ionfish Stating the obvious since 1982 Tue, 23 May 2006 23:47:19 +0000 en The Nesting Instinct Tue, 23 May 2006 21:29:00 +0000 ionfish Design Tarski The thing that always strikes me when looking at new Tarski blogs is how different they all are. Everyone sets things up a different way, uses a different combination of header and style, includes different things in their sidebar. People love to personalise their spaces. I call it the nesting instinct.

The nesting instinct is a wonderful thing, because it means that no two sites will ever look exactly the same. We rely on visual differences to distinguish between places as much as we rely on the writing. The fact that the places we’re talking about are websites, not physical spaces, is irrelevant: the same truths apply whether we’re talking about a house or a blog.

Tarski includes a couple of innovative features—such as the constants file—to help people nest. That particular idea came about because I didn’t want to have to add our Mint code in every time we updated the theme (which, back then, was fairly regularly). Essentially, constants.php allows includes and personalisations to persist across upgrades. Usually, whenever someone hacks a theme to their taste, they then either have to re-hack it when a newer version comes out, or they have to forego the update. With Tarski, they don’t have to.

WordPress Widgets are another good way to create persistent customisation, especially given how similar most themes are in terms of layout. The fact that some of the code is less than wonderful doesn’t mean that the basic idea isn’t great. Our latest release includes widget support, but in some ways, it already did: Tarski comes with a customisable sidebar, with a number of options that you can include or leave out as you desire. Widgets are more flexible, more powerful, more extensible, and are cross-theme rather than limited to one, but nonetheless the basic idea is the same.

As you can no doubt tell, Chris and I are pretty happy with Tarski’s progress. It’s a lot more polished, as well as more feature-rich, than it was when we originally launched it. However, the most important lessons can be learned not from what we did, but why we did it. Theme authors need to consider not just the basics of how the design will work for readers, but how best to empower theme users.

Chris has written a piece very much along the same lines—we were discussing all this the other day—so you should go and read that too.

Wild Thing Wed, 17 May 2006 18:11:04 +0000 ionfish Reviews Where the Wild Things Are is matched only by my desire for a wolf suit of my very own.]]> I’m a bit of a reactionary when it comes to TV. While not considering myself a counter-revolutionary—since I recognise and admire the many excellent programmes out there—in general I find there’s too much stuff on too many channels, and most of it is absolute rubbish.

We didn’t have a television for much of the time while I was growing up (something for which I shall be eternally grateful—except when striving in vain to answer pub quiz questions on children’s TV programmes), so my childhood memories are skewed even further towards books than they would have been otherwise.

I was horrified when I heard of plans to make Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are into a film. Another cherished world blighted by an abominable televisual millstone! That Spike Jonze is directing gives me a little hope, but still, I can’t help feeling deeply uneasy. Improving on the book would be impossible, as would simply transcribing it, so there will inevitably be both expansion and interpretation. However, this wasn’t intended as a screed on cinematic adaptations, so I shall return to the point in hand.

When I read books with illustrations in these days, they tend to be comics, not children’s books. But Sendak’s masterpiece is easily the equal of any Watchmen—witty, sharp, and with a keen insight into the real experience of childhood. Its ability to speak to both parents and children alike is rooted in truth: the truth that children are anarchic and badly-behaved; that they cause trouble because it delights them to do so; but also that such anarchy can never give them everything they need.

Reading it these days, I find in it so much of who I was, when I first crossed paths with it—and so much that I want to hang on to. Max, who wore his wolf suit and made mischief, was someone I could identify with. I still do.

Rubber Band Ball Wed, 10 May 2006 23:44:35 +0000 ionfish Life

Making a rubber band ball is a complete experience. The powdery red of the rubber bands which the Royal Mail use these days; the almost leathery feel of them; that distinctive rubber smell.

And the sound! The creak as you stretch a recently collected band over the ball, and twist and stretch and twist and finally the snap! as you let go of the final loop—or it breaks under the strain.

Then there’s the pleasure of collecting, of the glimpse of red in the gutter as you’re walking home after a long day and suddenly your spirits lift because you have purpose.

It’s something to do, I suppose.

