Connective Tissue

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Memes are something I’ve written about, somewhat scornfully. In a shameless display of hypocrisy, here are my nine sets of four things, via Angela Rutherford. Doubtless I’ll regret it in the morning.

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I’ve come late to a large body of understanding which, I suspect, many people acquire entirely without realising it. For whatever reason, I haven’t formed many of the habits and beliefs that seem to sustain people in everyday life; a failing I’m currently trying to rectify.

This has two ramifications. Firstly, when I discover or clarify something new or important (to me, that is) I often post about it here. A couple of recent examples might be ‘I Can Spell Archaeopteryx’ and ‘Taking Time’.

Secondly, my approach is different. In the normal process of growing up, very often we’ll acquire habits, beliefs and knowledge without realising we’ve done so. Our mental universes shift, our behavioural patterns change, but because the changes take place without an announcement to the conscious mind, and over a period of time, we don’t notice the differences.

However, the changes I’m making to the way I live my life are coming from a conscious effort to comprehend and change. Consequently, my understanding is far more conceptual than it would have been if it had simply evolved organically. New thoughts take their place in a theoretical framework as well as being implemented in a practical sense.

Hopefully this means you see things I’ve written in this vein, and think about them for a little while. Then you nod, thinking “Yep, I do that already,” and get back to living your life.

Lately I’ve seen more and more of these Digg / buttons cropping up, and I’m not really sure I approve.

That’s not to say I disapprove of either site as such: I use a fair bit to mark things of interest for future reference. I can not only save links which would clutter my bookmarks menu (and be vulnerable to a local system failure), but I can also see who else has bookmarked them—and what they’ve bookmarked that I might be interested in.

However, I draw the line at putting a set of buttons on every article I write encouraging people to add it to Digg or There’s an arrogance implicit in it that I find distasteful: it seems to say that everything the author writes is so good it deserves to be promoted by you, the reader.

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A few weeks ago, I mentioned new directions. They’re not quite here yet, but they are here. 9rules implemented a category system with the last iteration of their site, and now they’ve taken the logical next step: communities.

Communities are focused on particular categories, syndicating all the posts from a given category and listing the members. Not only will it be easier for people to find the content they’re looking for, but we can now start to do some really interesting stuff with the community—by which I mean you and me.

I’m taking what you might call an editorial position in the 9rules Philosophy Community: the page will have its own blog, and I’ll be directing people’s attention to the best of the network’s philosophy content. This will take in articles from the archive as well as new material, and doubtless a few snide editorial comments from yours truly.

In between sleeping and eating, I’ve found a little time over Christmas to get some reading done. If I manage to keep it up, it should mean more directed writing here: reviews, commentary, rebuttals and so on. I can’t guarantee it will be good, but I’m reasonably confident that it will at least be interesting.

Not long ago, a good friend of mine died. We’d known each other for five years or so, exclusively on the internet. Both of us were in university, with bills to pay, and neither of us managed to make it to the other’s side of the Atlantic Ocean to have that drink we talked about.

Steve was deaf; had been his whole life. In normal, physical contact with other human beings, he was handicapped: he had to use a hearing aid or sign language. He couldn’t even talk on the phone normally. But on the internet, he was free—when everyone’s typing, it doesn’t matter if you can’t speak.

This was brought home to me in a fairly forceful fashion the other day, when I lost my voice. A bad cold, the exhaustion of a tough term, and pushing myself too far despite being ill all piled up, and my vocal chords packed up. It was an alien experience: I’m a talkative person, used to communicating easily and adeptly.

Even with my family, who I’m very close to, my ability to communicate was drastically slashed. Signs and body language help, but anything complex needs words, and suddenly I didn’t have them anymore. And yet, when I turned on the computer, this sense of a barrier between other people and myself vanished. Never had typing felt so natural, so like speaking!

I don’t want to turn this into a lecture on why we should all be supporting web standards, so the poor blind kids can read Slashdot, but I do want to show how the internet can be immensely freeing. If Steve had never told me that he was deaf, I would never have known; when it was just text, passing between people, there was no difference between me and him. Having lost my voice, and found it again online, I think I understand that more fully now.

Stress makes people stupid. Stress stops people thinking. Stressed people fall back on their habits and their instincts, while most of their brain is preoccupied with getting them through whatever situation they’re in.

We can’t do anything about instinct, but we can, with time and effort, alter our habits (Peter Flaschner just wrote a post on this). One very important habit is eating well. If you like to nibble stuff when you’re stressed, try and make it a packet of nuts rather than a chocolate bar. Make sure there’s some low-effort food around for when you can’t face cooking; tinned soup and sliced bread in the freezer can save your bacon.

Peter’s not the only one doing the business retrospective thing; James Archer has an excellent article up on Strange Brand about his first year running Forty Media, the web design company he founded, and Cameron Moll reflects on 180 days as a freelancer.

Possibly incoming, after my exhausting and insanely busy term finishes: new music and book reviews, some thoughts on the future of graphic design for the web, and a few new directions for my writing here. Watch this space!

By the by, I think I’ve fixed comment display for Internet Explorer; if you have any problems, with any browser, let me know in the comments and I’ll try to resolve them.

mcville have been busy cornering the market in interviews with web design luminaries. They’ve managed to convince people like Mark Boulton, Jon Hicks, Kevin Cornell, Keith Robinson and John Oxton.

Despite a preponderance of Brits on that list, I haven’t yet managed to pin down a good reason for them to be interviewing me. Nonetheless, Marko persisted in asking me questions, and you can see my answers on mcville. If you’ve ever wondered about my drinking habits or what I spend most of my time doing, get yourself over there and have a read.

Having been bereft of a home internet connection for the last week or so, I’ve returned to an older method of communication: the letter. Since email became ubiquitous, there has been a debate over the relative merits of the two, usually informed more by personal prejudices than by a considered reflection on what I see as complementary, not competitive, mediums.

