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Brian Aldiss

After the eclipse I climbed down from the hilltop and reconnected with the world. That’s when I heard the news. Brian Aldiss had passed away.

He had a good innings. A very good innings. He lived to 92 and was writing right up to the end.

I’m trying to remember the first thing I read by Brian Aldiss. I think it might have been The Billion Year Spree, his encyclopaedia of science fiction. The library in my hometown had a copy when I was growing up, and I was devouring everything SF-related.

Decades later I had the great pleasure of meeting the man. It was 2012 and I was in charge of putting together the line-up for that year’s dConstruct. I had the brilliant Lauren Beukes on the line-up all the way from South Africa and I thought it would be fun to organise some kind of sci-fi author event the evening before. Well, one thing led to another: Rifa introduced me to Tim Aldiss, who passed along a request to his father, who kindly agreed to come to Brighton for the event. Then Brighton-based Jeff Noon came on board. The end result was an hour and a half in the company of three fantastic—and fantastically different—authors.

I had the huge honour of moderating the event. Here’s the transcript of that evening and here’s the audio.

That evening and the subsequent dConstruct talks—including the mighty James Burke—combined to create one of the greatest weekends of my life. Seriously. I thought it was just me, but Chris has also written about how special that author event was.

Brian Aldiss, Jeff Noon, and Lauren Beukes on the Brighton SF panel, chaired by Jeremy Keith

Brian Aldiss was simply wonderful that evening. He regaled us with the most marvellous stories, at times hilarious, at other times incredibly touching. He was a true gentleman.

I’m so grateful that I’ll always have the memory of that evening. I’m also very grateful that I have so many Brian Aldiss books still to read.

I’ve barely made a dent into the ludicrously prolific output of the man. I’ve read just some of his books:

  • Non-stop—I’m a sucker for generation starship stories,
  • Hothouse—ludicrously lush and trippy,
  • Greybeard—a grim vision of a childless world before Children Of Men,
  • The Hand-reared Boy—filthy, honest and beautifully written,
  • Heliconia Spring—a deep-time epic …and I haven’t even read the next two books in the series!

Then there are the short stories. Hundreds of ‘em! Most famously Super-Toys Last All Summer Long—inspiration for the Kubrick/Spielberg A.I. film. It’s one of the most incredibly sad stories I’ve ever read. I find it hard to read it without weeping.

Passed by a second-hand book stall on the way into work. My defences were down. Not a bad haul for a fiver.

Whenever a great artist dies, it has become a cliché to say that they will live on through their work. In the case of Brian Aldiss and his astounding output, it’s quite literally true. I’m looking forward to many, many years of reading his words.

My sincerest condolences to his son Tim, his partner Alison, and everyone who knew and loved Brian Aldiss.

Salt of the Earth

It’s Summertime in England so Jessica and I are eating the bounty of the season. Now is the perfect time for lamb. Yesterday we went to the Open Market and picked up half a leg of lamb (butterflied) from Tottington Manor Farm. This evening, we marinated it with rosemary, thyme, garlic, olive oil, and lemon and then threw it on the barbecue.

While we ate, we listened to a podcast episode. This time it was a documentary about salt from my Huffduffer feed. It’s an entertaining listen. As well as covering the science and history of salt, there were some interesting titbits on salt-based folklore. There’s the obvious one of throwing spilt salt over your shoulder (in to the eyes of the devil, apparently) but there was also one that neither of us had heard of: that offering someone salt at the dinner table is bad luck and warrants the rebuttal “pass me salt, pass me sorrow!”

Well, you live and learn.

Then we started thinking about other salt-based traditions. I have something in the back of my mind about a new year’s eve tradition in Ireland involving throwing bread at the door and sprinkling salt in the doorway. Jessica remembered something about a tradition in eastern European countries involving bread and salt as a greeting. Sure enough, a quick web search turned up the Russian tradition: “Хлеб да соль!!” ( “Bread and salt!”).

This traditional greeting has been extended off our planet. During the historic Apollo-Soyuz docking, crackers and salt were used as an easy substitute. But now when cosmonauts arrive at the International Space Station, they are greeted with specially-made portions of bread and salt.

