Archive: March, 2004


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Wednesday, March 31st, 2004

The end of the end of the day

I concur:

"Plain English supporters around the world have voted "At the end of the day" as the most irritating phrase in the language."

As anyone who has ever worked with me on a web project will tell you, I dread hearing those words. They’re never used to presage good news. When was the last time you heard somebody say "At the end of the day, the client has decided to increase the budget" or "At the end of the day, the deadline can be pushed back as much as you want"?

I think the most common use for the satanic phrase is in this sentence:

"At the end of the day, the client is paying for this so we have to do what they tell us (subtext: no matter how stupid it is)."

To which I usually respond with something like:

"That isn’t the end of the day. That isn’t even late afternoon. At the end of the day, people need to be able to use this website. And not just at the end of the day either: they need to get up the next day and use it again."

Then I burst a blood vessel.

My tolerance for clichés is slightly greater than my tolerance for clueless clients so I was able to get a kick out of this story consisting entirely of reader-submitted clichés.

Monday, March 29th, 2004

Content management

It has been quiet around here lately, hasn’t it?

As usual, an online lull equates to an offline increase in activity. Specifically, I’ve been working on knocking my home-grown CMS into shape with an eye to releasing to the world.

The thing is… once you start trying to do the right thing with overhauling an existence web app, it’s hard to know when to stop. Just how expandable should it be? How many bells and whistles should it have?

If there are too many features, they can be overwhelming and the development time could well stretch on to an unacceptably long period. On the other hand, if the CMS is too limited then it won’t be of much use to many people.

Then there’s a question of audience: should it be aimed at fellow web-savvy developers or at technophobes who just want to publish online without learning a new technology?

I’m probably going to go for some kind of compromise solution. If I can come up with something that suits the needs of my site and Jessica’s, then it will probably be of some use to somebody out there.

I’m not completely re-inventing the wheel here, by the way. I know there are lots of fantastic pieces of blogging/CMS software out there like Movable Type, TextPattern and WordPress. Most of them require a MySQL database though, and I’m interested in using XML files instead.

I’m also interested in making the writing process as painless as possible. Tools like Textile go a long way to helping but I have some ideas of my own on ways to enter links and images.

I don’t expect to be done with this anytime soon. I seem to be spending an inordanant amount of time staring into space and thinking about how things could work instead of spending time actually making them work.

So, for now, my CMS remains vapourware. I don’t even have a catchy name for it. All the best ones are taken.

I was thinking about giving it a recursive acronym like XMS which could stand for XMS Management System. But that’s silly.

Meanwhile, out in the real world where people are actually accomplishing things instead of just thinking about them, Max Ziebell has written a plug-in for TextPattern that uses my JavaScript image gallery. Now that’s the kind of extensibility you want in a CMS.

Max wrote the code and uploaded it over a satellite connection from his top secret island hideway somewhere in the Mediterranean.

You think I’m joking, don’t you?

Wednesday, March 24th, 2004


I recently completed my first submission for the CSS Zen Garden. It’s called Hirnlego.

I’m afraid my design didn’t quite cut the mustard for the official designs. Instead, Dave Shea came up with a new category for designs like mine: the category is "fun".

For anyone who’s interested, I’ve written up some notes about the process behind the design.

Monday, March 22nd, 2004

Airline madness

I’ve been comparing air fares recently in anticipation of a possible trip to Ireland.

One of the cheaper options would be to fly with Ryan Air. However, on reflection, I think I’d rather have my eyeballs gouged out by rabid monkeys than to give those scum any of my money.

This is from their terms and conditions page:

"For safety reasons Ryanair will carry a maximum of up to four disabled/reduced mobility passengers on any individual flight. Requests for assistance must be made through Ryanair Direct on the same day as your original booking. If the assistance is not booked on the same day then carriage will be refused."

Safety reasons? Safety of the profit margins maybe.

Mind you, I probably won’t be flying with Aer Lingus either. As Pete pointed out, those dinosaurs don’t allow iPods or laptops with CD-Rom and DVD-Rom drives to be used on their flights:

"The rules regarding electronic devices such as iPods and airline safety appear to be unclear in the Irish aviation industry. The main guidelines were written in 1993 - before digital music players nor DVD technology had been invented - by the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) and have not been changed since"

Sunday, March 21st, 2004


How cool is this?…

Dave Grohl has teamed up with Lemmy from Motorhead and formed a new band named after a droid in The Empire Strikes Back.

Not only that, but their first video features the ladies of Suicide Girls, a titilating and standards compliant website.

Man,… those rock stars!

Thursday, March 18th, 2004

Design nourishment

If you’re looking for some stimuli to get the creative juices flowing, look no further than the fantastic Lightboxing organised every month by Veer.

The idea is simple: two designers are given the same lightbox of elements and a theme. It’s like instant death Photoshop Tennis.

Actually, the competitive aspect isn’t really important. The real joy comes from seeing great designs being created. This month’s match is particularly great.

Speaking of creative juices, those orange mad folks at The Chopping Block are putting together a new design for their site. At first I missed the oranges song from their old site but it turns out that it’s still there, just hidden away a bit (listen to the testimonial).