If one can feasibly do either, then the choice of whether one writes or emails is dictated by a number of considerations that are to some extent universal, and are otherwise intensely personal. Email is quick and easy: transmission is nearly instantaneous, so it’s much better for anything needing a quick turnaround (hours, rather than days). Given the overheads of letter-writing—stamps, envelopes, going out to post it—email is cheaper in both time and money.

The appeal of a letter is more subtle. It’s less dependent on personal infrastructure—internet connections go down, people are too busy to check their email; sometimes they just forget to—but a letter can be read almost anywhere, regardless of technological factors. In fact, its inherent slowness can be advantageous: people don’t feel they need to reply immediately, and so may be more likely to do so, or at least in more depth.

Letters are also, in a sense, more real. We are physical beings, and the immateriality of online information (metaphorically, but don’t let that make you underestimate its effects) can sometimes be a barrier. Paper is very real: you can hold it in your hand, keep it in a drawer, tear it up, burn it. Paper takes effort, and making that effort sends a message over and above the actual words on the page.

Email is highly transferrable: it’s just data, to be moved around, altered, and saved or discarded at will. This is a great advantage in many circumstances, but it also means that it is incapable of the contextual depth of a letter, with all its subtleties of choice: the paper used, the envelope, the stamp, the handwriting. The ink, the pen, the little doodled illustrations, all give letters depth.

Unless you’re given to writing drafts, and then writing out a final version, letters also possess spontaneity: they are unedited, uncut, written in a flurry with bad sentence structure, metaphors that didn’t quite take off, abject apologies for the above failure, and a general roughness—rawness—that betrays a mind writing to someone, with that person or the thought they are trying to communicate absorbing them so totally that propriety is cast aside in the mad dash to catch the words before they are lost forever.

Email is too open to revision: you scan the screen, think of a better way to put something, try to be diplomatic, polish your message. But once words are on the page they are indelible: they cannot be taken back. All you can do is send it, or not.

If your writing kung-fu is strong (and, honestly, it doesn’t have to be that strong—after all, I got in) you may be interested in 9rules Round 3.

The submission period is like Le Mans: 24 hours long (in almost all other respects, I admit, the two are completely dissimilar). Keep an eye on the 9rules weblog for the announcement.

I’ve just noticed that there is, in fact, an actual date for when this is going to happen: November 14th, from 12:00 EST. (That’s five in the morning for those of you on real time, or for our friends in the armed forces and other strange places, 0500 Zulu.)

I started to listen to Margrave of the Marshes—the autobiography of John Peel—on Radio 4’s Book of the Week, but turned it off after five minutes.

It wasn’t that the book was bad, or uninteresting; it wasn’t that Michael Angelis read it badly. It was, quite simply, that the voice was wrong. The words had the structure, the pace, the timing of the legendary DJ. The delivery did not. There was a disconnect between the words and the voice, a jarring inconsistency that grated on my ears and on my heart.

John Peel was different from, and better than, the legions of radio presenters in popular music broadcasting. He was different because not only did he come across as a real, genuine person, but because he really seemed to care. He was passionate about his music, diffident about himself, and always full of humanity and warmth.

I sometimes wonder why the BBC executives who pushed his Radio 1 show later and later into the night—trying to shove it under the carpet while being unable to get rid of it altogether—didn’t like him. Partly, I think, it was his unwillingness to be turned into a spokesman for the industry machine, churning out marketable rubbish by pretty young things.

That’s not to say that he never promoted any bad bands—he was legendary for it—but there was never an agenda beyond his own love of music, of new and interesting sounds. They may also, quite simply, have been jealous: jealous of a man who accrued fame and public adoration (though he never seemed to realise it) merely through being himself, through being a good and honest man.

Listening to that broadcast, I was caught in the space between my memories and the sad, stark reality. John Peel’s autobiography was being read out on radio, and he wasn’t reading it. At that moment, it finally sank in: he wasn’t coming back. At that moment, more than anything, I wanted to hear his voice again.

Relicnews has a WordPress backend, and because comments are enabled and you don’t need to register an account to comment, we have an intermittent spam problem.

Most of my time at the moment is spent updating this site, working towards my degree, and developing new sites to help pay the bills (not necessarily in that order). I don’t have a lot of free time to spend messing around with different anti-spam solutions, so until now I’ve just let the default spam words list catch unwanted comments. However, when I saw Akismet had been launched, I thought I’d give it a go. The stuff Matt’s been behind—WordPress, mainly—hasn’t let me down yet, which gave it a bit more credibility than the usual run of plugins and the like. More importantly, it seemed simple to implement, and the numbers looked good.

There was just one catch: I needed a account. A golden ticket arrived in my email inbox a couple of weeks ago, but since I already had a blog, I gave it to my brother (a better and funnier man than I, if somewhat more lazy). No account meant no API key, which meant Akismet wouldn’t work.

I suppose I could have asked him for his key, but he might need it himself at some point. No, what I needed was my own account, so I toddled over to the site to submit a different email address, in hopes of getting a new ticket. And, of course, the site was broken—the front page displayed fine, but trying to anywhere just gave me database connection errors.

That was last night; this morning brought more luck. Specifically, the Flock download, which (once installed) gave me the chance to create a account then and there. Victory!

(A quick note on Flock: it’s just a skinned Firefox, with a couple of blogging and social bookmarking plugins. Still, it’s easy on the eye and hasn’t crashed yet, so I’m trying it out; Eric’s made it his default Windows browser, which is a recommendation of sorts.)

My intention was simply to make the blog, grab the key, and get the hell out of Dodge, but in the end I couldn’t do it; empty textareas call to me with a kind of siren song. The resulting posts are a bit abrasive and less thought out than usual, but some people appear to like that. So, if you want to read me ranting about foolish expectations or the word ‘blog’, head on over to ‘My Own Private Riot’. I suppose we could subtitle it ionfish unplugged.

I own a total of nine Bob Dylan albums, plus the five Bootleg Series ones. Do I regret buying any of them? No. Have I enjoyed listening to all of them? Definately. Would I have enjoyed another album more than, for example, Oh Mercy (which, despite probably being the best album between Blood On The Tracks and Love And Theft, is not a true classic by any metric)? Maybe. But that’s not really the point, is it?

