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.

Culture Me Other

New improved photo page

With the help of a neat little application called PictoBrowser, I’ve tarted up the page with my Flickr photos. PictoBrowser should work even if you prefer reading the site with one of the old themes, but to get the full effect of my redecorating, you need to be using the ‘scallop‘ theme.

Culture Me Nature Other

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:

Nature Other

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.

Me Other

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.

Culture Other

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.