Me and my Arrow…

There were two faithful servants in my life – my Mac and my dog. Both got sick recently but only one recovered.

Me and my laptop. I carry it everywhere, even to work where I use a Windows PC. But every lunch time out comes my Mac and it’s welcoming chimes, just for fun. Two days a week I work from home and I carry the puny PC with me.

zoltan1

Zoltan (2006-13), our beloved wire-haired Vizsla

And that’s where my faithful mutt, Zoltan, always greets me. Every day – morning, noon and night. I settle down to work or watch TV, he settles down close to my feet. Cosy. Overnight, my aging bladder asks to use the bathroom. Zoltan wants to pee too and he politely asks by scratching at the door. When we go for walks in the Somerset countryside I don’t need to bring a pooper scooper – like me he prefers to crap at home but unlike me, he does it on the lawn.

They can’t tell you when they’re sick

First my Mac started playing up. Going slow, freezing and taking an age to shut down. Eventually it wouldn’t start at all. Dr Genius Bar at the Apple store tells me I need a new logic board that sets me back £500 as I’m two months out of warranty.  Then I fork out another £80 to upgrade the RAM. I suffer a hellish three weeks without my Mac, it’s back now but still in recovery.

About the same time Zoltan begins to behave strangely. He won’t settle, he starts chewing cables and plastic flowerpots around the house. When he destroys our internet connections he gets a right royal telling off.

Eventually we notice he seems to be having trouble with his back legs. I take him to the vet but a physical examination doesn’t indicate anything untoward. We order a blood test and the results a few days later indicate a possible problem with his liver. Or kidneys. I take him back to the vet (by now I’m having to carry him) where they sedate him, taking more tissue samples and conducting an ultrasound examination.

The vet tells me as he has spotted what he thinks is a serious infection around his kidneys and they are worried about his liver and gall bladder. They start him on antibiotics but he doesn’t fully recover from the anaesthetic in time for me to take him home so they keep him overnight for observation.

Saturday morning there’s an early phone call from the vet. Zoltan starting having convulsions overnight so they sedated him again, it looks like he’s suffering multiple organ failure. What to do? It seems we have no choice, the vet thinks he might not last the day.

We go and say goodbye and hold him while he’s put to sleep. Permanently. The vet’s bill calls it euthanasia but we can’t stop feeling as though we’ve killed him. We keep telling ourselves that we had to put him out of his misery; it was an act of kindness. But we can’t convince ourselves; we miss him desperately and we were responsible for ending his life prematurely. He was just seven years old.

They can’t tell you when they’re sick. But the Mac does – only I’d rather have Zoltan back and throw the machine away.

 

More reading:

Hattersley+BusterRoy Hattersley writes about the loss of his dog, Buster.

 

 

 

ThePointMe and My Arrow
is a Harry Nillson song from
his 1960s concept album
and cartoon film The Point!

Google is the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

Google recently commemorated what would have been Douglas Adams’ 61st birthday (he died in California aged just 49).

Adams is best known for his classic Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series – radio play, TV series, trilogy of five novels, comic book, computer game and Hollywood movie. He was a gifted comic writer who was one of the earliest evangelists for the Apple Mac, a committed atheist and environmental campaigner.

Adams’ ideas still influence popular culture today – just look up Babel fish for example.

So it was no surprise when the BBC screened the film of the books the other weekend. It’s not that memorable to be honest – another repeat to fill the schedules on a sleepy Saturday afternoon with no significant football matches to track.

But then it came to me.

Arthur Dent (the books’ hero) was introduced to the actual Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, a depository of all knowledge concerning “…life, the universe and everything”. You could ask it anything and expect an instant answer. What Adams was describing was Google – in 1978.

Feeding the imagination

I was never a big fan of Hitchhikers. I always felt that Douglas Adams was heavily influenced by the American sci-fi writer and humourist, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. But I was never sure about any possible connection.

So I googled it.

Apparently Adams credited Vonnegut’s book The Sirens of Titan as an influence:

“it’s just one of those books – you read it through the first time and you think it’s very loosely, casually written. You think the fact that everything suddenly makes such good sense at the end is almost accidental. And then you read it a few more times, simultaneously finding out more about writing yourself, and you realise what an absolute tour de force it was, making something as beautifully honed as that appear so casual.”

Vonnegut was the master of blending irony and sci-fi. His debut novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, relays his experiences as a captive witness to the Dresden fire bombing in 1945, alongside time-and-space adventures with the Tralfamadorians, an alien race who kidnap the book’s hero, Billy Pilgrim.  Everyone should read it.

Then I started thinking about a BBC TV documentary (Arena) that I watched years ago about Kurt Vonnegut. Google found that as well.

Arena has brilliant opening titles, a superb blend of haunting music and imagery. It doesn’t matter what that particular programme is about, this title sequence grabs you.

