Archive: April, 2004


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Friday, April 30th, 2004

Songs from the web

iTunes 4.5 was released earlier this week.

The upgrade has some nifty new features but most of the music store features don’t apply to me: I’m a humble European, unable to hand over my money to legally download songs.

Is it any wonder that people use file-sharing software?

One of the features I can use, however, is the ability to publish playlists on the iTunes music store. It’s a feature that’s bound to appeal to anyone who could relate to High Fidelity.

I decided to give it a whirl and I put together a little playlist. I give you songs from the web:

"Every one of these songs was downloaded over the internet but not through the iTunes Music Store and not through file sharing software: they’re all available free and legally directly from the artists’ websites."

If you like the songs, and you live in the States, you can buy them through the iTunes music store. For the rest of us, we’ll just have to visit the websites and go to the concerts by My Morning Jacket, British Sea Power, Okkervil River and others.

Tuesday, April 27th, 2004

Irish spring break

I’m back in Brighton after my short break in Ireland. For those of you uninterested in travelogues and holiday snaps, look away now.

Jessica and I flew into Dublin airport on Wednesday where we met up with Jeb and Justin. The airport was packed with the families of Irish soldiers who had been away serving with the UN. It was a bit disconcerting to walk out and face a sea of anxious, excited people. Every time someone in uniform walked out, a cheer went up.

We hopped in a taxi to our hotel. As the one person in our group capable of understanding a Dublin taxi driver, I sat up front.

Once we got to the hotel, I made a call to my good friend Diarmaid. We all met up and went into town to engage in the Dublin custom of "having a few scoops".

This was my first time being in an Irish pub since the introduction of the ban on smoking. It was… different. I couldn’t tell if the subdued atmosphere in the pub was due to the lack of smoke or simply the fact that it was a midweek night.

The next morning however, I noticed a big difference. For the first time, my clothes from the night before didn’t stink of smoke.

After a morning stroll around Dublin, we piled into our rental car and started going in a westerly direction. Navigating out of the city was a little tricky but once we left Dublin behind us, everything went smoothly. Jeb was a dab hand at driving on the left, taking every roundabout with ease.

After a leisurely drive, including a lunchtime stop in Athlone, we arrived in Galway in the early evening. After settling in at our bed and breakfast, it was time to hit the town.

I love Galway. Who doesn’t? It’s a beautiful medieval town with a vibrant social scene i.e. the pubs are great. It’s also home to one of the finest seafood restaurants in the country. That’s where we ate, but not before I had met up with an old friend for a pint in Tigh Coili’s.

Drinking a good pint, listening to some great tunes and chatting with an old friend: it doesn’t get much better than that.

Before the night was over we had sampled the pints in a further two pubs, all of them good.

The next day was mostly spent inside the car. We were a bit ambitious with our plan to get from Galway to Kerry via the cliffs of Moher, but we managed it. Mind you, we did get completely lost somewhere along the way in the middle of county Clare. Still, driving down tiny roads with incomprehensible signs is all part of the Irish tourist experience.

So while the navigating wasn’t great, from a culinary point of view the day was a great success. We drove out to Doolin specifically to go to McGann’s where the Irish stew and seafood chowder are second to none.

After a day of looking at the scenery and castles of Clare, we ended up making it all the way to Killarney in the evening. Being a tourist mecca, finding a B&B took no time at all.

Killarney is where Diarmaid’s family lives so I gave him a call and found out which pub his father normally pops into on a Friday night. I hadn’t seen Diarmaid’s dad in over ten years but when I walked into the pub, he recogised me straight away.

As well as having a good old natter about times past, Diarmaid’s dad also passed on some useful local sporting info to Jeb and Justin. They wanted to go golfing and they had come to the right place. You can’t swing a cat in Killarney without hitting a golf course.

The next morning, having no interest in swinging cats or golf clubs, Jessica and I went for a walk through Killarney national park while the Jeb and Justin hit a little white ball around the countryside.

After walking through the chocolate-box-cover scenery down to Ross castle, we hopped on a horse and cart back to town where we met up with the golfers.

Our driving itinerary for the day was mercifully short. We went on a short and simple drive from Killarney to my hometown of Cobh in county Cork. My mother was happy to see us and took us all out for a meal at the rather excellent Jacob’s Ladder restaurant.

Afterwards we retired to the pub and met up with my old friend Gerard. We weren’t planning to stay long but the Murphys was flowing freely, we had a lot to talk about and there was no cigarette smoke driving us out.

