Archive: December, 2003


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Wednesday, December 31st, 2003

Game on

I’ve been having a nice relaxing christmas time here in Arizona. The only fly in the holiday ointment is a case of the sniffles I appear to have picked up. I just hope it doesn’t interfere with my ability to taste all the regional southwest goodies like burritos, tacos, enchiladas and other not-so-traditional yuletide treats.

My brother in law, Jeb, came home for the holidays (flying in from Seattle). He brought his Playstation 2 with him.

Now, I’ve never spent more than a few minutes before this with a console controller in my hands so it was fun to be introduced to the world of console gaming via Return To Castle Wolfenstein (ironically, a game that is available for the Mac).

I’ve been continuing my indoctrination with the game of The Return Of The King (coming soon to the Mac). It’s very a immersive, if somewhat frustrating experience.

Luckily I don’t have to worry about going on gaming cold turkey once I get back to Brighton. I’ve made the most of the US/UK price differences on software (I think they just swap the dollar sign for a pound sign) and I’ve picked up Aliens vs. Predator 2, Unreal Tournament 2003 and, most exciting of all, Halo for the Mac.

Maybe I should combine it with iMovie and start filming Halo physics experiments.

For all the drubbing that Apple gets about the lack of games for its machines, the state of Mac gaming looks pretty rosy to me right now. So much so that I think I can resist the temptation to get a Playstation 2 of my own.

Thursday, December 25th, 2003

Al Cow-eda

Here in the States right now the Homeland Security threat level is a warm orange colour which roughly translates to “be afraid, be very afraid… but not completely terrified just yet”.

Just to show how vigilant the country needs to be against terrorism, when a case of mad cow disease was found in Washington state, the Agriculture Secretary rushed to assure the public that the case was not terrorist related.

Phew! For a moment there I had visions of airport security screeners profiling crude pantomime cows (or at least the ones with moustaches).

Terrorist cows; what a silly idea. Everybody knows it’s the snakes, hippos and royal bull terriers that you have to watch out for.

Wednesday, December 24th, 2003

Merry Christmas

Nollaig Shona dhiabh, Feliz Navidad, Frohe Weinachten, Glaedelig Jul, Buon Natale, Joyeux Noel…

a Christmas card showing a Christmas tree ornament

Sunday, December 21st, 2003

Christmas starts here

I’m in Arizona.

I flew in yesterday: ten hours from Gatwick to Dallas, a two hour stopover in Dallas, two hours to Phoenix and then a three hour car-ride to Sierra Vista.

It was a fairly exhausting itinerary but it went reasonably well.

Jessica and I flew with American Airlines mostly due to their "more room" campaign. Unfortunately, we ended up in one of the crappier planes in the fleet and the leg room was of the typical cramped variety. We had also chosen our seats online when we booked but they bore no correlation to the seats we actually ended up being assigned.

Still, despite these and other SNAFUs (like they’re being no customs declaration forms on the plane prompting a mad flurry of form filling at the emmigration desk), things went smoothly enough.

The planes were filled with Americans coming home for Christmas including some servicemen, one of whom bore an "Iraqi Freedom" T-shirt.

A T-shirt… of a war. Tasteful.

While waiting at Dallas airport (which is swimming in Wi-Fi, by the way), I heard what sounded like a "Terry Pratchett" being paged for our flight. When we boarded the plane I thought I spotted the Discworld author in first class. But I trust neither my ears when listening to a crackly airport tannoy nor my other senses after a ten hour flight across the Atlantic. So maybe it wasn’t him.

Anyway, my travelling is done for now. All my activities for the next two weeks will be of the decidedly stationary variety and most of them will be epicurean in nature. Food and family are the watchwords of this stateside visit.

Friday, December 19th, 2003

The Return Of The King

I went to see it last night.

Predictably enough, I loved it.

Using the term “cinematic” to mean sweeping vistas, great cinematography and completely immersive environments, it was a truly cinematic experience.

Using the term “cinematic” to mean sitting in a room with five hundred other people (half of whom had winter coughs although nearly everybody was into the movie except for the idiot in the row in front of me trying to impress his date with his quips), noticing blurs and flickers as the reels changed and wishing the sound was louder, then it was in that sense also a truly cinematic experience.

Roll on the DVD release when I will have total power over the viewing experience.

Mind you, I’ll probably go and see it a few more times in the cinema anyway. The first viewing of any of the Lord Of The Rings films is always a bit weird because I’m constantly, against my better judgement, comparing it to the book instead of enjoying it on its own merits. In any case, if The Fellowship Of The Ring and The Two Towers are anything to go by, my enjoyment will increase with each viewing.

Thursday, December 18th, 2003

Patent madness

Here’s a great piece by Maciej Ceglowski celebrating the scientific achievements of the Wright brothers but decrying the intellectual bankruptcy of the patent system that so obsessed them:

"The whole point of patents is supposed to be to encourage innovation, reward entrepreneurship, and make sure useful inventions get widely disseminated. But in this case (and in countless others, in other fields), the practical effect of patents turned out to be to hinder innovation - a patent war erupts, and ends up hamstringing truly innovative technologies, all without doing much for the inventors, who weren’t motivated by money in the first place.

