• 'The concept of “too big to fail” is under siege at the moment. The fact that a company, product or service is so clearly dominant and relied upon is no guarantee of its survival.
    In particular, I make this point in regards to Web applications, cloud computing, putting your data online — whatever you want to call it. Over the past decade, consumers have been relying on Web-hosted services to house their information more and more, and on independent stores of data on their personal computers less and less.' Interesting observations from Khoi Vinh.
    ( tags: economy internet )


just a thought

Sometimes, when I’m struggling to get something to work, or find a piece of information, or something just seems a lot less simple than it ought to be, I have to remind myself just what a young medium the internet is, and how far we’ve gone already.

screenshot of Pine email software

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The less obvious reason to hate MySpace

The most obvious reason is, of course, that it’s so ugly. Let me rephrase that: it’s sooo ugly. Seriously, is you leave the average MySpace page open on your computer and go away for a long weekend, don’t be surprised if if you come back and find that it has physically sucked all the beauty out of the room around it, and your Koryo dynasty maebyong vase has turned into a World’s Greatest Dad coffee mug.

I don’t mind the people who customise their MySpace pages to make them ugly; I’m a fan of the internet’s role as a venue for unbridled creativity, and good taste is just another bridle for people to cast aside like a squeezed-out tube of toothpaste. Customizing MySpace pages is a vibrant contemporary folk art and adds to the joiety of nations. In fact, the internet is rapidly becoming the world’s largest repository of outsider art, and we should celebrate that. I don’t actually want to look at your eye-melting MySpace page, read your horribly sincere poetry or look at your drawings of scantily clad Dark Elves, any more than you want to read my ill-informed pontification about art, religion and cricket, but the internet is comfortably big enough for all of us.

myspace screenshot

I think it’s good people can choose to make their MySpaces ugly. What’s less forgiveable is that there’s no apparent scope for making them attractive. The default appearance is crappy and the customisation possibilities are intentionally crippled in a way that makes it as hard as possible to create the effect you want. But despite everything I’ve just said, the ugliness isn’t what prompted me to write this post. Nor is it the fact that the site is slow and buggy, or that it keeps logging you out, and when you need to log in, you get redirected to another page entirely which takes forever to load.

No, what really irritates me is this. On MySpace, you can edit your profile to choose what information to display: not just the usual stuff like age, webpage and interests, either. It has dedicated options for your marital status, religion, home town, level of education, whether you smoke, even your income, and for any of them, if you choose not to answer it simply omits that piece of information. The absolute bare minimum of information is: your marital status and your star sign. Your star sign!

I mean, really, what the fuck is that about? I can choose to assert my freedom from superstition by proudly identifying myself as an atheist, but the site is still going to make sure people know what cosmic influence I was born under according to a demonstrably false system invented over 3000 years ago by people who didn’t even know what stars and planets were? According to a calendar which isn’t in time with the stars and planets any more anyway?

As you may be able to tell, this makes me geniunely and disproportionately angry. The idea that a lot of people actually take this stuff seriously is enough to make me start physically twitching with my irritation. Though that may also be the five cups of coffee.

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Galapagos pics

I finally got round to uploading some photos from the Galapagos to Flickr. The whole set is here. It includes some sealions:


and of course tourists:

More vespal entertainment

Sherry mentioned my wasp nest on her blog and via the comments was revealed this hand-made hornet’s nest by papermaker Gin Petty. You can read her full account of making it here.

And browsing around Flickr I found these pictures by Andrew Dill of a wasp nest built on a window:

Here’s something I learned today. ‘Hymenoptera’ (i.e. bees, wasps and ants) are not called that because of all those virgin workers, as I’d always vaguely assumed. Rather it’s

from Greek humenopteros ‘membrane-winged,’ from humēn ‘membrane’ + pteron ‘wing.’

Which perhaps I should have realised, since Hymen wasn’t god of virginity but marriage.

And here’s a good word: haplo-diploid.

Ajax and the common man

One of the hot new(ish) things in web design is Ajax – standing for Asynchronous Javascript And Xml. To quote Wikipedia, “The intent is to make web pages feel more responsive by exchanging small amounts of data with the server behind the scenes, so that the entire Web page does not have to be reloaded each time the user makes a change.” You’ll have seen the results on websites like Flickr, where you can edit the descriptions on your photos without having to load a new page. An impressive example of an Ajax-rich WordPress theme can be seen here; click on the buttons at the top to get the full effect.