Am I just being completist, and is that completism spoiling my potential enjoyment and enrichment? Occasionally I suspect that might be the case, and one certainly needs to be vigilant about this. But there’s more to it than that.

Experiencing a body of work and knowing the biographical connections between individual pieces allows a better and broader appreciation than simply engaging with them in isolation would.

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Take a big, black permanent marker and remove all the names from all the fronts of all the books you own. Right now. Then come back and carry on reading.

Did you do it? If you did, you’re a much less cautious person than me; I’d have finished reading the article before taking such drastic action! Moreover, I would have read the article with an eye to answering the question, “Why?”

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This post on Central Scrutinizer turned up in my referrer logs yesterday. Marco Rosella took the rumoured Weblogs, Inc. buyout prices, applied them to the 9rules Network, and used Technorati’s numbers to work out how much each site in the network would be worth.

Much to my surprise, this site is apparently not the lowest-ranked in the network; in fact, there are four whole sites below it! Why this should be so, I’m not at all sure; the vagaries of the internet, I guess. Perhaps I just get an unusually large number of rubberneckers.

In any case, the buyout price would apparently be around $5,650—that’s £3,190 in real money. Some quick back-of-envelope calculations reveal that this would pay my rent for the next year, as well as internet, phone and electricity bills, and still leave money over to go to the pub occasionally.

I’m not sure why anyone would want to buy this blog, and if you do (since all 9rules members still own their sites) you have to pay me; Scrivs can’t just nick the money and jump on a plane for Argentina.

That said, if you can top AOL’s buyout price, I wouldn’t mind being able to blow my student loan on a Powerbook (it would also stop me from feeling guilty about not posting here more often, heh).

Urgent things: reading papers, writing essays, booking a bed in a Bristol hostel for next week, writing posts here to assuage my guilty conscience.

Important things: working out what the hell I’m doing with my life (should I do graduate work, and if so, where? What’s next, after that? Where do I see myself in ten years? In twenty?), setting up a philosophy discussion group at university, planning the Next Big Thing (for me) internet and publishing-wise.

What urgent things should you be doing? What important things are hovering on the edge of your thoughts? Are the urgent things really as urgent as all that, or could you afford to take some time and think about the important things?

I mean this in a personal sense: I live in a culture of participation. My family talks a lot; I talk a lot. Too much, sometimes. We argue about things, in a friendly and not-so-friendly fashion, depending.

Often I’m frustrated by people’s apparent inability to participate. Whole seminars go by in tense near-silence, punctuated only by abortive attempts to start a discussion, and the shuffling of feet. Eyes are locked firmly on books, notes, shoes. These people, I think, have never left school.

School is not the beginning or the end of the problem, but it does occupy a significant chunk of the middle. “Don’t talk back!” is the mantra of beleaguered teachers, beset on all sides by unruly pupils. “Don’t talk back” destroys the discussion, its admonitory tones withering our ability to respond, defend ourselves, question the orthodoxy. “Don’t talk back” is exactly what the government wants us to be told.

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David Mitchell’s number9dream draws its title from the John Lennon song ‘#9 Dream’. The 9rules Network draws its name from their nine rules.

My singleminded desire for internet fame has led me to throw in my lot with this gang of crooks; glancing up and to the left, you will notice that I’m now flying their flag. It’s not quite a Jolly Roger, but as in Eiji Miyake’s Tokyo, all may not be as it seems: that friendly-looking leaf may portend the imminent arrival (via hypertext link from the 9rules weblog) of interdimensional entities hellbent on the death or enslavement of all free peoples.

I, at least, welcome our new cephalopod overlords, and I know there are those amongst the current readership of this site who harbour sympathies for and even affection towards these tentacled creatures. In any case, I have pulled on a shiny new skin to greet the visitors.

‘Mobile’ isn’t quite complete—I still need to tweak the various category and date-based archive pages—but it should all basically work. A note for Internet Explorer users: due to that browser’s bad handling of the box model, the category listing in the archives vanishes off the side of the window. When I know how to fix it, I will fix it. Until then, you’ll just have to suffer. If you happen to notice any other bugs, let me know.

I should probably also point out that the portfolio is gone. The articles have come to dominate this site, with the business side withering away, and it seemed a suitable moment to kill it off altogether. Getting new clients isn’t really a priority right now; with the new term looming, I’m focusing on finishing the work I have already. The portfolio will probably reappear somewhere else eventually, just not in the immediate future. Building a business will have to take a back seat for a while.

I don’t know whether it’s my increasing knowledge of content-management systems, databases and the like, or if the usage of this term is indeed on the rise, but lately I seem to be seeing the word ‘metadata’ everywhere.

What is metadata? Briefly, it’s data that explains how a particular chunk of data—a file, for example—fits into some more general organisational scheme. An mp3 file, for example, might have metadata saying who recorded it, who composed it, and when, and what genre the song is. A blog post might have metadata about the author, publication date, and the number of comments on that article.

So far, so uncontroversial. Clearly this kind of data is important and useful. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that we cannot properly comprehend the meaning of a piece of data without viewing it through the lens of its attached metadata. What’s my problem, then? Pretty simple: we already have an excellent term meaning just what metadata does, and it doesn’t sound so stupid.

The name of this term? Context. If you want to be long-winded, you can use ‘contextual information’, but it means pretty much the same. ‘Metadata’ is a redundant term that people employ simply because they want to sound cool, to sound cutting-edge, to sound like technologists. It’s just PR, and pretty crap PR at that. It adds nothing of value to the discourse; in fact, it devalues it, by replacing a simple and elegant term (that we’re all pretty sure of the meaning of) with a vague buzzword.

We’ve just launched a major redesign of Relicnews, the original and best source for Relic-related news. I’ve added a portfolio entry on the design, but I have a lot more to say about it that either wouldn’t have been appropriate for a portfolio entry, or would have made it far too long. The development cycle was the longest and most problem-stricken I’ve ever had, and although it’s worked out fairly well in the end, let this be a lesson in how not to do a web design project.

