Archive: November, 2003


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Thursday, November 27th, 2003

Pet Stories

There’s a special group story up at {fray} right now called Pet Stories.

They’re all great but "I Am So Not Kidding About This" by Heather Armstrong and "Paris In The Toilet" by Lance Arthur had me laughing out loud.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, {fray} is, to my mind, one of the best websites ever. I remember when I first discovered the site, it was one of those defining moments that showed me what the web was capable of.

Amazon and Yahoo! may get all the credit for breaking new ground on the web but it was {fray} that convinced me that I wanted to get involved in this new-fangled web thing.

You’ve got a lot to answer for, Derek.

Tuesday, November 25th, 2003

Back from Bologna

Bologna was everything I hoped it would be; fascinating, filling and fun.

My mission to explore the famous cuisine of the city was a success. Tagliatelle al ragù, tortellini and tortelloni were all consumed together with plenty of parmesan cheese and the local Sangiovese. I think I actually managed to overdose on the famous local ham and sausage.

Luckily, the city’s medieval attractions saved me from a completely corpulent fate. A walk up to the top of Bologna’s highest tower will burn off any amount of pasta. An uphill walk through the 666 porticoes leading out of town to the Basilica di San Luca also does the trick.

Unfortunately, the weather was mostly cloudy the whole time so the anticipated views from said tower and Basilica didn’t materialise.

Still, I’m glad I went to Bologna in Winter rather than Summer. For one thing, there were hardly any other tourists to be found. More importantly, it’s truffle season.

Needless to say, I took plenty of pictures. On the flight back earlier this evening, I took out my iBook and selected some of my favourites for your perusal.

Thursday, November 20th, 2003

La Cucina Bolognese

I’ve been quite a busy bee lately, working over at Message with my head full of objects, arrays, functions, queries and other inhabitants of the PHP world.

It’s time for me to take a break. The flight is booked and the hotel room is reserved: Jessica and I are going to Bologna, Italy for a long weekend.

It’s a beautiful medieval town famous for its politics, which lean towards the left, and its towers, which just plain lean. It’s also home to the oldest university in Europe - a university which can be proud of its celebrity professor.

Bologna is known variously as La Rossa (the red), La Dotta (the learned) and La Grassa (the fat).

It’s that last appellation that interests me. I’m going to Bologna for the cuisine:

“A good ragú must cling to the pasta in order to be enjoyed. It must have the right mix of meats and spices and simmer for hours. The correct meats to use are veal, pork, and sausage. Just a touch of tomato is added as this is not a tomato sauce. To finish, add a drop of heavy cream and a dollop of fresh butter.”

I’m so there.

I probably won’t have the chance to blog during my break but I promise to take lots of pictures.

Monday, November 17th, 2003

Sprint CSS

I got a nice email today from a very talented web developer named France Rupert telling me about the newly redesigned Sprint PCS site.

The design is gorgeous and the site is written in XHTML/CSS. There’s a note on the site about the redesign.

There’s still a couple of small validation issues to be worked out, mostly caused by the Content Management System, but overall it’s a terrific achievement.

Well done, France.

Sunday, November 16th, 2003

Javascript Strikes Back

While I’m working over at Message, most of work consists of fairly hardcore PHP and MySQL.

This week, though, I’ve found myself writing an unusual amount of Javascript.

Over on the Brighton New Media mailing list, I found myself responding to three separate calls for assistance with Javascript issues: putting content into a textarea, avoiding image cache (or reload) and a CSS nav quandry.

Meanwhile, I’ve also been adding some Javascript tweaks to this site.

I’ve been trying to plug what Dave Shea calls "the RSS usability hole" by intercepting clicks on the button that leads to my RSS feeds and popping up a window with a brief explanation of RSS. The idea being that people who don’t know what RSS is aren’t confronted with a page of apparent gibberish. The link can still be dragged (or copied and pasted) into a newsreader.

I’ve also been tightening up the way my image galleries work. By default, each gallery shows the first image in the set instead of just a blank image. Clicking on the "random image" feature also takes you straight to that image instead of just straight to that gallery.

Playing around with Javascript and the DOM these days is a far cry from the first version of this site. Back then, just about every browser had its own Document Object Model and trying to get even simple things to work involved a lot of forking and hacks. It’s probably because of that inconvenience (and the associated cost) that DHTML never really took off in a big way.

These days, though, using little bits of DHTML magic can be quick and easy and still work across a huge range of browsers.

Viva standards!

Perhaps it’s time for cross-browser DHTML to make a comeback: the CSS/Javascript reunion tour.