We finished listening to the podcast. We finished eating our lamb—liberally seasoned with Oregonian salt from Jacobson. Then we went outside and looked up at the ISS flying overhead. When Oleg, Gennady, and Mikhail arrive back on Earth, they will be offered the traditional greeting of bread and salt.

100 words 075

Today was a Salter Cane practice day. It was a good one. We tried throwing some old songs at our new drummer, Emily. They stuck surprisingly well. Anomie, Long Gone, John Hope …they all sounded pretty damn good. To be honest, Emily was probably playing them better than the rest of us.

It was an energetic band practice so by the time I got home, I was really tired. I kicked back and relaxed with the latest copy of Spaceflight magazine from the British Interplanetary Society.

Then I went outside and watched the International Space Station fly over my house.

100 words 022

I spent the day in London. As my train arrived back in Brighton, it was enveloped in a chilly fog. The whole town was bedecked in an eerie seaside mist—not an uncommon Brighton phenomenon.

Fortunately the fog cleared by the time the ISS made its way across the sky this evening. It was a beautiful sight.

I was hoping to also look for a Dragon capsule on its resupply mission shortly afterwards. Alas, the launch was scrubbed. I got lucky with the weather; SpaceX, not so much.

Perhaps tomorrow will bring better fortune. I’ll be looking to the sky.

August in America, day eighteen

UX Week kicked off today. It’s a four-day event: one day of talks, followed by two days of workshops, followed by another day of talks. I’ll be spending all of the third day doing workshops back-to-back.

Bizarrely, even though it’s a four-day event, they only offer speakers three nights of accommodation. Seems odd to me: I would’ve thought they’d want us to stick around for the whole thing.

So, as I don’t get my hotel room until tomorrow, today I had to make my way from Tantek’s place in the Haight all the way over to the Mission Bay Conference Center—a fairly long MUNI ride. Alas, that meant I missed Steven Johnson’s opening talk. Curses!

Fortunately I did make it time for Ian Bogost’s talk, which was excellent.

In the afternoon, I walked over to Four Barrel, the excellent coffee shop that was celebrating its fifth birthday. They had a balloons, a photo both, a petting zoo, games, and best of all, free coffee. Tom popped by and we had a lovely time chatting in the sun (and drinking free coffee).

Seeing as I was in the Mission anyway, it would’ve been crazy not to have a mission burrito, so a trip to Papalote quickly followed. Best of all, Erin popped by. Then, as we were heading home via Dolores Park, we met up with Ted. Just like I hoped!

Twitter permissions

Twitter has come in for a lot of (justifiable) criticism for changes to its API that make it somewhat developer-hostile. But it has to be said that developers don’t always behave responsibly when they’re using the API.

The classic example of this is the granting of permissions. James summed it up nicely: it’s just plain rude to ask for write-access to my Twitter account before I’ve even started to use your service. I could understand it if the service needed to post to my timeline, but most of the time these services claim that they want me to sign up via Twitter so that I can find my friends who are also using the service — that doesn’t require write access. Quite often, these requests to authenticate are accompanied by reassurances like “we’ll never tweet without your permission” …in which case, why ask for write-access in the first place?

To be fair, it used to be a lot harder to separate out read and write permissions for Twitter authentication. But now it’s actually not that bad, although it’s still not as granular as it could be.

One of the services that used to require write-access to my Twitter account was Lanyrd. I gave it permission, but only because I knew the people behind the service (a decision-making process that doesn’t scale very well). I always felt uneasy that Lanyrd had write-access to my timeline. Eventually I decided that I couldn’t in good conscience allow the lovely Lanyrd people to be an exception just because I knew where they lived. Fortunately, they concurred with my unease. They changed their log-in system so that it only requires read-access. If and when they need write-access, that’s the point at which they ask for it:

We now ask for read-only permission the first time you sign in, and only ask to upgrade to write access later on when you do something that needs it; for example following someone on Twitter from the our attendee directory.

Far too many services ask for write-access up front, without providing a justification. When asked for an explanation, I’m sure most of them would say “well, that’s how everyone else does it”, and they would, alas, be correct.