Wednesday, March 17th, 2004

Tour Guide

My friend Diarmaid has been over visiting from Ireland for the past few days.

I’ve been showing him the sights and sounds of Brighton (hence the lack of updates ‘round here). We’ve had afternoon tea at the Grand Hotel, a bracing walk along the beach in blustery weather, a stroll amongst the kitsch of the Palace Pier and the pavilion and a wander around the North Laine.

Diarmaid even got to meet the geeks at the post-SkillSwap drinkypoos in Grand Central on Monday evening.

Having exhausted Brighton’s tourist potential, I took Diarmaid up to the big smoke, mother London yesterday.

We had a stroll around the Tate Modern. I think the signal to noise ratio of the exhibits has improved a bit since I was last there. Diarmaid was particularly taken with The Weather Project.

As we were perusing the world of art indoors, the weather outside in the real world was steadily improving. By the time museum fatigue set in, it was a perfect day for a stroll along the south bank of the Thames.

I dutifully led my friend past all the tourist must-sees from the London Eye, past the Houses of Parliment, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, through Whitehall, passing Downing Street, before emerging under Nelson’s Column at Trafalgar Square.

After a couple of seconds of standing in Trafalgar square watching people get their pictures taken with the statues of that most English of animals, the lion, Diarmaid turned to me and asked with a frown "where are all the pigeons?".

Good question. The square was eerily pigeon free.

It turns out that the pigeons at Trafalgar Square were becoming something of a public health hazard. The mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, passed a by-law prohibiting the feeding of the birds. There was even a proposal to poison the pigeons but that prompted immediate public outrage.

In the end, an ingenious solution was found to keep pigeons out of Trafalgar Square by replacing an old tourist attraction with a new one: the square is patrolled daily by a young Harris Hawk.

A smart move by Red (in tooth and claw) Ken.

Squirt, the hawk, and his owner

Friday, March 12th, 2004

Movie shorts

Here are a couple of amusing little films to close the end of the working week:

Red Alert is a spoof documentary that takes you behind the scenes with the designer of the Homeland Security colour coded Simple Simon terror threat level.

Channel 4 is planning to air an ad featuring a bunch of celebrities saying their favourite swear words. Very naughty.

The Exorcist in 30 seconds (and re-enacted by bunnies) is exactly what it says.

What if, in the future, we had portable devices for interactive movies? Maybe it work something like this fictional iPod 3.

Speaking of movies, here’s a WiKi filled with common narrative tropes and idioms found in TV and film, the Big No for example:

“The moment when a character notices that something awful is about to happen, dives or runs or jumps to prevent it, and (almost always) shouts “Nooooooo.” A slow-motion effect is usually employed to draw out the tension of the moment, sometimes to the point of drawing out the “No” into a comical bass growl.”

I even added an entry: the Spinning Paper.

I’m sure Garth Marenghi must be using that WiKi for all his best ideas.

Project Miroir

I have a new picture up on The Mirror Project that was taken in Paris last weekend.

That makes six.

Springcleaning Stylesheets

I’ve been updating the stylesheets ‘round here. If things look a little screwy, please do adjust your set: refresh until things settle down.

The main change was finally implementing image replacement on the logo (contained in a <h1> tag). Up ‘till now, I’ve actually been using an <img /> tag to point to the logo. I had to use a little bit of PHP to make it point to the correct image for the current "theme". Using the image replacement technique allows better separation of content from display, offloading the selection of the correct image to the stylesheet.

The other change is a bit more unusual.

Adactio is written in XHTML 1.1. The site also sends the content-type "application/xhtml+xml" to conforming user agents, i.e. Mozilla-based browsers (everyone else gets straightforward "text/html").

This is actually really handy for me in that it turns any Mozilla based browser, like Firefox or Camino, into a bug tracker for validation errors. Because the document is being treated as XML, the parser chokes on the first error it comes across (like, say, a stray unencoded ampersand) allowing me to quickly and easily find and fix errors.

Also, it means that my site gets listed in the X-Philes.

An unfortunate side effect of the XML content-type was showing up on the front page of adactio. It appeared that the <body> wasn’t extending to the full height of the browser window as would be expected in a regular (X)HTML document. This meant that any tiling background image (or even background colour) was stopping as soon as the content was done. This left a mass of white space between the end of the content and the bottom of the browser window.

Technically, this behaviour can be seen as being correct. I’ve applied styling to the <body> tag and the <body> finishes before the bottom of the window.

It turns out the the <html> tag also needs to be styled, either by applying the same background image/colour or by explicitly setting the height to 100%.

I went with the second option, thowing the extra <style> declaration into the <head> if the browser was being sent the "application/xhtml+xml" content-type. Unfortunately, this means there’s often an unnecessary vertical scrollbar but it looks a heck of a lot better than it used to.

Mozilla-based browsed may well experience some odd background behaviour in some other pages, e.g. the contact page with the tatemodern theme selected. This is related to absolutely-positioned elements: technically, they’re not part of the document flow so the <body> doesn’t count them as part of its height.