The benefits of the clean atmosphere became apparent the next day. Despite imbibing many pints of Cork’s finest, my head was remarkably clear. My voice, on the other hand, was extremely rough but that was due to the volume of the pub stereo. There are no plans for any legislation on noise pollution in Irish pubs.

It was our last day so we drove back to Dublin, stopping at the Rock of Cashel along the way. We made good time, even managing to get to the Guinness storehouse before heading to the airport for our flight.

One short flight later and our holiday was over. Looking back, we managed to pack a heck of a lot of sightseeing into such a short time. Amazingly, the weather was really good the whole time. I put this down to the fact that I didn’t bring my sunglasses: if I had, it would have rained the whole time.

Enough talk. Here are the pictures.

Tuesday, April 20th, 2004

Into the west

I’ve been pretty busy lately and not just with web-related stuff.

My band, Salter Cane, played a concert in London on the weekend. We’ve also been in the studio. Feel free to download the fruits of our labour, distributed with a Creative Commons Music Sharing License.

I’ve also been schmoozing with my fellow geeks. There was a SkillSwap event last night on OS X. The geekiness continued afterwards at one of Brighton’s free Wi-Fi enabled pubs.

Mostly though, I’ve been working. When I’m not doing paid work, I spend my time working on my vapourware Content Management System.

I say "working on". Actually I mean "thinking about".

I say "thinking about". Actually I mean "playing Unreal Tournament".

Anyway, all procrastination and no play makes Jeremy a dull boy. So I’m skipping town for a few days.

I’m off to the oul’ country. My brother-in-law, Jeb, just flew in from Seattle. Tomorrow, we’re heading off to Ireland: myself, Jessica, Jeb and Jeb’s friend, Justin.

Once we get there, the plan is to rent a car and head in a general westerly direction. We’ll only have a few days but I’m hoping we can hit all the best spots: Galway (for the music), West Clare (for the cliffs), Dingle (for everything about Dingle) and Cork (for the pints).

I’m bringing my camera and I intend to use it.

Friday, April 16th, 2004

Revenge of the DOM

There’s a new article up at A List Apart called Let Them Eat Cake. It’s all about using JavaScript, or more accurately the Document Object Model, to hide and show content on demand.

The example given goes a little far in that it basically replicates the browser functionality but this technique can be very, very effective when you have a lot of content but you don’t want to overwhelm the user. I’ve used a similar technique for the tabbed interface over at The Session for years and I also tried it on the website for IN Partnership.

The nice thing about this technique is that it’s completely backwards compatible. By using internal links, browsers without JavaScript still have access to everything in the document. The DOM trickery adds an extra level of usability but because the document is well-structured to begin with, the content is accessible with or without JavaScript.

Sound familiar? Substitute “CSS” for “JavaScript”. It’s basically the same philosophy.

Over at Digital Web there’s an article that goes into this in more detail: Separating behavior and structure. It’s written by Peter-Paul Koch who has written some real nonsense in his time, but he’s right on the money with his approach to the DOM:

“I propose to separate behavior and structure. Right here, right now.

I call upon all Web developers to stop writing JavaScript instructions in XHTML files.”

The idea of separating content, presentation and behaviour isn’t a new one for programmers. Yet it’s only now that we’re seeing a real movement to apply this to (X)HTML documents. Why so late?

Speaking as someone who dived into DHTML way back when, I know that a lot of us developers got our fingers burnt. It was the height of the browser wars and every browser manufacturer seemed to have its own DOM. Doing the simplest thing involved writing ridiculously convuluted wrappers to make things work in all browsers.

Fast forward to today. The DOM has been standardised and that standard is firmly entrenched in all the major browsers.

DHTML is back.

Wednesday, April 14th, 2004

Laughing stock

Here’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of over-reliance on stock photography:

"The voice mail from the client was so angry, it was nearly incoherent. after listening to the message six times in super slow mode, I concluded the client was upset about the photo of a woman we used (and they approved) on the client’s home page. The client claimed the woman was a sleazy sex therapist or some thing to that affect."

Tuesday, April 13th, 2004

Turning Japanese

If you happen to be in Brighton and you like Japanese food, be sure to check out the Murasaki cafe/bar on Dyke Road (near Seven Dials).

Jessica and I went there for lunch today. The noodles and sushi were excellent.

I had a hankering for Japanese food (notice how I resisted the urge to say I had a yen for it) after spending the morning talking to Pete about his recent trip to Tokyo.

As usual, he has returned laden with gadgets. This time, he also brought back a gift for me.