Rainy Days and Dry Gardens Tue, 09 May 2006 23:09:03 +0000 ionfish Life Out here, early May is perhaps the most beautiful time of year. New leaves deck the town with vivid green, and golden evenings set the pale Bath stone aglow. Over the weekend I visited a friend in Bath, and headed home early on Monday morning.

I left the house a little after dawn. A light rain was falling, and the hills were swathed in folds of cloud. The world was damp, glistening, grey and green. There was no roar of traffic, just the caws of Corvidae and a single, trilling blackbird. My brother finds the countryside too quiet for his taste—the silence unsettles him—but I could be happier without the constant noise of crowds and cars and planes and squawking phones.

Streetlights winked out one by one as I trudged downhill through steadily worsening weather. By the time I reached the station, it was tipping down, and my coat—a burden the previous day—had become a welcome blessing.

Rain is business as usual here in the West, but there’s a drought back home. Apparently in south-east England there’s less water available per person in a year than in the Sudan, or Egypt; a turn-up for the books in our damp little isle. And yet, despite this, we still use more water than… well, pretty much anyone. No wonder there’s a hosepipe ban.

Wealth and technology have isolated us. We all turn on the tap dozens of time a day, and out comes clean water, free of harmful bacteria and poisonous chemicals. It’s so easy; we do it without thinking about it. We waste a vital resource, forgetting that it is life itself. And the longer we forget, the more cause we will have to regret it.

Nuclear Test Edition Mon, 01 May 2006 01:25:15 +0000 ionfish Intramural Life In the spirit of the season, here’s a minor and probably temporary aesthetic adjustment. I’ve also worked out a couple of kinks in IE. Ever since I launched this design I’ve been tweaking, and a lot of that work has been “under the hood” stuff that isn’t apparent to anyone viewing the site. At some point I plan to document some things that have made theme development and updating far easier for me.

Right now, though, I’m going to address a more weighty subject. Being three at the time, I have no conscious memory of the Chernobyl disaster, but I suspect that nonetheless, it has had a profound influence on me.

Parents like mine, conscious of world affairs, must have found bringing up young children in the mid-eighties to be fraught with undercurrents of anxiety. The Red Army was entrenched in Afghanistan, and Reagan’s confrontational foreign policy seemed to be heating up the Cold War.

Into the midst of all this came Chernobyl. It looms in our imaginations, our memories laced with the stark facts of the disaster, and with the significance it has assumed. Tarkovski’s Stalker seems so prescient now. The 30km exclusion zone around reactor 4 is littered with rusting, radioactive vehicles, abandoned after the clean-up operation. Pripyat, once a model town of 49,000, is inhabited only by ghosts—of the dead and of the living.

Elena’s photos, taken on her trips through the zone, made the rounds of the internet last year, and I think—I hope—a lot of people were quite profoundly affected by them. They give us a glimpse of the end of the world, of the brief decades after humanity abandons its works; when they are still standing, but have already begun to decay.

We accept the existence of deadly enemies whom we cannot see: bacteria; viruses; radiation. The threats they pose have a different psychological tenor to that of a gun, or a starving wolf. The danger that lurks within the zone reaches deep within us: it is the threat of emptiness, of the unknown, of an invisible, incremental death that creeps closer with the clicking of the Geiger counter.

An empty room is a question. Perhaps the zone, like Borges’ Aleph, contains all questions.

April Skies Mon, 03 Apr 2006 13:15:56 +0000 ionfish Life About this time every year, I start to think that maybe I should be getting on with things: making plans, completing projects, sorting out the detritus of my life. Spring cleaning.

After the emotional slump I tend to experience from late December to well into March, the longer days and warmer weather seem to stir some life into me. This year I’ve been more conscious than ever of the changing year, the procession of the seasons. Perhaps it’s because I’m older, and more stable in who I am, that I feel I can stay still and watch the world turn around me.

There is a great gulf between knowing something, and accepting it. One thing I’m finally beginning to truly accept, and incorporate into my life to a greater degree, is the importance of our immediate physical environment. Even small modulations—how tidy it is, whether the floor’s been vacuumed recently, how well organised the inevitable cables are—can have a profound effect on one’s emotional states.

Currently I’m trying to create a humane workplace: somewhere I feel comfortable, relaxed, but most of all, human—a person, not a machine.