Which is great, of course. Except that one of the joys of the internet is its accessibility for the casual user who wants to make a webpage. HTML is, really, an extremely simple system to use. CSS means a bit more to learn, but once you get the hang of it, it actually makes your life easier. And that’s all you need to arrange content on a page. If you just want to create a static webpage, you can do it entirely from scratch just with HTML and CSS, and how good the content is and how good it looks are entirely up to you.

Even using software like WordPress, it’s easy enough to just use some knowledge of HTML and CSS to restyle the output. The software is built in PHP, and you just have to work around the PHP tags, moving them around as necessary; it’s usually obvious from context what they do. So you can completely change the look of a site without doing any of what I’d call real coding. The various changes to the appearance of this site and its predecessors have all been done without me knowing any PHP. Ajax kills that, as far as I can tell; hacking around a theme to change the styling becomes a suddenly much more technical exercise.

I completely see the point of Ajax – when it’s used well, it transforms the user experience. And I’m not suggesting that anyone stop using it just for my sake. New software makes it easier and easier for people who know little about computers to share their thoughts and pictures on net; it’s just an unfortunate side-effect that as the software gets more sophisticated, it gets harder for a dabbler like me to get my hands dirty and tinker with the machinery.

I guess it’s a natural progression with all technologies. In the early days of motoring, you *had* to know how to do basic repairs to your car by the side of the road, and the engine was simple enough that you could probably do it with a couple of spanners and a can of oil. The fact that cars are now so reliable that you barely need to know how to check your oil and tyre pressure is a Good Thing, of course. But it still seems a pity when things get professionalised out of people’s hands to the point where they never get to do things themselves from scratch, whether it’s baking bread or creating a webpage.

My latest web design bonnet-bee

I was looking through WordPress themes on the Codex. I find it surprising how many people design themes with flexible-width text columns – i.e. ones where the columns get wider and narrower when you resize the browser window. One of the first things you learn when you pick up a book on typography is that if there are too many or too few words per line, the text becomes difficult to read. That’s one of the reasons newspapers divide up their articles into columns; with such small text, columns running the full width of the page would make it very difficult for the reader.

Picking a book at random off my shelves (a biography of Lewis Carroll, as it happens), it has about 13 words a line. On my computer, this blog has about 15 words/line. I can’t control how it will look on other system/browser combinations, but hopefully it doesn’t have many more than that. But this online version of Ulysses, with the browser window at a fairly typical width for me, had 24 words/line; and more if I stretch the window. That’s just silly.

Web design isn’t the same as traditional typography, but there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. I just can’t see any advantage to flexible-width columns that would make up for the loss of control over how the text looks – and indeed the overall look of the page. Either decide to support people with small screens, or not, but pick a page-width and stick to it. Of course, if useless bloody Internet Explorer supported the max-width property, that would be a good solution, but you have to work with what you’ve got.

CSS positioning

[Sorry, I know most of you won’t be even slightly interested in this]

I’ve just had a major intellectual breakthrough about how CSS positioning works. Or, to put it another way, I’ve just realised that I’ve been being very stupid for a very long time.

I’ve read lots and lots of online CSS tutorials, and either none of them made it clear, or I was being dense. They often suggest that ‘absolute’ positioning is measured from the containing block – or sometimes they say that it’s measured from the edge of the browser window. The containing block theory clearly didn’t work. The screen approach seemed to work most of the time, but it meant that you couldn’t, for example, center the page on the screen if you were using absolute positioning – because it would always be a fixed distance from one of the window-edges.

In fact, absolute positions are measured from the nearest containing block in the hierarchy which has a ‘position’ property specified as something other than static. So if you just set the page’s ‘position’ tag to ‘relative’, you can then move the page around as much as you want and all things you’ve positioned with ‘absolute’ measurements will follow it. Similarly, you can take one area of the page and set it to {position:relative} and then use absolute positioning within that area.

I assumed, you see, that you’d only set the position property if you wanted to change the position of the block in question, not as a way of affecting the blocks contained within it. Now I know better. The CSS positioning system is suddenly much easier to use and much saner. I can’t believe I’ve been struggling along trying to design table-free webpages without grasping this; and I can’t believe that none of the tutorials I read made it clearer, since it’s the single most important thing to understand if you want to use CSS positioning.

Testers wanted!

