Tags: matter

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Connections: Weak Signals

Tuesday evening saw the inaugural Connections event at 68 Middle Street, home to Clearleft. It was a rousing success—much fun was had by all.

There was a great turn-out. Normally I’d expect a fairly significant no-show rate for a free event (they’re often oversubscribed to account for this very reason), but I was amazed how many people braved the dreadful weather to come along. We greeted them all with free beer, courtesy of Clearleft.

The talks had a nice yin and yang quality to them. Honor talked about darkness. Justin talked about light. More specifically, Honor talked about dark matter and Justin talked about Solarpunk.

Honor made plentiful use of sound during her presentation. Or rather, plentiful use of electromagnetic signals converted into sound: asteroseismology from the sun; transient luminous events in the Earth’s upper atmosphere; the hailstorm as Cassini pirouettes through Saturn’s rings; subatomic particle collisions sonified. They all combined to eerie effect.

Justin’s talk was more down to Earth, despite sounding like a near-future science-fiction scenario: individuals and communities harnessing the power of the photovoltaic solar panel to achieve energy-independence.

There was a beer break between the talks and we had a joint discussion afterwards, with questions from the audience. I was leading the discussion, and to a certain extent, I played devil’s advocate to Justin’s ideas, countering his solar energy enthusiasm with nuclear energy enthusiasm—I’m on Team Thorium. (Actually, I wasn’t really playing devil’s advocate. I genuinely believe that nuclear energy is the cleanest, safest source of energy available to us and that an anti-nuclear environmentalist is a contradiction in terms—but that’s a discussion for another day.)

There was a bittersweet tinge to the evening. The first Connections event was also Honor’s last public speaking engagement in Brighton for a while. She is bidding farewell to Lighthouse Arts and winging her way to a new life in Singapore. We wish her well. We will miss her.

The evening finished with a facetious rhetorical question from the audience for Honor. It was related to the sonification of particle collisions like the ones that produced evidence for “the God particle”, the Higgs boson. “Given that the music produced is so unmusical”, went the question, “does that mean it’s proof that God doesn’t exist?”

We all had a laugh and then we all went to the pub. But I’ve been thinking about that question, and while I don’t have an answer, I do have a connection to make between both of the talks and algorithmically-generated music. Here goes…

Justin talked about the photovoltaic work done at Bell Labs. An uncle of Ray Kurzweil worked at Bell Labs and taught the young Kurzweil the basics of computer science. Soon after, Ray Kurzweil wrote his first computer program, one that analysed works of classical music and then generated its own music. Here it is.

Building Matter

When I was preparing my Responsive Enhancement workshop for last year’s dConstruct, I thought I should create an example site to demonstrate the various techniques I would be talking about to demonstrate how responsive design could be combined with progressive enhancement to make something works great on any device.

Round about that time, while I was scratching my head trying to figure out what the fake example site should be, I got an email from Bobbie asking if I wanted to meet up for a coffee and a chat. We met up and he told me about a project he wanted to do with his colleague Jim Giles. They wanted to create a place for really good long-form journalism on science and technology.

“The thing is,” said Bobbie, “we want to make sure it’s readable on phones, on tablets, on Kindles, everything really. But we don’t know the best approach to take for that.”

“Well, Bobbie, it’s funny you should mention that,” I said. “I’m currently putting together a workshop all about responsive design, which sounds perfect for what you want to do. And I need to create an example site to showcase the ideas.”

It was a perfect match. Bobbie gave me his design principles, personas, and—most importantly—content. In return, he would get a prototype that would demonstrate how that content could be readable on any device; perfect for drumming up interest and investment.

The workshop went really well, and some great ideas came out of the brainstorming the attendees were doing.

A few months later, Bobbie and Jim put the project—now called Matter—up on Kickstarter. They met their target, and then some. Clearly there was a lot of interest in well-written original journalism on the web. Now they had to build it.

They got hold of Phil to do the backend so that was sorted but Bobbie asked me if I knew any kick-ass designers and front-end developers.

“Well, I would love to work on it,” I said. “So how about working with Clearleft?”

“I didn’t think you guys would be available,” he said. “I’d love to work with you!”

And so we began a very fun collaboration. Paul moved his desk next to mine and we started playing around with the visual design and front-end development. Phil and Bobbie came by and we hammered out design principles, user journeys, and all that fun stuff.

Finishing up a great day of project planning with Bobbie and Phil

It was really nice to work on a project where readability took centre stage. “Privilege the reading experience” was our motto.