Thursday, November 13th, 2003

Doing the right Flash thing

Joe Gillespie has been handing out the same advice I gave about updating Flash sites to work in the soon-to-be-crippled Internet Explorer (although he neglects the vital <noscript> when describing the JavaScript fix).

I was very pleased with my JavaScript/<noscript> solution. Then I got an email from someone who had downloaded a beta of the new Internet Explorer for Windows. It turns out that neither my solution nor any of the other JavaScript solutions mentioned on other sites work in the new browser.

So, what to do next? Should I start tearing my hair out trying to figure out some new clever way of tricking Internet Explorer?

After some deliberation, I’ve decided that the answer is a resounding "no".

The Eolas patent that sparked the browser revision is completely without merit. Why should I have to change my perfectly valid XHTML documents just because the US Patent Office is too idiotic to recognise prior art?

No, I’m switching the Salter Cane website back to its old non-JavaScript <embed> tags. If anyone visiting the site with a crippled version of Internet Explorer gets annoyed, I’ll direct them to take it up with Mike Doyle. I’ll update my mark-up only in the event of the W3C updating the XHTML spec.

It might not come to that, though. Tim Berners-Lee has jumped into the fray with an impassioned plea for sanity as well as putting forward to the indisputable case for the existence of prior art. The US Patent Office are actually responding so there may well be a happy ending to all this.

One positive thing has come out of this debacle already. The beta release of the crippled Internet Explorer led an enterprising web developer into figuring out how to install multiple versions of IE on Windows, something previously thought to be impossible.

This doesn’t affect me directly as I use Virtual PC on the Mac to achieve the same result but it’s certainly great, great news for Windows-based web developers. They can now check their designs across a wide range of browsers without resorting to a separate partition, or even a separate computer, for each version of IE.

Tuesday, November 11th, 2003

Go crazy

If adactio was a ransom note, this is what it would like.

Monday, November 10th, 2003

Revolutions Reviewed

I went to see The Matrix Revolutions over the weekend. I enjoyed it. Then again, I enjoyed The Matrix Reloaded so what do I know?

The general consensus seems to be that while the first Matrix film “rocked”, the sequels “sucked”, to use the vernacular.

I went back and watched the original Matrix film again to try to figure out just how it differs from the sequels. On the surface, the most obvious difference is the smaller scale of the action and more of a film-noir atmosphere. Still, most of the major themes of the sequels are already in place: choice, free will, purpose, etc.

The biggest difference between the first film and its sequels is the viewpoint from which the story is told.

In The Matrix, we can readily identify with Neo. He is more or less an Everyman (or Everybattery). We share his disorientation and confusion and of course nothing can ever top the shock of the revelations about the nature of his reality.

In short, the first film is told from a viewpoint within the matrix, looking out. The sequels, on the other hand, can only be told from a viewpoint outside the matrix, exemplified by Zion. As for Neo… well it’s hard to identify with a superhuman messianic figure whose only weakness is self-doubt.

From this standpoint, Neo’s earlier ignorance in his dreamworld existence almost seems like a paradise lost.

That’s certainly the way many fans see it. For them, the first film, with its ambiguity and seemingly limitless possibilites, is like a garden of Eden. The sequels, on the other hand, told from the grim reality of the “real” world seem like a harsh Land of Nod (in its biblical, rather than colloquial, sense).

The truth is, many fans of the original film prefer the programmed reality of the matrix to the grey reality of Zion. It’s from this Zion-centric viewpoint that the sequels are told.

But once you accept this change of viewpoint, and acknowledge that the sequels can never compare to the first film on the same terms, then it’s possible to enjoy them for their own sake.

If anything, the sequels fall down when they try too hard to regain the glories of the first film. They shine when they distance themselves from the “what is real?” conundrum of the first film and concentrate on the issues of fate, causality and, most importantly of all, loads of really cool robots.

My advice to anyone going to see The Matrix Revolutions is not to see it as a Matrix film. Instead, accept it on its own terms: a monumental live action anime film.

My greatest disappointment with The Matrix Revolutions would be its lack of philosophical mumbo-jumbo. One of the reasons I enjoyed Reloaded so much was its unabashed mumbo-jumbo slathered on thick as butter. In Revolutions, entire plot points from Reloaded are dismissed with barely a wave of the hand.

Ah, well. That means more time for guns and robots so I can’t really complain.

Brave Old World

I find it strange to read an article that I completely and utterly disagree with. It’s like being afforded a glimpse into an alien mind.