It’s illuminating to point out that all three transformative technologies of the twentieth century - aviation, the automobile, and the digital computer - started off in patent battles and required a voluntary suspension of hostilities (a collective decision to ignore patents) before the technology could truly take hold."

If you want to see how badly the situation has deteriorated since the Wright brothers’ day, take a look at this mockup of a typical web page that infringes no less than twenty different patents.

Tuesday, December 16th, 2003

JavaScript Image Gallery

This article first appeared in issue 170 of A List Apart Magazine. Here’s a quick and easy way of making a one-page gallery that uses JavaScript to load images and their captions on the fly.

Monday, December 15th, 2003

The long debate

It looks like a well-worn chestnut is being resurrected in web design circles (if I may horribly mangle my metaphors).

Richard points out that Dan Cederholm and Doug Bowman have both recently altered their designs to be fixed-width rather than liquid. This was also mentioned recently on Whitespace where it was seized upon as a nail in the coffin of liquid designs.

The fundamental nature of the fixed vs. liquid debate is reflected in the accessibility-centric nature of Richard’s site vs. the (visual) design oriented Whitespace.

I know I’m oversimplifying but it seems to me that a good liquid design seems to place more importance on a site’s audience rather than on its designer.

Fixed-width designs have, for me, an un-webby, print-world feel to them. They seem to be favoured by designers who have made the migration from print without quite grasping the fluid nature of the web as a medium.

This is as good a point as any to mention an oldie but goldie article at A List Apart called “A Dao of Web Design”:

“What I sense is a real tension between the web as we know it, and the web as it would be. It’s the tension between an existing medium, the printed page, and its child, the web.”

It seems to me that, all too often, designers make the decision to go with a fixed width design because it is the easier path to tread. I don’t deny that liquid design can be hard. To make a site that scales equally well to very wide as well as very narrow resolutions is quite a challenge.

That challenge is part of web design. I sometimes get the feeling that too much emphasis is placed on the “design” part and not enough on the “web”.

I’m speaking in general terms here. I’m not talking specifically about Dan Cederholm and Doug Bowman redesigning their personal sites. Personal sites are just that: personal.

I’d be worried, though, if I saw this liquid layout reversal trend extend to established commercial or public information sites.

Sunday, December 14th, 2003

BBEditing PHP

John Gruber has published what is quite possibly the single most useful Applescript I could wish for: PHP Syntax Checking in BBEdit.

It makes use of the fact that the version of PHP that ships with Panther has a command line tool. By connecting the current BBEdit document with that command line tool, the script provides a one-click way of syntax checking and even highlights the line when an error is found.

For the last two months I’ve been doing almost nothing but writing PHP in BBEdit. With this Applescript I’ll be able to reduce the amount of application switching I need to do. Now when I switch to Safari to refresh a PHP page I can do it secure in the knowledge that there won’t be any pesky parse errors cropping up.

BBEdit: now it really doesn’t suck

Thursday, December 11th, 2003

Museum of Middle Earth

Jessica and I went to The Lord Of The Rings exhibition at the Science Museum in London today.

It was pretty amazing to see the costumes, armour and weaponry up-close and personal. I knew from watching the DVD documentaries that a lot of work went into making these things but nothing could prepare me for the sheer richness of detail - detail that a film camera couldn’t possibly capture.

Much of the Rohan armour wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Sutton Hoo collection at The British Museum and the costumes could have been displayed in the V and A. In fact, it felt more like being in a museum of medieval history than a film-making exhibit.

Wonderful stuff. Shame about the tacky gift shop.

Tuesday, December 9th, 2003

Do I have to draw a picture?

I always feel a little funny when I write here about watching DVDs and other domestic activities. After all, many of you haven’t yet had the opportunity to visit my humble abode (but if you’re ever in the neighbourhood, do drop by).

To remedy this situation, I’ve put together a simple diagram of my living quarters, or at least the parts involved with work and leisure.

Jessica and I live in a pretty small flat. We have a separate kitchen and bathroom but our bedroom doubles up as a home office our respective freelancing businesses.

The left side of the room is the work area. It’s dominated by a wooden desk supporting our iMacs. I sit at one end of the desk (bottom left of diagram) and Jessica sits at the other (top left).

The right side of the room is the sleeping/relaxing/leisure area. Or, to use a more common term, bed.

The flat is kind of cramped but the commute to work is extremely short.

When the working day is over, my 17" iMac doubles up as home cinema system. This transformation is achieved by swiveling the screen around 90 degrees so that it now faces the bed.

With the magic of Bluetooth (specifically Salling Clicker, a Sony Ericsson T68i and a USB Bluetooth adaptor), I can control the DVD playing software from the other side of the room. Apart from inserting the disc to begin with, I don’t have to move from my comfy couch potato heaven.