Paul did some fantastic work, not just on creating a typographic system, but also creating a brand identity including what I think is a really great logo.

Wearing my @ReadMatter T-shirt

I started putting together a system of markup and CSS patterns, using the device lab to test them. Phil started implementing those patterns using Django. It all went very smoothly indeed.

Testing Placekittening

Today is launch day. Matter is live. If you backed the project on Kickstarter, you’ve got mail. If not, you can buy the first issue for a mere 99 cents.

The first piece is a doozy. It’s called Do No Harm:

Why do some people want to amputate a perfectly healthy limb? And why would any doctor help them?

If this is indicative of the kind of work that Matter will be publishing, it will definitely live up to its ambitious promise:

MATTER commissions, crafts and publishes unmissable journalism about science, technology and the ideas shaping our future.

Nashville

I’ve finished my little bout of timezone parkour to Nashville and San Francisco. I attended a conference in each place and enjoyed both in very different ways.

Voices That Matter had an eclectic line-up of speakers. Whereas other conferences are organized around a theme or a set of technologies, the only commonality at this conference, organized by New Riders, is that the speakers have all published books through New Riders. While this means that the conference doesn’t have a specific focus, it does offer a nice varied range of subjects. Talks ranged from the specifics of using CSS for colour, typography and layout right through to discussions of user-testing and social networking.

I enjoyed getting the nitty-gritty details of CSS fonts from Jason Cranford Teague. He and Richard are clearly kindred spirits. The revelation of the conference for me was hearing a great hands-on presentation from Zoe Mickley Gillenwater on liquid and elastic layouts. Okay, so I might be a bit biased but I think it’s great that this subject is getting coverage and Zoe is just the person to do it. She’s currently writing a book for New Riders on this neglected area of web design. It should be out by December. Pre-order it now.

For my part, I gave a half-day workshop on Bulletproof Ajax, which seemed to go well, and I reprised a talk I had given once before called Microformats: what are they and why do I care?

I missed a few talks because I was whisked away to be interviewed for a future video podcast. Under the very professional-looking lights and cameras, I participated in a one-on-chat and also a thoroughly enjoyable discussion with Christopher Schmitt and Steve Krug. I missed more talks because I wanted to get outside the hotel and explore Nashville a bit. The highlight of that exploration was getting a guided tour —thanks to Ari—around the historic Hatch Show Print where they have been making letterpress posters for musicians for over a century; a great place to soak up some design inspiration.

My ulterior motive for escaping from the conference hotel was to seek out a mandolin for myself. I went to the Gibson outlet store at the Opry Mills shopping mall on the outskirts of town but even the cheapest mandolin there was still beyond my price range. They sure were a pleasure to play, though. Fortunately for me, I stumbled across a flea market in the same mall where I happened upon a cheap second-hand epiphone. It’s not brilliant but it’s suitable for my purposes; a decent little instrument that I can take travelling with me. I’ve got a suitable travel bag to go with it. It has the shape of a tennis racket case but all the pockets of a laptop bag. I may even try to pass myself off as some kind of freakish sporty geek hybrid.

All in all, I think I managed to get a good look around Nashville and get plenty out of the conference too. I was only there for a few days before it was time for me to head on to San Francisco for Supernova 2008. That was a different kettle of thought-leading fish.

Voices that natter

The Voices That Matter conference just wrapped up here in San Francisco. My talk was the last one of the day apart from a lightning round of two-minute takeaway points from a phalanx of speakers, moderated by myself.

My presentation was entitled Microformats: what are they and why do I care? You can download a PDF of the slides. The presentation is licensed under a Creative Commons attribution license so do with it as you please.

The talk went okay—I have the horrible feeling that there were quite a few “um”s and “ah”s peppered throughout. I made sure to leave plenty of time for questions and, as usual, the questions turned out to be the best part. Tantek took notes of the Q&A and I’ve published them on the wiki page for the event (if you were at the presentation be sure to add yourself to the list of attendees).

When he wasn’t taking notes, Tantek was diligently folding cheat sheets for the attendees. They were popular. If you weren’t lucky enough to get a pre-folded one, you can always print out and fold your own pocket cheat sheet courtesy of Erin.

And now, with my speaking duties fulfilled, I’ve got a day to spend in San Francisco before I head home. I intend to make the most of it. If you’d like to join me in soaking up the last of the California sunshine, come along to the picnic tables in South Park at noon tomorrow (Friday) for a geek picnic. Be there or be even more square.