I mentioned earlier that I thought it might be fun to enter a WordPress theme competition. Well, I’ve got a theme worked up that I’m thinking of entering. You can see it in action on my test blog here. As you can see, it’s a two-column variation on the Swifts theme with a different picture.

I’ve checked it on Firefox, Safari and IE for Mac, and they all look basically OK, but I haven’t checked it on Windows at all. So I’d be grateful if anyone using IE, Firefox or Opera on Windows could take a look and poke around, see if there’s anything you think might be wrong, and let me know. Cheers.

EDIT: well, I’ve just tried it on Opera for Mac, and it doesn’t work right. It’s startling how no two browsers seem to render the same bit of code in the same way.

EDIT: OK, I’ve sorted that out. Further comments still appreciated. If something looks wrong, it would help if you could give me a screenshot of it so I can see what the problem is.

web design stuff

The more time I spend thinking about web design, the more easily irritated I am. Take Spork. Look at that lovely, stylish, front cover: it manages to have something of a print aesthetic without being heavy-handed, and it’s clear, simple and eye-catching. Classy.

But then you click on the names, and the links open as new windows. Like I don’t have enough windows cluttering up my screen all the time as it is. Look, I never, ever want any link I click to open as a new screen unless I specifically tell it to.

And you just know that they’re only done it that way because someone didn’t want navigation buttons cluttering up his nice neat page layouts. Humph.

New Theme

I’ve come up with a new design for the site, as I think should be pretty obvious. If you prefer the calmer qualities of the old look, there’s now a theme switcher in the sidebar so you can pick your favourite. The scarab picture is used by kind permission of elina. Fab, innit?

The main problem with the new theme from a design POV is that it looks a bit peculiar if you’re looking at a single post which isn’t very long. But I can’t think of an easy answer to that one. It’s also a wee bit visually aggressive, but hey, that’s what the theme switcher is for – you can take your pick.

Flickr field guide

There’s a group on Flickr called Field Guide: Birds of the World. Pretty self-explanatory, really – they’re trying to form a collection of photos that can be used to help identify birds. It’s a great idea and they’ve already got a lot entries, though it’s weighted towards European and N American birds, not surprisingly. But it quickly exposes the failings of Flickr as a content-management system. Although it’s possible to search within the group pool for photos tagged with a particular name, it’s not obvious how to do it. More crucially for a field guide, it’s not easy enough to add information to a photo in an organised way – for example, to provide a link from a species to any confusion possibilities. Or to give distribution info.

In some ways, like most reference works, it’s a good candidate for a wiki; there’s a network of people who are very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the subject, it’s naturally modular and so on. The internet would allow for many pictures attached to each species, as well as audio and even video. You could easily establish a standard template for an entry, to encourage people to include all the useful information – distribution, easily confused species, call, and so on. I suppose I could set it up – the Wikimedia software which Wikipedia runs on is open-source and I think I could set it up on my server space, although I suspect there would be a bit of a learning curve to cope with. More seriously, if it ever really caught on, especially with a lot of audio and video, it would be quite bandwidth-heavy.

With mobile broadband on the verge of becoming widespread, people might even start using it in the field to complement traditional field-guides.

Magnum photo-essays

Magnum in motion has photo essays with audio commentary. The only one I’ve watched is the ‘Inner-City Youth, London’ one – which I would certainly recommend. I found it via GRIMETIME. I’ve downloaded a few grime tracks recently; it was PopText that started me in that direction by posting a few tracks from the brilliant Lady Sovereign. Starting from her and clicking on Amazon’s ‘people who bought this also bought’ links helped me find Kano, Roll Deep, Wiley, Lethal Bizzle and of course Dizzee Rascal. All of whom are worth checking out if you like hard, fast hip-hop.

And even if you don’t give a fuck about the music, check out the Magnum photos.I expect the other photo-essays are good too, I just haven’t looked at them yet.

more folk wisdom

On the subject of folk wisdom:

I’m reading a book called Mutants which mentions a C17th book called Pseudodoxia Epidemica: or, enquiries into very many Received Tenents and commonly presumed Truths, in which Sir Thomas Browne investigated a lot of received ideas, like the fact that ‘a King-fisher hanged by the bill, sheweth in what quarter the wind is by an occult and secret propriety, converting the breast to that point of the Horizon from whence the wind doth blow’.

Ain’t th’internet marvellous?