ techniques for getting the client to like the work you produce is to get a nice big photo of them and stick it everywhere—whether that’s what happened here I couldn’t possibly say). He used to use expressions like “Tremendous!” and “Jolly well done!” and “Over a hundred pupils!”, and probably still does. He’s the kind of guy that likes people to get involved, and this is probably why he makes a good secondary comprehensive headmaster.

For me, both as a pupil and now, the most interesting thing about Tony Hill is how similar he is to Tony Blair. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly it is they have in common, other than the fact that one always reminds me of the other. In fact, I once had a dream that I met Tony Blair, in which he shook my hand and grinned “Tremendous!”. I laughed so hard I woke myself up.

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Giving up

Over the course of my life, I’ve managed to beat several addictions. From the trivial (such as managing to stop biting my nails last year) to the very serious (the likes of which I won’t go into now), there’s a great sense of pride and achievement to be derived from managing to give up doing something bad.

The observant amongst you may have noticed that I’ve been away recently: in glorious Pembrokeshire for a few days and then on England’s south coast over the weekend. Almost accidentally, these breaks from the routine became the perfect opportunity to tackle my last significant addiction.

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The audience is listening

Since its return, I’ve come to notice that this site (or rather, the selection of posts I’ve made of late) has been described in more than one place as “intelligent”. I find this quite interesting. I think what is actually meant is something more like “considered”, but even so it has got me thinking about intelligence and what it means.

Conventional wisdom on writing for the web tells us to use simple language, short straight-forward sentence structures and brief paragraphs. This is because we are fundamentally lazy readers, particularly when staring at a screen. The same wisdom also instructs us to place black text on white pages, for the same reason. I used to subscribe to these points of view, but as time has worn on I’ve drifted away from them.

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16 Nov 2003

Defining relationships between posts

I’ve been thinking a lot about ways to organise weblog posts, and I think I may have something.

In the search for workable ways to organise chunks of content on a weblog, I looked at how I organise things in the real world, to see if there was any existing system that could be adapted. I turned to my CD collection, which sits in racks that cover one wall of our flat. The CDs are organised alphabetically by artist, starting at the top of the far left column. There are several things that can be observed about the system I employ: firstly that the alphabetical sorting is quite informal—artists are grouped by the first letter of their name, but I’m casual about exact alphabetic sorting. I don’t worry about Radiohead coming before REM or Kraftwerk before Lenny Kravitz. Relatively simple name-grouping is sufficient for me to find what I’m looking for, without increasing the overhead of returning the CDs to the wall or adding new purchases. Secondly, there are spaces in the racks between each alphabetic group, again to allow me to add new CDs without having to reorganise the entire collection. Thirdly, I notice that, within the alphabetic groups, I tend to place albums by the same artist together and, in some cases, organise these albums in order of release.

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Google Definitions

Google’s ability to define words is slightly more useful than at first it seems. This is an ideal thing for Google to be able to do. It’s a long way from being a new trick—if you’re familiar enough with the web to use the Google syntax, you’re familiar enough to search for the meaning of words, even if you have to use Google to do it—but even so it’s useful to bring such tools as close to the user as possible.

The most comprehensive of Google’s sources, it seems, is WordNet, and I’ve been trying to find things it doesn’t know. I thought that principally British expressions may not feature—indeed, at time of writing, a search for what it means to carry coals to Newcastle returns nothing—but a search for the definition of Newcastle comes up trumps.

Professional parallels

People often comment that the leap from coding to carpentry seems giant. Not so: the two professions are more closely related than is initially obvious. In the IT industry, it’s tempting to think that we’re riding on the leading edge of existence: that every day we’re breaking new ground, advancing ever forward, and taking or species to new and uncharted heights. Again, not so. While the materials and language may be new and sparkly, we’re merely recycling our aptitude for much older skills.

I work closely with a decorator, and it interests me that we have almost perfectly complementary skills. While he is highly skilled at painting, preparation, plastering and puttying, he freely admits to being disasterously bad at anything to do with wood. Similarly, I can’t paint for toffee and my plastering skills are a joke. The moment I crack open a can of paint, you know disaster is only minutes away. Fortunately we know our own and each other’s limitations, meaning we can usually avoid major tool-throwing, expletive-inducing catastrophies. It also means that if we’re tacking something new, and either he or I are finding it frustratingly difficult or boring, the chances are that the other will probably take to it much more easily.

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Less of a bloody stupid idea

Last year, it was the Best British Blog Competition, and this year it’s the British Weblog Awards. Last year, many weblog authors, myself included, were very critical of the whole affair, and boycotted the competition. This year, however, such criticism is noticably absent. If anything, it has been greeted with comparative nonchalance.

For the 2002 awards, the basic idea was that a panel of judges would pick out the best British weblog, and give the author £1000, as well as five runners-up who would receive £500. What’s so bad about that? To start with, as was debated in great length at the time, defining the “best” weblog seemed to be an attempt to quantify the unquantifiable. It implies a set of criteria, and it was hard to imagine any criteria that were appropriate to use for this purpose. What is it that makes a weblog “the best”? The look of it? The content? The number of gizmos? I lost count of the number of times I asked “what is the best vegetable” in an effort to highlight the challenge the Guardian had put before its appointed judges.

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Improving on reverse-chronology

The reverse-chronological arrangement of weblog posts has frustrated me for years. It’s a format that works for about the first week in the life of a weblog, and after that it becomes more and more of a headache.

One of the most basic principles of information architecture is that the good stuff should float to the top. Of course, what that means in real terms comes down to your definition of “good”. In the world of weblogs (and many, many other varieties of sites), this refers to the most recently added content, hence the reverse-chronological ordering of posts. But is the most recent thing you’ve written necessarily the good stuff?

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