But I never knew who wrote and performed the music. I do now – Brian Eno, original member of 1970s rock giants Roxy Music. Brian Eno linked me to David Bowie, Robert Fripp and David Bowie.

Within minutes what I should have doing was shelved as Google, Wikipedia, YouTube and Spotify helped me thread a multi-media line of research that would have been impossible 20 years ago.

In the words (nearly) of Dr Faustus: “it’s google, google that hath ravished me…”

Magic. There’s no other word for it.

 

MORE READING

Ungoogleable

Google history

Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus

When I grow up I want to be a web designer

Do old people write code? More likely to have a cold, or buy a shopping trolley and wear slippers. So what’s it like for an old fart to discover web design?

I’m an early generation Maccie – I won’t have Windows in my house. That’s to say I do have windows – just don’t have Windows, if you know what I mean.Mac IIci

It’s hard to explain what it was like in 1990 when I first saw I could mix words and images on screen, making graphics look exactly like they should when printed.

Never mind that my IIci had a brain the size of a peanut, my colour screen was the size of a planet. And I could always make a cup of tea or bake a cake while saving a Photoshop file.

 

The happy burble of the modem

I never liked the robotic buzz of the fax machine. Although I kept one until recently, it was useless if you wanted to do more than just transmit black and white pages of text.

I needed an internet connection. I bought an all-singing modem.

Slowly but surely the whole world began to open up. Muddling through the tangle of terminology (no training, no support, no Google) I eventually, like all graphic designers, began to bitch about other people’s work I found online.

I’ve dabbled with Freeway, completed some training in Dreamweaver, bought books on web design, meddled with CMS. And gave up. The penny never dropped, I knew I didn’t know enough and I didn’t know where to go to get to know the things I needed to know.

 

Google it

Thanks to Google and David Watson here I am. Working in London, living near Bath and studying part time for an MA in web design at the University of Greenwich.

But dipping your toe into the web design world can be scary.

The speed of change and the sheer scope of creative potential risks overwhelming the ‘drawing-board-and-printed-page’ mentality that’s part of my baggage.

Personal progress is slow, even laboured. It’s like trying to unlock 30 years of creative constraints while learning half-a-dozen new languages.

And there’s so much talent out there to compete with.

 

Hopefully, Aesop was right

Within the first hour of our first lesson we could all say “Hello world” online. But only because we were told what to do. The real learning has come since then.

It’s the small steps I make alone – putting the theory into practice – that gives me the biggest buzz. It also bores the bejabbers out of my long-suffering family. “Look at this favicon – I did that,” comes my plea for approval. “Look at what?” comes the puzzled, unimpressed reply.

I go back into my shell and try to learn more – though it helps if your shell has wifi.

 

Half a year in, six quarters to go

So what have I learned in my first six months? Probably that I’ve got so much more to learn and the recognition that I’ll never know it all.

But now I’m beginning to think differently:

  • I need to consider the end platform – mobile, desktop or tablet?
  • I need to build sites using a logical architecture and structure.
  • And, perhaps the most valuable lesson of all, I need to get the words right first. That’s a toughie.

One of our guest lecturers this year was asked if he had some general advice for fledgling web designers. He looked around the audience of keen students and told us we were entering a truly exciting world.

But at this stage of our careers we could take comfort from the fact we may be cash poor now, we were time rich. We don’t need a lot of cash to hone our web skills with expensive kit and software – but can (and should) invest a lot of time.

Later in life we will find ourselves cash rich and time poor. So we need to take advantage of the advantages we have today.

He obviously didn’t notice the grey haired lump that is me lurking near the back. Shit – I’m later in life but I’m cash poor and time poor – what hope is there for me?

I guess there’s always Google.

 

Postcript: it took the offer of a chance to win a free Mac to write this blog, I wouldn’t have bothered if the prize was a PC. So this is my entry to the 123-reg “My first website competition“.

 

Two nations separated by a common tongue

Word has conquered the world. It’s the most popular word processor in desk top publishing, a powerful and intuitive tool that allows you to simply create anything from novels to flyers.

But therein lies the problem. It’s American.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Word is an example of American imperialism, conquering and bossing the world, bending us to its will. We’re all guilty of diving into Word and crafting our notes and thoughts, dashing off a quick letter—even preparing text for some website coding.

Word can help us publish anything. It’s so easy. It even checks your grammar and spelling. But buyer beware, things can start to go wrong from the very beginning.

Because Word is American its default is American English. The risk is that you will be hoodwinked into writing in an American style, not an English style. I don’t mean the difference between categorize and categorise, it’s a whole different ball game.

It’s the style used for headings, sub-headings, etc that drives me to distraction. The heading to this blog is correct in terms of English grammar. But an American would write: Two Nations Separated by a Common Language. I can barely bring myself to type it.