Before I kick off, let me just say that the RN staff are some of the nicest people I know, and they’ve all worked incredibly hard to get the new site to the point it’s at now. The problems we had were down to management failures, external difficulties, and simple confusion, and if they reflect badly on any one person, it’s me. I hope for two things: that people like the new site, and that the lessons I learned on this project help me in the future. I’m fairly sure they will, if only because they were so painful.

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There are only two truly effective and universal strategies for dealing with blog memes: one can ignore them, or one can throw oneself into completing the task required with such vigour and aplomb that spectators cannot but admire one. As we shall see, there are other routes to success in dealing with these pesky fauna of the internet ecology, but their effectiveness tends to rest on certain powers not available to we mere mortals.

A meme—at least as the term is generally employed in the ‘blogosphere’ (oh, how I revile this term)—is a viral unit of cultural transmission, usually taking the form of “Complete this task (which provides some trivial information about oneself) and then infect some further number of authors.” For example, “List five songs that you are currently digging … Then tag five other people to see what they’re listening to.”

The truly horrible thing about these entities is their rampant destruction of a blog’s aesthetics. An interesting and contentful column suddenly becomes a pustulent datapoint in a vector of infection. The author writes not because they truly have something to say, but because they have been told to. Such is our desire for participation, for conversation—even where this conversation is entirely illusory—that we willingly subjugate ourselves, and become hosts for this cultural parasite. No one is immune; all one can do is try to pursue a strategy that minimises the damage.

One unhappy compromise between the strategies outlined above is to include the meme in an “odds and ends” post of notes, miscellaneous links and announcements. It tends to appear at the end, like an unwanted relative whom one cannot bring oneself not to invite to the party. It sits strangely, out of place, its metronomic power drawing the eye away from the other flotsam and jetsam accumulated in the post; a declaration that the author, in their timidity and embarassment, has tried to file it away somewhere they hope people simply won’t notice it.

One can, of course, be kitsch and simply reply to it in approved LJ style: “these really are the ten songs that played when I shuffled my music library” (they never are, of course—we all manipulate the truth in order to create a certain impression of ourselves). Such bravura, however, is only effective for those authors who post reams of worthwhile content several times a day, and these are rare beings indeed. In such a context, the meme appears merely as what it ought to be: a personal aside, an admirable letting down of the author’s guard, giving us an insight into them as a human being, rather than merely a columnist.

So, iTunes 4.9 has podcasting.1 Some people love this addition; others hate it. You can put me in the former camp, but (since it wouldn’t be me if this weren’t the case) with reservations.

What’s good? It’s an all-in-one solution for audio-only feeds; radio shows, basically. Brent Simmons thinks there’s still a place for standalone newsreaders like NetNewsWire, and while would expect the creator of such a program to say that, I’m still inclined to agree. A feed that mostly consists of other content, with the occasional audio piece, isn’t suited for iTunes (which is, let’s not forget, a music program, not a newsreader or web browser).

Obviously if, like Sven-S. Porst, you “hate radio”, then the attractions of podcasting will be rather less than if, like me, you’re a radio junkie. It may well be that Herr Porst is simply unfortunate in this regard, having not been exposed (like the luckier souls among us) to Radio 4 from a young age. The BBC is currently in the midst of a download trial that includes not only the free downloads of the BBC Philharmonic’s performances of Beethoven’s symphonies, but also podcasts of some fantastic radio programmes. Immediately after installing iTunes 4.9, I added three of these feeds: In Our Time, Today, and From Our Own Correspondent. I should note that these three programmes are superior to pretty much anything you will ever see on television on the subjects in question. Despite the ascendency of the idiot box, radio—due to the absence of distractions, the need to find ways to interest the listener other than flashy graphics and attractive people, and the BBC’s commitment to incredibly high-quality public service broadcasting—is able to, on the whole, do debate, political commentary, and indeed reporting in general, much better than television. I would far rather listen to Today or PM than watch any television news programme, even the superior Channel 4 News. I would far rather listen to Start the Week, In Our Time, or Front Row than any supposedly highbrow programming on TV.

With these tendencies in mind, it becomes obvious why I like podcasting: it allows me to listen to shows I’ve missed, for whatever reason, with the fine-grained control one gets with a download but not with “internet radio”, i.e. streaming media files. Moreover, I can keep the downloads. Storage is cheap, and given that fairly often I want to refer back to something I’ve heard on the radio, I can now do so. Perhaps not with the greatest of ease, admittedly, but at least it’s possible.

Given, then, that I’m on board with podcasting, at least insofar as it applies to BBC radio programmes, why iTunes? There are two answers to this. Firstly, as an iPod owner, I organise and listen to all my music with it anyway. Secondly, it’s convenient: it’s an all-in-one package. I don’t need an aggregator and a media player, and I don’t need to fiddle with things. It’s not quite one click, but it’s close. Obviously I’d heard a fair bit of yammering about podcasting before this, but quite simply, I couldn’t be bothered. Now, two things have happened: the content I want is there, and the software I want is there. In both cases these are not perfect situations: the BBC download trial is quite limited, with only a few programmes on offer, and iTunes implementation of podcasting could (as others have noted) definitely be improved. However, they are good enough.

Briefly, then, the problems. Firstly, and bizarrely, you can’t remove the podcast option from the ‘Source’ menu in iTunes. All the crap that menu is infested with when one first installs iTunes can be got rid of, except that. Not a problem for me, as I’m using the option, but I have no doubt it’s immensely irritating for those who aren’t. What else… well, the icon is pretty stupid. As a Windows user, however, I’m of the school of thought that a silly icon does not a bad program make. Porst discusses a number of problems, but being a horribly lazy person I’ll just let you read his essay for yourself and work out which criticisms are valid and which aren’t; as far as I’m concerned, while Apple clearly have some work to do, iTunes’ podcasting feature does not die a death from a thousand cuts, but your mileage may vary.

1. Yes, it’s a silly name. Don’t blame me—I didn’t invent it. In any case, the world is fully of silly names anyway, so one more doesn’t really do much harm; the embarrassment of using it will doubtless wear off after a few months.