What’s worse is that users grant write-access so freely. I was somewhat shocked by the amount of tech-savvy friends who unwittingly spammed my timeline with automated tweets from a service called Twitter Counter. Their reactions ranged from sheepish to embarrassed to angry.

I urge you to go through your Twitter settings and prune any services that currently have write-access that don’t actually need it. You may be surprised by the sheer volume of apps that can post to Twitter on your behalf. Do you trust them all? Are you certain that they won’t be bought up by a different, less trustworthy company?

If a service asks me to sign up but insists on having write-access to my Twitter account, it feels like being asked out on a date while insisting I sign a pre-nuptial agreement. Not only is somewhat premature, it shows a certain lack of respect.

Not every service behaves so ungallantly. Done Not Done, 1001 Beers, and Mapalong all use Twitter for log-in, but none of them require write-access up-front.

Branch and Medium are typical examples of bad actors in this regard. The core functionality of these sites has nothing to do with posting to Twitter, but both sites want write-access so that they can potentially post to Twitter on my behalf later on. I know that I won’t ever want either service to do that. I can either trust them, or not use the service at all. Signing up without granting write-access to my Twitter account isn’t an option.

I sent some feedback to Branch and part of their response was to say the problem was with the way Twitter lumps permissions together. That used to be true, but Lanyrd’s exemplary use of Twitter for log-in makes that argument somewhat hollow.

In the case of Branch, Medium, and many other services, Twitter authentication is the only way to sign up and start using the service. Using a username and password isn’t an option. On the face of it, requiring Twitter for authentication doesn’t sound all that different to requiring an email address for authentication. But demanding write-access to Twitter is the equivalent of demanding the ability to send emails from your email address.

The way that so many services unnecessarily ask for write-access to Twitter—and the way that so many users unquestioningly grant it—reminds me of the password anti-pattern all over again. Because this rude behaviour is so prevalent, it has now become the norm. If we want this situation to change, we need to demand more respect.

The next time that a service demands unwarranted write-access to your Twitter account, refuse to grant it. Then tell the people behind that service why you’re refusing to sign up.

And please take a moment to go through the services you’ve already authorised.

Getting Your Designs Approved

Larissa Meek takes to the stage to talk about getting design sign-off. She’s got 12 simple rules but remember, every client is different so these kind of cover the best-case scenario.

In the ideal scenario, the client loves your first round of comps. In reality, you get comments like I don’t like blue, make the logo bigger or something is missing. That last one is particularly frustrating as a piece of feedback.

Remember, design is subjective—everyone has a different idea about what constitutes good design. Another problem is that comps aren’t interactive. Also, it can be hard for a client to grasp new, innovative ideas. The reason why everyone has an opinion on Web design is that everyone uses the Web.

  1. Make friends with your client. Your client is not your enemy. They get as frustrated as you. Try to see things from their point of view. A lot of them are overworked; this Web thing might not be the only project they are juggling.

  2. Ask lots of questions. What are the business objectives? What does the client want to get out of the site? This might differ from what the user might want from the site. Consider the hot dog. It’s basically a piece of meat on some bread. How would you ask questions about hot dogs… what are hot dogs? why are they called hot dogs? why are they kosher? what does kosher mean? why are hot dog buns longer than the hot dogs? what’s the best way to cook a hot dog? why are hot dogs associated with baseball? hot dogs? hot dogs? hot dogs? …the hot dog entertainment is interrupted as Larissa’s Windows laptop attempts an auto-update. Whoops.

  3. Ask more questions — who will be using the site? Sometimes the client hasn’t really considered this question. User profiles help. These are often overlooked but they help in those tough spots with the client when you need ammunition to justify a design decision. You can argue that you’re doing what’s best for a user rather than just defending your own opinion.

  4. Use wireframes but don’t be tied to them. Clients can’t always make the leap to visualise how wireframes will differ from the final product. But wireframes are a great conversation starter. Together you can answer a lot of questions before getting to the design stage. This gets them to think about functionality and see things from the user’s point of view. Walk your clients through wireframes. Try to use real copy instead of greeked text. Larissa also things that wireframes should be “to scale” but to me that sounds like she means layout. (Personally, I consider that to be a design decision. Hierarchy in wireframes, yes; layout, no. Larissa says that subtle changes are okay. I guess we just draw the line in a slightly different place.)