If I do decide to bring my work home with me, so to speak, I can have my iBook with me on the bed connected wirelessly to the internet (the iBook, not the bed). I don’t often engage in this kind of multi-tasking though: mixing business and pleasure and all that.

The other device that completes this unholy alliance of networking protocols is the iSight camera connected via FireWire to the iMac. While I’m watching a movie, it’s snapping a picture every thirty seconds and uploading it to this site. Just because.

That concludes this special geek edition of Cribs.

an aerial diagram of my room showing USB, Bluetooth, FireWire and WiFi devices

Monday, December 8th, 2003

Primitive Piracy

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been enjoying the extended edition DVD of The Two Towers. I’ve also previously made mention of the fact that I’ve been using my iSight as a webcam.

Combine the two and what do you get? A really boring webcam of me watching a DVD.

Okay, what if I move the camera around and point it towards the screen?

Ah, now that’s a far more interesting use of a webcam. Now I’m uploading a screengrab every thirty seconds.

I also make a point of updating my iChat status so that it mentions whatever movie I’m watching. That way, anybody who wants to can swing by my site and experiencing a truly inferior way of watching a movie: you have thirty seconds to silently contemplate one image from the film. Meanwhile, the action is moving on without you and when the image refreshes, you have to figure out what just happened.

Still, it might appeal to the calm, quiet type who doesn’t like their entertainment to be too action packed.

At the other extreme, you could archive each image and when the film is over, put them all together into a Quicktime movie. Actually, this is something that EvoCam does right out of the box.

The result is a super-fast edit of the entire movie - perfect for people who just don’t have time to sit still long enough for the movie’s actual length.

Who knows? In some cases, it might actually be an improvement. My Quicktime version of Solaris has a level of excitement that was missing from the DVD.

But all this raises an interesting question that Pete pointed out to me in an email: am I committing piracy?

Technically, I suppose I am. I guess I’ll have to actually read that blurb that scrolls up at the start of every DVD to find out for sure.

In the meantime, until the MPAA come knocking on my door, I’ll continue to have some iChat iSight EvoCam fun.

a webcam image of my iMac playing a DVD

Saturday, December 6th, 2003

Flash Fun

Stick these in your fat pipe and smoke ‘em:

JoJo In The Stars.

Jackson Pollock.

Space Hijackers Architects.

Friday, December 5th, 2003

We loves it forever

While my days are filled with PHP coding over at Message, I’ve been escaping in the evenings into the world of Middle Earth.

I picked up the extended edition of The Two Towers last week. Jessica and I have been trawling through the documentaries and listening to the many audio commentaries. Mostly we’ve been enjoying those scenes that were cut from the theatrical release.

With forty three minutes of extra scenes, they’re a bit hit and miss. On the whole though, they really add to the enjoyment of the film. An added Gollum scene together with a Faramir flashback are worth the price of the extended edition alone.

The Faramir flashback in particular truly adds to the story. In retrospect, it seems criminal that it wasn’t included in the theatrical release. As a pretty big Tolkien fan I was none too pleased with how Faramir’s character was handled in the Two Towers movie. With the added scene on the DVD however, all is forgiven. It’s like watching a three dimensional figure emerge where previously all had been flat.

I still have many more commentaries to wade through. I’m thoroughly enjoying the experience of immersing myself into the world of J.R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson. It all adds to the excitement in the build-up to the release of Return Of The King.

If that wasn’t enough, Jessica and I are planning to check this out next week.

Monday, December 1st, 2003

Bad web whuffie

Here’s a message I sent earlier through the contact page at Macoholics:


I just wanted to point out a small typo on your site. At the bottom of each page you have a copyright statement that reads: © 2003 This should read © Dan Benjamin of Hivelogic.”

“If you have room, you could replace © with the words ‘shamelessly ripped off from’.

Hope that helps.”

The internet is too small for that kind of thing.

UPDATE: it looks like Macoholics have changed the front page of their site. I’m glad to see they’re doing the right thing. What a shame that they had to be pressured into making the change.

Renaissance theme

One week ago I was in Bologna. I was walking through cobblestoned streets lined with red-roofed old buildings. Many of the buildings were painted in the typical Renaissance style of yellows, browns and oranges.

Geek that I am, I saw these colours and mentally tried to figure out what the nearest web-safe equivalent would be.

A week later, I no longer have to wonder. I spent the day going through my digital snapshots using Photoshop’s eyedropper tool as I went.

It wasn’t purely an exercise in nerdish anal retentiveness. I wanted to create a little momento of my Italian trip. What better way than with a new theme for this site?

I call it the Renaissance theme.

All the photographs are from last week’s trip. So is the tiling background image. Many of the walls had wonderful textures of peeling fresco-like paint.

I must have looked the world’s weirdest tourist as I took close up shots of bits of wall while surrounded by beautiful architecture.