After reading Tom Coates’ “In praise of short posts…”, I thought I’d post a little hypothesis inspired by observing people’s responses in the two months since I started this blog. The longer and more developed a post is, the less likely people are to comment on it. Some cases in point, all of which were long, and none of which garnered any response: “Contemplating Jazz”, “Moleskine Musings”, “Little Boxes”, my Hitchhiker’s review and probably my longest post, “Not Just a Design Concern”.

Of course, they might just have been boring.

One of the things I didn’t really know how to do when I started designing websites was communicate about them. This was a threefold lack: a lack of vocabulary, a lack of understanding, and a lack of experience. Rectifying these problems has been one of the things that I’ve come to value most about working in this field, and it was an unexpected challenge: the problems I saw when I started out were my lack of technical skills, and lack of an overall understanding of the field. I wasn’t wrong about these—they were problems—but they weren’t the biggest ones I faced.

As it turned out, I was pretty good at the technical side; prior experience with Photoshop, an analytic mind with good visualisation abilities and an appreciation of the abstract meant that learning how to code (and, eventually, learning how to code well) weren’t that difficult. The lack of an overview became less important once I became immersed in the subject; basically, I just stopped worrying about it. A tendency to be unconfident unless I know a field inside-out often hampers me, but usually it’s best just to jump into learning—the big picture comes later.

Learning how to handle myself with clients, to value my work, and perhaps most importantly of all, how to explain the design process and its results to those I worked with, took much longer. I’d done three commercial websites, I think, before I even had a handle on my lack of understanding. Fortunately I was articulate and managed to muddle through on technical nous. Best of all, I had some understanding clients. Ultimately they seemed pleased with my work, and even recommended me to others, so I must have got something right.

By the end of those first few jobs, I was beginning to get a handle on what I’d been missing, on what was making the job so hard. Meetings were a strain, as I struggled with my lack of understanding of the process. Once I’d started to get to grips with that, my lack of vocabulary became the defining problem: I knew how things were supposed to work, but not how to put that into words. Time passed; I made more websites, talked to more clients, read articles on the subject, thought more about how it all worked. What follows is an account of my (perhaps tenuous) grasp of the issue.

Communication isn’t just a design concern

The creation of a website for commercial purposes entails an interaction between the designer and the client. The client knows their business, and their customers; the designer knows design. The best work will result when both parties respect that relationship and their part in it.

In practice, this means that a designer shouldn’t seek to tell their client how to run their business, and a client shouldn’t seek to tell their designer how to design. Some people labour under the unfortunate misapprehension that the coding is the hard part of web design; that that’s what you hire someone for, to put your vision into code (or Photoshop graphics, or Flash animations; there are a number of variations on this particular theme). This is quite some way away from the truth of the matter; the code is, in fact, likely the easiest part of the whole business.

A designer considers how best to present the informational content and services offered by the client. They think about usability, accessibility, standards. They seek to present things in an effective manner, deploying graphics, typography, space and texture as appropriate. They are not there simply to realise a client’s vision, but to create the website most suited to the purpose at hand, and they are, as a professional designer, better equipped to design it than the client is (if this isn’t the case, then you’ve hired the wrong person).

In a recent project, I took care to have thorough discussions with the client throughout the development process. Our decisions on the content to include and the way to present that content were based on our agreement that what mattered was to tell a coherent story: to give explanations at various levels, ranging from highly accessible introductions to developed portraits of specific applications of their work, and geared to the different concerns that different visitors might have.

What I’m really saying is that structure and content arise from communication. They depend on working out what site visitors (whether they are readers, users or potential customers) want to know or do, and what the client wants to tell them or let them do. It is the uncovering and matching up of these concerns that forms the core of a designer’s work.


This post was the culmination of a few thoughts I’ve been having lately; its inspiration was a few articles I’ve read in recent months on this topic and those surrounding it, as well as recent interactions with clients. The drafting process it went through meant that parts of it were posted in other places before the article was complete; hopefully the finished piece reflects a more rounded and less combative story than the component parts did.

As someone who wants to create the best work I can, within the constraints all projects have, I now take the time to explain our mutual roles to clients. Our relationship is then based on an understanding of where we both stand. From there we can work together far more effectively, deploying our individual expertise to the places where it can be the most productive. Design is about communication; to be a good designer one has to learn to communicate not only with one’s audience but with the people one works with.

A funnier, better-written introduction to dealing with web designers can be found in Eris Free’s series of articles, “How to Care for Your Web Designer”. I highly recommend it to both those who are working with a web designer for the first time, and to designers looking for more insight into their own natures.

People have started saying that “Analogue is the new digital.” Personally, I just wonder what took them so long.

Trite little phrases are always springing up on the internet, which shouldn’t surprise us; perhaps Dawkins was right in comparing ideas to genes. Amusingly self-referentially, in our snake-eating-its-own-tail world, viral marketing is another ‘big thing’ at the moment. These buzz-phrases begin as an observation, and soon take on a life of their own: rather than remain as analysis, they become transformations, affecting not only our creations but our understanding.

A case in point is the one I mentioned at the beginning, “Analogue is the new digital.” From what I can tell, this is a design meme (god how I hate that word; somebody invent some synonyms, please). After a few years of shiny chrome and sharp, clean work, designers are beginning to let some grain and texture back into their work. Web design is becoming more human, taking inspiration from old print work, scratched photographs, scribbled drawings.

But this is the revisionist version, the post-viral understanding of history. Yes, perhaps there is a little truth in the saying, but I’ve seen—and been inspired by—plenty of ‘analogue’ work since I first got interested in design. I’ve seen great work that draws on these sources now being credited as new inspiration, and I’ve seen it not merely today or yesterday, but at many points over the last five years. It was probably there before that, but I wasn’t, and what we cannot speak of…

Of course, the popularity—the survival—of these phrases depends on latching on to the greater zeitgeist in some fashion, and this is one that, I think, could do that. Our lives are ruled, more than ever before, by gadgets. I’ve noticed blog posts about how many things we are now carrying around with us: laptops, mobile phones, PDAs, iPods, as well as the wallet and keys that used to be all we needed. Analogue might represent simplicity and tactility in an increasingly complicated and ephemeral world.