  5. Talk about design before you even open up Photoshop. Try to nail mood and colour before you start creating comps. The client’s input is important at this stage. If the client has a style guide, you must understand it. You can give the client site examples and colour palettes. Create a quick mood board.

  6. One design direction will do. Too many options are overwhelming. The client will probably like a little bit from each design and you end up with a piecemeal design cobbled together from various bits. Really, at this stage you should be focused on one design direction. Designing should not be like a take-out menu.

  7. Present in the browser. Don’t just email it. You can send additonal documentation but you really need to walk a client through a design in a browser. Your client might have to sell the design on to the next person in the chain so they need to know how to walk through the design.

  8. Prototype as needed. Not every site needs it but for Web apps, it’s very important. Prototypes help you figure out things from a user’s point of view. Fireworks is a good tool for this.

  9. Ask for consolidated feedback and limited rounds of revisions. Try to avoid committees. You don’t want to be getting contradictory feedback in bits and pieces. You’ll probably need to educate your client in how the feedback round should work. Too much haphazard feedback leads to scope creep. Control the feedback and you can keep your project on track. Too many cooks spoil the broth. Remember, everyone has a different opinion on what constitutes good design. Help your clients focus. Ask for specific feedback.

  10. Be confident in your work. This can be difficult for new designers and also for freelancers who don’t have the support of a team. You have to be confident so you don’t go to your client asking hey, is this right? Instead, you want to explaining the informed the design decisions you made.

  11. Time will tell. A lot of clients don’t realise what goes into a site. It takes time for them to learn. It’s easier with clients you’ve worked with before. Getting sign-off is easier once a relationship has been established.

  12. Make the most of a difficult situation. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. It’s easy to get frustrated in a design project. You need to take a step back and rediscover what it is you love about the project. Try to focus on the positive and move forward in an optimistic way. Then you’ll feel like you’re working with the client instead of against them.

Those are the twelve points. As is this The Future of Web Design conference, let’s ask what’s the future of getting designs approved? What are the best practices? It’s hard to tell. Every project is different. Every designer is different. But there is a Society of Digital Agencies which is intended as a platform for designers to figure out the best processes and guidelines. It has 18 “leading” digital agencies apparently.

To wrap, remember that the 12 rules outlined here are a best-case scenario. Come to terms with the fact that no project goes exactly to plan. Larissa now reiterates the 12 points in case we missed them the first time ‘round.

Conceptual and photographic art in Brighton

Spring is in the air here in Brighton. The sun is showing its face, people are rediscovering their skimpier clothes and a young man’s fancy turns to… art.

Clearleft’s landlords, Lighthouse, have organised an interesting exhibit in the foyer. It’s the latest project from the Blast Theory collective. They call it Day of the Figurines:

Day Of The Figurines is part board game, part secret society. The game is set in a fictional town that is littered, dark and underpinned with steady decay.

The foyer is currently dominated by a table covered in miniature building facades and populated by tiny -like homonculi. Visitors to the exhibit can register their mobile phone numbers, claim figurines as their own and give them names and back-stories. For 24 days, they can partake in a kind of SMS-based adventure game. The figures will obey commands sent from their owner’s phones, have adventures and interact with other figurines (this part isn’t handled by any high-tech robotics: there are two people stationed in the foyer who update the figurine positions every hour).

I’ve registered a figurine of my own. His adventure begins tomorrow.

In a slightly more traditional vein, there’s a nice photography exhibition currently running a stone’s throw away from the Clearleft offices in Brighton’s trendy North Laine. Miss Aniela—she of Flickr fame—is displaying a selection of her online work.

It’s interesting to see the pictures outside of the confines of the browser. The descriptions for each picture come straight from Flickr so technically there shouldn’t be anything new to be had from the exhibition but it’s still quite gratifying to behold the pictures in a non-pixel format. Call it the Moo effect.

Day of the Figurines runs from April 4th to 27th at Lighthouse, 28 Kensington Street, Brighton.

Miss Aniela is showing from April 6th to 30th at the North Laine Photography Gallery, 7-8 Kensington Gardens, Brighton.