So, while things are still far from perfect, I think they’re an improvement on the way they were.

Tuesday, March 9th, 2004

We'll always have Paris

I’m back from my weekend in Paris.

It was, as always, charming, impressive and quite lovely. Paris conveys that feeling of having centuries of history bound into every building and street in much the same way as London.

On our last visit to Paris, Jessica and I went with the medieval vibe, visiting the Museum of Medieval History and delving into the catacombs. This time, seeing as we were staying in Montparnasse, a district frequented by artists fond of drinking coffee and people watching, we decided to go relatively modern and visit the Museum d’Orsay.

Of course, we still couldn’t pass up the opportunity to step into Notre Dame and St-Germain-des-Pres.

It was a culinary, as well as a cultural, trip. We had our eclairs, croissants, steak frites, cheeses, escargots, oysters and assorted seafood.

Actually, we probably should have stopped before getting to the seafood. Jessica picked up a tummy bug that was probably caused by the immense platter of shellfish we ordered at La Coupole (this was after we had already eaten in the cosy, medieval surroundings of La Coupe Chou).

The tummy bug made the journey back to Brighton something of an ordeal for Jessica. Trying to fly out of Charles De Gaulle airport is a nightmare at the best of times: it’s certainly not something to attempt whilst feeling nauseous. I don’t want to sound like Jakob Nielsen, but that airport is a usability nightmare.

Anyway, tummy bugs and crappy airports aside, a great time was had. The hotel was great (although it did have the world’s smallest lift), the weather was good and Paris was, well… Paris.

If you feel like taking a virtual stroll along the Seine, here are some pictures of my weekend in Paris.

Friday, March 5th, 2004

Paris in the Springtime

When I was in Arizona at Christmas time, the focal point of the seasonal celebration was the exchanging of gifts around the Christmas tree.

For my brother-in-law, Jeb, Jessica and I had brought over some kitschy English souvenirs: a toy mini car and a moneybox in the shape of an English postbox.

Imagine our surprise then, when Jeb presented his gift to us: a weekend in Paris. He booked us a flight from Gatwick to Charles De Gaulle and a hotel room near the Luxembourg Gardens.

Hmm… suddenly the miniature mini and postbox-shaped moneybox don’t seem quite so impressive any more.

So now I’ve given some context to the two things I’m about to say:

Firstly, THANK YOU, JEB!

Secondly, I’M OFF TO PARIS!

I intend to make it an indulgent, epicurean weekend of wine and food. I plan to ingest my own body weight in oysters, langoustines, crossaints, baguettes, eclairs and creme bruleè whilst imbibing some of the finest wines on the face of the planet.

I’ll be sure to take some pictures.

Au revoir!

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2004

Going to the movies

Being Oscar season, this is normally the time for looking back at the films of the past year, singling out the best for praise and the worst for derision.

I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to point to a few films that are due to hit cinema screens in the next year. If the trailers are anything to go by, these are the ones to watch:

M.Night Shyamalan has a new film on the way. It’s called The Village and it looks like a cross between Signs and The Blair Witch Project.

If Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow isn’t jaw-droppingly brilliant then it won’t be living up to the standards set by its trailer. It looks kind of Avalonesque and feels like Indiana Jones.

You’ll notice that with every new movie I’m pointing to, I keep encapsulating it by mentioning two other movies. Now, how am I going to do that with Casshern?

How about… The Matrix meets Brazil?

Nah. Maybe I shouldn’t even try. That’s what the trailers are for.

Of course, there are also those films that, no matter how good their trailers are, you just know are still probably going to suck. The Day After Tomorrow and Alien vs. Predator, I’m looking at you.

Monday, March 1st, 2004

There and back again

I’m back in Brighton after a jolly jaunt in the countryside experiencing Dunstan Orchard’s non-digital social networking experiment. His hospitality was second to none.

It takes a special kind of chutzpah to invite five complete strangers to your house in the country for a weekend. It was a most gratifying experience getting to know everyone better.

For instance, I never knew that Dunstan has no sense of smell. Seriously. As such, it was beholden unto the guests to inform Dunstan that Poppy the wonder dog has a flatulence problem.

Y’see, until we have scratch’n’sniff websites, that’s the kind of thing that still requires real-world interaction.

Given his olfactory handicap, Dunstan did a remarkable job serving up consistently delicous food. The breakfasts were particularly noteworthy; eggs fresh from the henhouse, local sausages and bacon as well as sausages made from boar. It was, in every sense, a meatspace gathering.

We took in the local attractions which consisted mostly of the appealing landscape. The rolling green hills were a sight to behold as was the large-scale geological pr0n carved into a nearby hillside.

Myself, Andy and Richard even managed to squeeze in a quick visit to Stonehenge on our way back to Brighton.

I’ve put together a photo gallery of the weekend although simple snapshots are but a poor substitute for fond memories of a very pleasant time.

Alas, our fears that being invited down to spend a weekend in Dorset by a lone web developer could turn out to be some sort of weird Blair Witch experience proved to be completely justified when Dunstan took us out in the fields in the dead of night and performed unspeakable experiments upon us.