I, of course, feel mixed about this. On the one hand, I have a tendency to feel overwhelmed by data, by ideas, and so any paring down of that is something I welcome. Moreover, paying more attention to our environments, to the things we live with and around, is something we should applaud. However, I am not a utilitarian. Methods matter; the paths by which we reach our goals matter. Living our lives, and reflecting on how we do so, gives us insight. Simply following a trend might take us to the right place, but we will have learned nothing by it, and the change will be temporary and meaningless.

Coincidence has a power over us: it creates the illusion of a pattern, and we are adapted to look for patterns in things, to make sense of the world around us. Sometimes those patterns are really there, and sometimes they really are just coincidences. But even then, it can point us in new directions, give us a chance to think about things we might have otherwise passed by.

Within the space of a few hours on yesterday afternoon, I read a From Our Own Correspondent piece on China and Japan, a news story on the ninetieth anniversary of the Armenian genocide, and another story on ANZAC day and the Gallipoli landings. Here, of course, there is both connection and coincidence. The Gallipoli landings were made in an attempt to open up a new front in the First World War against the Ottoman Empire, which supported Germany, Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in that conflict, while the Armenians were the victims of atrocities perpetrated by the Ottoman empire. That a row between China and Japan is playing out ninety years after these events is coincidental.

In his article, Rupert Wingfield-Hayes notes that last week China’s Prime Minister Wen Jiabao stated, “Only a country that respects history, and takes responsibility for history, can take greater responsibilities in the international community.” The article goes on to say that while he was talking about Japan, he could just as well have been talking about China. I would add that he could equally have been talking about Turkey, whose government denies to this day that the Armenian genocide ever took place.

I don’t really have anything else to add, save to say that it’s a subject I will be thinking about.

A brief aside: I have removed the category listing from the sidebar, and I think I’ll probably be removing the categories themselves from both entries and the theme templates. Writing this blog has become, slowly, a small pleasure in my life, and trying to think everything into little boxes has been wearisome. As I mentioned when I originally introduced them, it was a decision I’d be reviewing as time passed, and now I think I’ve settled on cutting them.

There’s been a lot of fuss lately over tagging, folksonomies and the like, and while I recognise the utility of these things, for me it adds an unneeded stricture to what is essentially a series of personal musings. I don’t post often enough, or on well-enough defined topics, for it to be helpful to me; moreover, a personal blog with a readership of around five is not a creature that really needs the sharp knife of taxonomy slicing it up into digestible parts. Of course, if you feel otherwise, leave a comment and let me know how you feel…

Tom Coates has redesigned A fan of the old design, I’m not yet convinced by the big-text minimalism that seems to be the new vogue (see also: Signal vs. Noise).

Other Brits will be happy to know that we get Google Maps too; they even have my road. Now all we need is satellite imagery…

Of course, the big news this week (apart from that Pope thing) is Adobe’s acquisition of Macromedia for $3.4billion (£1.8billion). The daring John Gruber translates the press release for us mere mortals, while Dave Shea neologises with “Macrodobia”. Link junkies should head over to Kottke for a more thorough roundup.

Design In-Flight’s April 2005 issue came out yesterday, whereupon I paid out $10 for their back catalogue, consisting of all four issues to date (including the latest). With a front cover by Kevin Cornell and articles by Khoi Vinh and Molly Holzschlag, it’s well worth picking up (payment is by PayPal, and they email you a username and password; you can then download the magazine as a PDF).

While we’re on the subject of design, the WaSP’s Acid2 test is out now. Like the original Acid test, it checks whether the browser viewing the page deploys all the relevant CSS properties correctly. As Safari developer Dave Hyatt notes, “every browser fails it spectacularly.” Despite the protestations of standards-compliancy from the top modern browsers, there’s clearly still a fair way to go yet.

The Web Standards Project have put out a press release about Acid2. Their public relations stuff has been smarter since the backlash over the initial flagging of Acid2 as a “public effort to encourage Microsoft to add as much CSS 2 support as possible as its developers embark on IE7″; a spin which brought criticism from some quarters, who noted that no browser complied fully with even the CSS 2.1 specification. This criticism, as we can now see from the WaSP’s press release, was well founded: they state that “Acid2 has already been found to expose flaws in all tested browsers, including Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera, and Safari.”

I made a kind of unconscious promise to myself that I wasn’t going to blog about politics, which makes me slightly resist the urge to link to the Liberal Democrats’ election blog, which is powered by WordPress and hasn’t had much changed from the default Kubrick template (via Matt Mullenweg). This is what they have to say for themselves:

This weblog has been set up to provide an inside view of the General Election campaign in the UK in 2005.

It is being written by members of the team who will be working with Charles Kennedy, Leader of the Liberal Democrats.

We hope to cover all the events of the campaign up to polling day with some insights that might not come through the main news media.

I like the fact that they’re upfront about their comments policy, too. I’m going to be upfront too and say that I probably wouldn’t have bothered linking to it if I didn’t intend to vote for them. Here’s the constituency information for my constituency, Twickenham, courtesy of the BBC. Our MP is Dr. Vincent Cable, the Lib Dems’ shadow chancellor; if they win the election (bookmakers had it at 100/1, last I heard) he’d be taking up residence in 11 Downing Street. For more commentary you could try the Guardian election blog, and the BBC’s issues guide gives an overview of the various parties’ positions on key issues.

WordPress is a nice piece of kit; from the smooth, simple, “5 minute install” to the ease of creating themes, I’ve found myself impressed by the way the creators anticipated exactly what I wanted from it. Of course, I’m editorialising somewhat, but I’ve found that particularly well designed software often seems as though it was made just for you.

WordPress is a “semantic personal publishing platform”—in other words, blog software. I’ve worked with both Textpattern and Movable Type, and while they both have advantages, WordPress combines what I feel are the best points of both.