Dylan Evans published an article in the Guardian called Smash The Windows (I love the title - not for its anti-Microsoft threat but because it happens to be the name of an Irish jig). In it, he argues that computer literacy is as important these days as reading and writing. No argument from me there.

Evans goes even further though and says that not only should everyone be able to use computers, everyone should be able to write code:

“In 50 years, perhaps much less, the ability to read and write code will be as essential for professionals of every stripe as the ability to read and write a human language is today. If your children’s children can’t speak the language of the machines, they will have to get a manual job - if there are any left.”

He goes on to attack the Windows operating system for “tricking” us into believing that computers are all about icons and clicking instead of lines of text. I wonder what he’d make of OS X: a Unix based operating system with an oh-so-pretty graphical user interface that let’s people accomplish complex tasks without knowing anything of the command line.

This guy definitely needs a history lesson in the evolution of the WIMP (Windows Icons Menus Pointers) approach and how it revolutionised the ease of using computers. Evans seems to hanker for the good ol’ days when the word “computer” denoted someone capable of programming inscrutable machines before those meddling kids at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center went and spoilt everything:

“It is only by seeming to go backwards, to the way we interacted with computers before Windows came along, that we can go forwards. Remember DOS or the ZX-80, or the old BBC computer?”

Boy, do I ever! I also remember how glad I am not to have to interact with a modern machine in the same way as I was forced to interact with those venerable ancestors of today’s computers.

Evans anticipates my response and sets up these questions:

“Isn’t this too much of a burden for the average computer user? Shouldn’t we try to force computers to adapt to us as much as possible by giving them user-friendly interfaces and hiding their internal workings? Shouldn’t we be able to get on with our jobs without worrying about what is going inside the black box?”

To which, I would respond “Yes! Yes! A thousand times, YES!”.

Ah, but Evans has a very clever and clearly reasoned argument against that:

“If that is your attitude, fine. If you want to remain inside the dream world of The Matrix, that’s your choice.”


Come to think of it, that’s not a very clever or clearly reasoned argument at all. If I didn’t know better, I would say it sounds like petulant name-calling.

Luckily, I’m fairly sure that most people reading Smash The Windows would be as horrified as I am by its elitist, machine-centric worldview. They might also, like me, wonder how this guy ever managed to get a book published.

I’m just glad that he decided to take up a career in Evolutionary Psychology rather than, say, usability testing for the web. If someone had trouble using a website, he would undoubtably deduce that the fault lay not with the website but rather with the user who was clearly too lazy and/or stupid.

Hmmm… I wonder what he does when he has a problem with his car? Surely he is intimately familiar with the workings of the internal combustion engine.

Sunday, November 9th, 2003

Photoshop Actions

I’d like to share some of my Photoshop actions with you. I use these when I want to “touch up” photographs and add some extra effects.

Photoshop actions

I’ve put together a new article. It’s basically a rundown of some Photoshop actions I use to create nice photographic effects.

There’s a tutorial for soft focus, a drawing effect, a moody filter and a lomo-like action. I’ve also provided a set of the actions for download.


Friday, November 7th, 2003


Wednesday, November 5th, 2003

Less blog, more rock

It looks like I’m going to have to miss the Brighton Bloggers meetup tomorrow night in the Wi-Fi enabled Black Lion pub. There’s a Salter Cane gig happening down at the Freebutt and I have yet to master the art of bilocation.

Sunday, November 2nd, 2003

Oh my God, it's full of rock stars!

All went well with the Salter Cane concert last night. My bout of gastroenteritis had luckily passed by the time the gig rolled ‘round.

So my fears of the evening turning into an Exorcist-like splatterfest proved unfounded. Instead, another movie dominated proceedings when Alaska took to the stage dressed in cosmonaut suits and proceeded to play their entire set with footage from 2001: A Space Odyssey projected behind them.

A Rock Odyssey

Saturday, November 1st, 2003

Rock'n'roll sickness

This is turning out to be the year of nostalgic concerts. Not only did I get to see Ministry a few months back but on Thursday, Jane’s Addiction came to town as part of the BBC’s "One Live" roadshow (the broadcast is archived for another couple of days).

The concert was good, if a little on the short side. Unfortunately, the only souvenir I took home with me was a rather nasty bout of gastroenteritis.

Yesterday was spent alternately shivering and engaging in Linda Blair style projectile vomiting.

Luckily I’m feeling much better today which means that I can safely play the Salter Cane concert tonight at The Sussex Arts Club without issuing a safety warning for the people at the front of the audience.