There are two aspects to this task. Firstly, accepting this personhood: accepting that I’m sensitive to my environment, and that by altering it I can induce a greater sense of wellbeing. Secondly, the actual work of changing things. Tidying is a good start, but not sufficient; bare walls and empty tables do not a happy fishy make.

I kicked things off just after Christmas by adding a couple of posters; these have recently been joined by a little display of postcards and photographs, just above my desk. Amongst the postcards I mentioned the other week were a number that other people had sent me, a couple of poems I’d photocopied, and some photos of friends and family.

Having them arranged above me adds emotional texture to the room; it helps make it a home, makes it mine. My space, defined by who I am, and conducive to a continued state of being me.

Unshaved Thu, 30 Mar 2006 14:17:03 +0000 ionfish Life So having run out of shaving soap—and being of a somewhat lazy disposition, not having bought any more—I’ve gone unshaved for the last few days. I doubt coverage is good enough to really try for a beard, so I’ll be shaving it off in the next week, but until then any mirror-gazing will reveal a more hirsute face than usual.

Both sides of my family have a tendency to look young for their age; I have perennial problems with people asking for ID when I’m trying to buy alcohol. My dad’s no exception, and many years ago he grew a beard in an attempt to look older when he was presenting a paper at a conference.

He’s still got it, and I honestly can’t remember what he looked like without it (if I was even born then—not sure about that). The idea that he might one day shave it off scares me slightly—in my mind the beard is tied so closely to his identity that a part of me feels that without it, he would literally be a different person.

The thought has set me wondering: what other ephemeral, contingent characteristics have become so bound up with our idea of a person that, if taken away, would shatter our conception of who that person was? The ability to imagine how things might have been different is a foundational part of our nature as imaginative, intellectually-endowed beings, but still we find it hard to let go of realities we have lived with, and which have become a part of us.

Retrospective To-Do Lists Thu, 23 Mar 2006 16:00:19 +0000 ionfish Life The other night, having had some trouble getting to sleep, I decided to do a few little jobs I’d been putting off. These included rooting out a number of postcards I’d bought at exhibitions over the years—ranging from the V&A’s Art Deco exhibition to the National Gallery’s Caravaggio: The Final Years—and gluing them into a plain notebook.

I generally keep a little to-do list on a pad of Post-it notes, so after I’d stuck the photos in—something I’d been meaning to do for months but had never got round to—I added the task to the end of the list, and crossed it off.

Anyway, I got to wondering if other people did stuff like this. For me, it’s what I tend to do for tasks that are big or important enough to be on my to-do list (I have a pretty low bar for importance, to be honest), but aren’t for some reason, so I add them after I do them and then cross them off.

Basically it’s a way of increasing the emotional pay-off you get from completing a task; it reinforces the feeling of completion, provides tangible proof that the day hasn’t been a waste, that you’ve got stuff done. Often, because these are tasks you weren’t necessarily expecting to complete, it feels even more satisfying than usual to cross them off.

Tarski Header Requirements Analysis Mon, 20 Mar 2006 22:25:01 +0000 ionfish Design Intramural Tarski While I’m loathe to pen yet another awful tract about Tarski, I begin to suspect I have little choice in the matter. Being of an obsessive cast of mind has its advantages, not least for my work, but it does tend to screen out other concerns. Rest assured that proper articles are in the pipeline; until then you’ll have to content yourselves with some reflections on Tarski’s header options.

Version 1.1 is, in my view, a decent improvement on the original release. However, one thing lets it down: there aren’t enough new headers. I only managed to make one more, although I had a lot of fun doing it—I used the dregs of my morning coffee and the bottom of my coffee mug to make some coffee stains and splashes.

Coffee rings

Bad management (not giving enough lead time) also meant there weren’t any contributions from other people in time for the release. I mention this in part because making a Tarski header is a trickier commission than it might at first appear. It’s as much a graphic design job as an artistic one, and despite my protestations to the contrary, has a fairly rigorous set of requirements, implicit though they may be.

Firstly, headers have to integrate with the theme as a whole. They need to both respect and enhance the theme’s sensibility; in other words, they need to bring something unique and interesting to the table, but they also need to play nicely with the established parameters.