From a toy-vending machine I have my very own homunculus with its very own Pantone colour.

a small blue toy

Thursday, April 8th, 2004

Unreal Tech Support

When I was in Arizona at Christmas time, I picked up some games for my Mac. Since then I’ve been happily playing Halo, not so happily playing Aliens vs. Predator 2 (it’s not a patch on the original) and not playing Unreal Tournament 2003 at all.

I haven’t been playing Unreal Tournament 2003 at all because it wouldn’t start up. After the somewhat lengthy install process, I clicked on the game icon, was presented with a startup screen… and then the game quit. Checking the error log, I found the line “Can’t find file for package ‘ParticleMeshes’” popping up a lot.

I tried re-installing. I tried the online support. I tried scouring the web to find anybody with similar problems. It seemed I was alone.

So I sent off an email to the folks at MacSoft explaining my troubles. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to get a very useful response. I thought I’d be told that my computer was at fault or that I should take the game back to the shop for a refund.

To my surprise, the response I received was:

“Hi Jeremy,

Sounds like a bad disk. Send me your address and I will ship you a new set.”

I sent my address. The MacSoft Tech Support people in America passed on my address to their British counterparts at Softline UK and they popped the CDs into the post.

The CDs arrived today. Once again, I went through the whole install process. This time, everything went like clockwork. I’m back in fragging business.

I’m impressed. In this age of playing call-centre phone tag and buck-passing, it’s refreshing to find some straight-up real-world bug tracking.

Many thanks to Greg Grimes at MacSoft and Glenn Stokes at Softline UK.

Wednesday, April 7th, 2004

What is Web Design?

"Who are we? Why are we here?"

These are questions that have vexed and taxed us for countless generations. Now, at the start of the 21st century, we have a new head-scratcher to add to the list…

"What is Web Design?"

Andy says that Web Design is Information Design. Andrei makes the case for for Interface Design. I’m leaning towards Keith’s zen-like solution that Web Design is Web Design.

Doubtless, this question will be tackled by the keenest philosphical minds for years to come… or maybe months to come… weeks, perhaps… a couple of days, for sure… at least five minutes.

In the meantime, however you want to define it, I’ve been doing it.

I’ve been hammering away at Photoshop for the last week trying to kick start a website redesign project by coming up with a kick-ass graphic design/user interface/call it what you will.

Normally, web projects begin with requirements gathering, figuring out what the goals of the site are, who will be using the site, etc. For this project though, all I’ve got to work with is a logo and an outline of what the company does.

There’s nothing like a challenge to inspire motivation. At least, that’s what I kept telling myself as I churned out some pretty awful designs.

"Jessica!" I cried, "they’re all crap! Just look at this rubbish".

Luckily, my lovely wife patiently reminded me that this happens every time. I struggle with the design, I wrestle with it, I try out countless variations and ideas, I try taking breaks from the computer, I get a distant look in my eye when I should paying attention to other things, I struggle and wrestle some more until finally, almost in one moment, everything clicks.

She’s right. After days and days of discouraging failure I had my Archimedes-in-the-bathtub moment. I wish I could bottle that feeling.

To paraphrase Thomas Edison, Web Design is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. Just for once though, it would be nice to have that one percent at the start of the process.

Of course I hadn’t reached my 99 percent perspiration quota by merely spending countless hours in Photoshop. Oh no, for real perspiration I had to turn the graphic design into a working XHTML/CSS layout.

Time to fire up my text editor of choice (BBEdit, I kiss you!). As it turned out, getting the design working in standards-compliant browsers like Safari and Firefox took a matter of moments. It was when I fired up Virtual PC and started trying to get it to work in Internet Explorer 5 on Windows that I really started riding the perspiration train.

Many hours later, after uttering a multitude of curses upon the beast from Redmond, I finally had it looking and working the same across all the major browser/platform combos.

You know I’d just love to share the results with you but the usual non-disclosure agreements apply. You’ll just have to wait until the site relaunches. That is, assuming the design won’t have changed beyond all recognition by then. I may need to keep a few pints of perspiration in reserve for the task of defending the design.

So now that I’ve shared a little insight into what I’ve been up to for the past week you may think I could make a stab at answering the question that sparked all this off:

"What is Web Design?"

Is it Graphic Design? Is it Information Design? Is it Interface Design? Is it a bowl of cherries?

Web Design is all of these and more. It’s a many-splendoured thing. If you had asked me last week, I would have said that Web Design is hell. But if you were to ask me now, I would probably say:

"Um… I dunno. Look, I’m kinda busy right now. Could you ask me another time?"

Beatallica on the brat

Beatallica perform Beatles songs in the style of Metallica.

That’s pretty good, but not a patch on Gabba who perform Abba songs in the style of The Ramones.