Word calls these different heading styles “Sentence case” and “Title Case”. The choice we all face as budding designers is do we choose English or American? I don’t mind using American for coding (“color” not “colour”) but if my website’s primary target is a UK audience, then that’s my choice from day one.

You can tell if something is written in American or English purely by looking at the website. Try comparing The New York Times with The Guardian.

But just as Word leans towards American English, be wary of web assists that lead you down the same path. If you want someone to get in touch, use “Contact us” not “Contact Us”.

Whatever you do, be consistent

Ultimately it’s down to personal choice. There could be a good reason for using an American style as opposed to English. But don’t mix them, be consistent.

It’s these inconsistencies that need to be rooted out. When browsing web sites, look at the way they treat their heading and sub-heading styles. Award yourself a point for every style clash you spot. Here’s a few examples to start you off:

  • The University of Greenwich. Compare the styles used between the home page layout and the navigation bars. Loads of points available. Easy peasy.
  • British Airways. Not so easy, I’ve only spotted one questionable style clash. Interestingly, BA offer a choice between American and English websites, compare the two.

The British are coming, or is it going?

All languages evolve. These changes are happening faster than ever with the inevitable convergence of American and English culture. It’s a two-way process, I’ve even used an Americanism in this blog, can you find it?

Recommended reading:

 

 

 

 

What I know now that I didn’t know in September

Someone once said that you don’t always know how much you know. I don’t know who said it but I know they did. Perhaps it was me.

‘Structural layout’ it said on the door. Here it comes: SGML, XML, HTML, XHTML–it was all Greek to me (at first).

Then a chink of light. The three layers of the web standard model (structure, presentation and behaviour) began to make sense. So I’ve been chanting “SPB” all week in an attempt to remember them. It must have worked because I typed it here without looking it up.

Let loose on our homework assignment I beat a path to the library, determined to look up the books recommended to help us. Head First HTML didn’t really appeal to me but HTML and CSS Web Standards Solutions, by Christopher Murphy and Nicklas Persson, certainly hit the mark. Finding the book and checking it out of the library was easy.

Back home for the weekend I started writing code, following the book and cross-referencing with our course notes. Apart from randomly murmuring “SPB” (the dog thought he had a new name and came on sat on my feet), I gave myself the time to work slowly and, hopefully, accurately.

Working with Taco and preparing my text in Word, things began to come together. I soon learned not to paste text from Word straight into Taco, which was weird as I already knew that but just seemed to forget it.

Each exercise at the end of each chapter in the book helped build a semblance of knowledge although I did find the notion of becoming what the authors called a “Web Standardista” a little cringeworthy.

But the buzz of getting my first page successfully validated first time via WC3 was fantastic. The next three went wrong (bummer) but I used the validator to track down the errors and fix them. Now I’m hooked–I’m going to validate everything, even my weekly supermarket shopping list.

I’m amazed that I resisted the urge to try and affect the way my pages looked via the mark-up. The result is that the pages look crap (in my mind) but the code is good.

A summary of the main things I learned following the 9 October lecture:

  • give yourself time and work at your own pace
  • keep your code as simple and clear as possible, resist the urge to design at the structure level
  • be aware of the dangers of pasting from Word direct into your HTML code editor
  • establishing a neat folder and file structure, with descriptive file names, enhances search engine optimisation from the very start
  • validate everything via WC3, and use it to track down and fix mistakes
  • the recommended books/web sites do help, do some research to find the one that suits you
  • make your images ‘web friendly’ (size and resolution).

Three design classics


Tissot Rock Watch

Much valued present from my wife.

Looks good – but I can’t actually see the time due to the colour contrast of the red minute hand on the granite background.

Swiss made, actually bought in Switzerland, my ‘dressing up’ watch.

Who cares what time it is anyway?

 

 

Port to Port tile puzzle

Variation on the classic tile puzzle, we bought this for our kids in the 1990s. But I played with it more than them. The dog had a go at it as well.

The idea is that you move the ship from one port to the other – ingenious design invented by Ferdinand Lammertink.

The closest thing we ever came to a play station in our house.

 

Tintin and Astérix comic books 

Hergé’s adventures of Tintin…. I can still hear the booming voice introducing the TV cartoon versions.

The 23 completed Tintin books, written and illustrated by Georges Remi crackle with characters and style. And what drawings – too good to be left with children. If you ever visit Brussels, check out the Tintin museum.

Two Frenchmen (writer René Goscinny and illustrator Albert Uderzo) created the Astérix books. Rome’s attempts to colonise part of Gaul are thwarted by a small tribe of locals with superhuman strength thanks to a secret herbal potion.

This French and Belgian heritage of graphic novels produced a remarkable range of art and humour.