The second condition is an extension of the first: any header will, simply through the makeup of the theme, have to fit into a certain specific environment. There is no margin above the header, so the image is tight against the top of the page. To avoid any feelings of weird discontinuities, headers need to feel as though there’s something beyond the top of the page, whether that’s more sky or the rest of the coffee rings. Moreover, having no bottom border to the image makes things even more difficult. Adding a border at the bottom of the image would make the title feel squashed; on the other hand, not having one is a serious constraint on artistic freedom, since it means everything has to fade to white somehow.

Lastly, there’s interpretability. This is the most intangible quality of the three, and requires more instinct than logic. Essentially, the content of the header must be in some sense ambiguous, or open to interpretation. A publicly-released theme can end up playing host to an enormous variety of writing, from life in Korea to original fiction and more. Any header with its meaning nailed down will only be able to work effectively on a tiny minority of sites. A good header—for a public theme—needs to be able to vary its meaning with the contexts in which it’s placed.

Obviously these are all conditions which are fairly specific to the situation at hand. That said, any design problem can be subjected to a similar analysis, and in my experience it’s much easier to solve a problem when you really know what it is.

The Geometry of Progress Mon, 13 Mar 2006 16:29:55 +0000 ionfish Design Transient Intramural Tarski Any expressive activity, whether it be writing or painting or acting, will invariably be influenced by our mental situation. Where we are in our lives, our hopes and fears, our broader concerns and specific needs, all feeds into the creative process. Blogging is no different and, perhaps, is even more influenced by these currents, these daily and weekly ebbs and flows as well as by grander movements.

My writing here follows these patterns intimately, in a fashion that is largely beyond my control. When I’m finding it difficult to make headway in my life, to get things done, I tend to write about what helps me to overcome those problems. When I’m working on big design projects, I detail some of my thinking behind them—even if I never say what I’m working on, or even that I’m working on anything at all.

So, accepting this—and accepting that my moods and internal trends mean I won’t be writing things that will please all of my readers (and especially myself) all of the time—here are a few thoughts about the continuing development of Tarski.

Cat thinks of Tarski as masculine, and I tend to agree, although I’m not sure I could quantify that. Certainly once I’d settled on the name, the design process became more focused, the ideas clearer, but of course most of the structure was already in place; it was simply a matter of tweaking. Nonetheless, identity often seems to reside in the details, so the fine-tuning it went through as I prepared it for release may have played a disproportionately large role in creating the final effect.

In a sense, choosing the name wasn’t a matter of forming the theme’s identity, but of finding the name that best reflected my sense of what the theme was about, which was structure, precision and clarity, but with its share of personal quirks. I tried to give Martin and Eric a fairly free hand in designing the header artwork, trusting them to pick up on theme’s sensibility.

Tarski isn’t like, say, K2—it’s not trying to be all things to all men. While we’re trying to integrate a broad range of popular plugins, it doesn’t seem controversial to say that Tarski is at its best when used by someone who writes reasonably substantial entries. Posts that consist of only a couple of sentences will invariably be overwhelmed by the structural elements—the header, the navigation, the horizontal rules, the big serif headers.

Due to the slightly idiosyncratic way the theme works, short posts or lots of sidebar content will push the comments down the page a long way, is also problematic. While I’m tempted to say “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature,” it seems likely that it’s a factor putting off a significant number of people. The trouble is, reworking the code to give an option of a more ‘inline’ comments display would be a hell of a lot of work. Probably too much, at this point, although I don’t rule it out entirely.

On a more positive note, Chris and I have plans to expand on some of the directions we took with the initial release. The problem with any theme that gets into widespread use is that all the blogs using it have a tendency to look the same, so we included three different header images, and happily they all seem to be in use, although Martin’s grey tree understandably predominates.

The solution to this difficulty seems obvious: give people more choices. Browsing through Technorati I’ve already noticed some modifications that range from new headers to swapping columns and colour scheme alterations. One of my major goals for the next major release is to make several colour schemes available. Kyle Neath’s pitch-perfect Hemingway is available in black and white, and while there are no plans for a dark version, being able to choose from a variety of styles without having to fiddle with the CSS strikes me as a great way to allow people to bring the design of their blog closer to the style of their content.

Any expansion of the colour scheme options will need to be accompanied by new header images, and we hope to bring the talents of more artists to bear. My own meagre artistic talents may also be making further appearances… stay tuned to this channel for updates.