Movable Type has the advantage of a good interface, and while WordPress’ interface has its own quirks, it’s essentially straightforward and powerful. Textpattern’s interface, on the other hand, is awful. The nomenclature is confusing, and the learning curve is extremely steep. Wordpress and MT are much easier to work with; WP especially so.

MT, however, runs on Perl, which has attendant problems; WordPress and Textpattern, on the other hand, are PHP-based. PHP has three major advantages. Firstly, it’s installed on most web servers wheras Perl support is more limited. Secondly, it’s easy to install on a desktop, which means it’s easier to test. This ties into my third point, which is that while my knowledge is limited, I do have some vague idea of how PHP works—enough, at any rate, to manipulate WordPress theme files.

The theme creation system is the best of the three. Textpattern is extremely powerful, but it doesn’t have the drag-and-drop functionality of Wordpress’ theme creation system, which requires (at its most basic) only one file, and a new folder in the right place. It detects new themes automatically, and switching themes is just a matter of clicking on the theme in the admin interface.

My own theme, ‘Stamps’, was created to slot in with my existing site, and so far I think it’s working pretty well, although there’s a way to go with it still. So far it consists of an index page, header, footer, sidebar, single entry page and bare-bones archive. If there are ‘missing’ files for the theme, WordPress will simply pull them from the default theme. They won’t look wonderfully pretty, but it means that you can develop a theme piece by piece (as I am) with good results. Currently the comments section is unstyled and ugly, but it’s there and it works, which isn’t to be sniffed at.

Lastly, we come to documentation, without which all my theme development efforts would have been far harder. The WordPress documentation is incomplete and occasionally fragmented, but what’s there—mainly in the WordPress Codex—is excellent: clear, concise, with plenty of helpful examples. After the obliqueness of Movable Type documentation and the dearth of good Textpattern articles (although if you do decide to go with it, let me recommend Kusor’s TXP Tags Manual and Joel Dueck’s ‘Textpattern Semantics’), the WP Codex is a breath of fresh air. I hope to contribute to it when I have a bit more time.

All in all, I believe that WordPress is the best personal publishing software out there, especially for those who are just getting started with blogging (or are switching from a service such as Blogger or LiveJournal to a site of their own). There are some great ready-made templates out there: the WP 1.5 install comes with Michael Heilemann’s Kubrick installed as standard, and Theron Parlin’s WP adaptation of Douglas Bowman’s ‘Minima’ Blogger theme, MinimaPlus is very classy (unfortunate headers aside, it can even make the websites of aesthetically impaired people quite nice). I found kingcosmonaut’s beautifully textured site through the Web Standards Awards, and Blix is a WordPress theme he’s made.

Everyone seems to be getting in on the act; who knows, I might make one myself! As a matter of fact, I like the software so much that once I get the templates for this site finished (as far as things like this are ever finished), I’ll be starting work on another WordPress-powered project. But that’s another entry.

I have a decidedly mixed relationship with categories, genres, and indeed the entire notion of taxonomy. This unease has been brought home in the last few weeks as I’ve tinkered with this blog. Categories essentially allow readers to find posts on a given subject with ease, without having to wade through the entire archive of a blog (or anything else, for that matter). This is clearly a desirable thing in many ways, but it brings with it a number of problems.

If one is writing on a technical subject I suspect these problems are alleviated a fair bit. There is an existing taxonomy of discussion areas that can be applied to blog posts. Were I writing about web design, I might have categories for ‘CSS‘, ‘XHTML‘, ‘PHP‘, ‘design principles’, ‘Photoshop’, ‘web standards’, ‘typography’ and so on.

However, when one is essentially putting one’s personal reflections into words, things become decidedly more difficult. Initially I dabbled with very descriptive categories: ‘books’, ‘music’, ‘writing’ and so on. There’s nothing wrong with this as such, but I found them proscriptive, limiting; they stopped me from just writing, I kept having to think about fitting my thoughts into a strict little box. Of course, I could simply have posted them in multiple categories, but I have an aversion to messiness; in the end I decided to go with the vague (and vaguely pretentious) sections of ‘creation & contemplation’ and ‘media & culture’.

The first will contain posts about the nature of creative action, and the state of being a creator. Unhelpful labels like ‘creation’ don’t really latch on very well to their supposed referents, but the upside of this is that they’re suitably expansive, allowing me to cover a wide area of ground. Writing, art, design, carpentry and building Lego models all fit equally well within the definition. The second category is a corollary of the first, being about the creativity and creations of other people, its uses and misuses, and my relationship to it; the name was shamelessly stolen from v-2.

Loose groupings of vaguely interrelated posts suit me better than the alternatives, at least assuming that I’m having categories at all. I did ponder abandoning them altogether, and I suppose I might revisit that decision in the future, but for the moment I think that three or four rough areas will serve well enough, and help people find posts similar in their focus.

I’ve always found it very easy to be interested in things. The enormity of human knowledge has always been both addictive and repulsive to me; while I’m forever immersing myself in information, it can also induce despair. When notions of one’s own value become tied to what one knows (as they can so easily for people of an intellectual disposition in our culture who perhaps don’t value themselves enough), it can be paralysing. When perfection is always out of reach, why bother doing anything at all?

This is perhaps the source of my unease about taxonomy. The more one studies the division of understanding—and the world—into sections, categories, groupings, areas of study, the more one realises just how much of it there is, and how hopeless the task of assimilating it is.

There is only one course of action open to those of us with natures that leave us vulnerable to this kind of worry, but it’s not easy. Training oneself not to care, to shut down one’s information-absorption faculties long enough to actually get something done, takes time and effort and will never be wholly successful. Despite this, I suspect it’s the only solution open to us, since we have finite lives and an infinity to explore. As I grow older I find that much of life consists of shrugging one’s shoulders about all the things we can’t change, taking a deep breath, and trying to work on the things we can.

After several years without a portable music player (my ailing minidisc player suffered a catastrophic fall from the top of a chest of drawers), the end of January brought me an iPod Photo. As it turns out, it was probably a fortuitous time to buy one: I was able to acquire the now-defunct 40GB model, with all the accessories that the new models don’t have, including a Dock, A/V cable, and Firewire cable. Sure, it cost a bit more, but when you buy something as expensive as an iPod it’s hard to justify spending loads more money on extras. As it was, I could simply get the product I wanted, with the accessories I wanted, without getting that sinking feeling of “accessory guilt”.

The Firewire cable is, I’ve found, far quicker at transfers than the USB one, and having the Dock is fantastic. It just sits there, on my desk, waiting for me to jam in the iPod to recharge and synchronise with my iTunes library. Moreover, I can simply remove it and take it downstairs, then plug it into the stereo system when I want to listen to some music while I work (I usually get more writing done when I’m away from the computer). I’ve not had occasion to use the photo A/V cable yet, but I suppose I might; one never knows.

The one thing I did splash out on was headphones. Although I couldn’t afford the Etymotic Research ER-4S earphones ($330 is a bit out of my league), I did get some very nice Sony MDR-EX81 earphones ($70, or under £40, including shipping). The only caveats I have are these: if you have small ears, as I do, you may have some problems getting the loops to stay in place easily. They can also be a bit overwhelmed by exterior noise when on low and medium volume: the noise cancellation is noticeable, but not as effective as real in-canal earphones like the Etymotics. Of course, while on the one hand this makes it slightly harder to shut out the rest of the world, it does make it somewhat safer to cross the road. In any case, given the tinny sound of the stock white Apple ones, buying some decent earphones was a very worthwhile investment, one I’d recommend to anyone getting an iPod.

It’s certainly changed my journeying a lot: killing time is easier, especially when I can stomp around Reading station in the freezing cold listening to Blonde on Blonde very very loudly. iTunes is a great piece of software, and I’ve been slowly making sure all my mp3s have the correct metadata, adding album art and so on (having an iPod photo makes this a worthwhile experience, as Khoi Vinh notes—his suggestion of using Walmart’s music section to get album art is a sensible one, too).

Perhaps more importantly, it’s changed my music listening more than anything has since… well, since I got the minidisc player. Listening on journeys, especially, when one can simply concentrate on listening to the music, has afforded me an opportunity to return to old favourites and encouraged me to listen to new music more than I have for some time. Recent purchases include PJ Harvey’s Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, Thea Gilmore’s Rules For Jokers, Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm (I’m nothing if not a bandwagon jumper) and a 22-track Yardbirds best-of entitled Shapes of Things. More reports on these and other noises to come, possibly.

A quick note on an unrelated subject: if you’re a LiveJournal user, you can pick up the syndicated feed of this blog here; I’ll try to keep an eye on comments there as well as here. Still, it’s really not that hard to just register a username and start commenting away here instead! Blogging is becoming even more of a distributed activity. Hopefully I can keep up the work on the templates, and get this place somewhat more shipshape.

As with all dubious enterprises, we should begin with a disclaimer.

Trouble is, disclaimers are a lot like manifestos, and we get all tangled up in self-imposed restrictions and constraints, before we’ve even got started. This is antethical to the way life really is: we are cast naked into the world with no agendas, no mission statements, no training.

For a brief moment, we are ahistorical beings, living without a past; the endless future engulfs us, so huge that we cannot perceive it. Only the present is livable in, and we must live on our wits—except we don’t really have those yet either. So we throw up our hands and say, “I can’t handle this. You lot deal with things till I’m older.”

In conclusion: I’m going to get on with it, and worry about things like why I’m doing it, what my aims are, and other vague questions of this nature, at some later date. In the interests of being upfront, I have a few other concerns about this post that I’m going to briefly mention.

When someone begins a blog, they are—unless they happen to be a well-known figure of some kind, or for some other reason have a reasonably large audience in place before they write a single word—placed in the slightly strange position of writing their first post for posterity. With no readers, the author must compose their first post as a greeting to an as-yet nonexistent entity. People find many solutions. Some simply ignore the problem, and dive straight into writing about the mating habits of South American tree frogs, or best practice in tax form design, or what Mary said to Ted at Dave and Annabel’s wedding. Others bite the bullet, and write an introductory post of some kind or another.

An unanswered question is still hovering over this decision: why is it important? If no one will read it when one posts it, why bother? Why not just start writing about whatever it is one writes about? The answer is, roughly, “people read first posts”. Not now, of course, but sooner or later if people (even if it’s only five of them) start reading a blog regularly, then eventually people will look back to see what the first post said. Assuming that my habits are even vaguely indicative of the mores of the blog-reading public, here’s my rationale for why this will happen: people like to know who they’re dealing with. Who is this character, and why are they writing about shelf-stacking in Indonesian supermarkets?

Of course, there’s always the “About” page, but that tends to be a block of fairly up-to-date information about the person; it sits, in a sense, outside the temporal flow implicit in a stream of posts ordered by the point in time they were posted in. A first post is different—it’s first. It tells the reader (usually) why the blog exists: what was running through the author’s head when they started writing, and the editorial direction they thought it would take.

In my experience, these predictions about what people are going to write about are invariably wrong. The ideas people have about where they think they’re going tend to (probably necessarily) be one-dimensional. Life, and by extension blogging, have far more texture than our plans ever anticipate. Consequently, when someone says “In this blog I intend to write about X, Y, and occasionally Z” you know they’re never going to stick to it. People with a pragmatic bent don’t expect to; their plan is just that, a plan, a guideline to the future. People like me, on the other hand, make posts like these.

I have no idea whether or not this is going to be a “wild ride”, but buckle your seatbelts, just in case. After all, you never know when your best friend is going to decide to drive the car into the tree.


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This site is mostly articles and commentary on a variety of topics, from web development to architecture via modal jazz and Philip K. Dick. The archives are a sequential list of everything published here; if you're really hooked, you could subscribe to my feed.

The ‘About’ section contains various mutterings about me and this site; if you have any questions, don't hesitate to get in touch.

As well as reading Philosophy at university, I develop websites. This site is the sum of its stolen parts. Same as it ever was.