Archive | Opinion RSS feed for this section

Fire Cannot Burn Truth

9 Mar

Something of a departure in a way, I want to talk today about something that blogging friend Orac is talking about today, namely that a bunch of arsonists have burnt down the office of the Holocaust History Project in an apparent attempt to stifle the work that goes on there.

The HHP is a vital cog in the machinery that fights against the neo-fascist perpetuated denial of the Holocaust. It puts out educational material to schools in the US designed to educated about the nature and effects of the holocaust.

The Nazi regime is estimated to have murdered approx 275,000 disabled people during its reign, reasoning that:

It was argued that allowing disabled people to live and have children, led to the “unfit” reproducing more quickly than “the fit”. It was said that this weakened society’s ability to function efficiently, placing an unnecessary toll on non-disabled people.

I’ll leave you to reflect on how disconcertingly familiar that sounds to some sentiments repeated today by a certain section of people.

On the grounds that disabled people were less worthwhile and an unfair burden on society, a widespread and compulsory sterilisation program took place. This began in 1933…..sterilisation was followed by an active killing program, which started in 1939

Under a secret plan called the ‘T4 Program’ (T4 was a reference to the address of the program’s Berlin HQ – Tiergartenstrasse 4), disabled people in Germany were killed by lethal injection or poison gas. The T4 Program saw a string of six death camps – called “euthanasia centres” – set up across Germany and Austria. These centres contained gassing installations designed to look like shower stalls.

This is why organisations like the Holocaust History Project are vital. If we are ever to learn from the mistakes of the past we cannot allow the ignorant and brutal to hold sway.

Who’s Blog Is It Anyway?

1 Feb

And so, the Signal vs Noise debate rumbles on – a company who’ve been mildly successful with some intriguing and OK products and who up until fairly recently were well respected in the design/dev blogosphere decided to play the ‘holier than thou’ card when tagged with the ‘four things’ meme.

For the uninitiated, a ‘meme’ is like a viral game, comprised of a series of questions that is passed from blogger to blogger. They’re far from the be all and end all of the blogosphere and being tagged can induce feelings of ‘do I _have_ to?’ but at the end of the day, its just a bit of fun. If you don’t want to participate and you get tagged all you have to do is simply not post your answer. No one cares, no one gets hurt and the meme rolls on regardless.

The ‘four things’ meme is a series of questions about four things e.g. name four jobs you’ve had, four movies you could watch again and again. Utter bullshit stuff for sure and about as important as a wet fart but still, mildly interesting on occasion when the meme lands on the blog of someone you know or someone you admire but don’t know.

So what was 37signals response to all this?

The listed each question with ‘pass’ written into each answer, making it totally clear they felt the whole thing beneath them. A few choice comments were left, particularly this one from Matthew Oliphant:

This is what I take away from this post: “I hope people stop writing what they want to write about on their own blogs and write only about things I find interesting.”.

Realising that they’d pissed a few people off, the 37signals guys decided to invent a whole new meme (one supposes as some sort of ‘reward’ for us peons), entitling the post A meme worth spreading.

Great name. As Jon Hicks commented with masterful sarcasm:

Pass. I bow to your far superior meme creation techniques.

Jon went on to elaborate:

You know how I said that one of my concerns for 2006, was that blogging amongst the design community was becoming too serious and worthy? Well there we go…..After all if you can’t arse around on your blog, where can you? C’mon!

In that spirit of arsing around, I offer my own thoughts to the debate – during an idle surf I stumbled across what looked like an intruiging product. I dutifully took a screen capture which you can see here.

Please watch this space for details of my soon-to-be-upcoming court appearance.

Lets Cut Microsoft Some Slack Eh?

19 Sep

I don’t know about anyone else but I’m getting really really bored with the recent upsurge in MS bashing. Its really prevalent in the web design industry as a lot of designers are Mac users.

It comes in many flavours. First their is the odd blog post with a reasonable proposition that turns into an MS (oops, sorry ‘M$’) bashing fest. Or there’s the full on blog attack.

MS (damn, did it again, I need to write ‘M$’ for full ‘kewl’ points right?) have just released their Developer toolbar for IE and yup, you can bet that announcement got its fair share of idiocy too.

Most of the complaints centre around how uninovatory Microsoft are. Well duh. Thats not their strength. You know thats not their strength, they’ve never traded seriously on that being their strength. Stop moaning about it. However, what they _are_ good at is responding to demand. They watched how Konfabulator panned out then launched Gadgets. They watched how Tiger panned out and they’ll soon launch Vista. They watched how Firefox panned out and saw how good some of the extensions were/are and did their own…..um, whats wrong with that?

Here’s one of the things that rankles me: if they _didn’t_ do these things then these same people would be moaning about how Microsoft are sticking with the same old crap that nobody likes. There truly are times when Microsoft cannot win. They appreciate how good something is and implement a similar system/product and get accused of being uninnovative. Stick with what they’ve got and they get accused of not being able to move forward.

Here’s another thing that rankles me: without the Windows PC, the vast majority of those doing the moaning would not be in the line of work they are currently in. Corporate websites require visitors. Next time you wonder who pays your wages (or who funds your clients ability to finance design work) take a look at the OS stats for your clients site visitors.

Windows made the PC easy for the mass market to use and to get on the web with. Whilst Mac dither about for months designing a _mouse_ , the average price of an internet ready Windows PC is still falling. Whilst precocious designers complain about how Gadgets are really Widgets or what ever, Windows users continue to ramp up web sales.

This recent spate of Windows bashing is totally misplaced. So what if Vista uses a ‘plastic’ style interface? So what if Desktop X wasn’t the first to support widgets? So what if the new IE toolbar resembles the Firefox extension? Are any of these things holding back innovation on the web?

Why don’t you redirect some of that moaning into areas that Microsoft really _do_ need a good kicking about? Like full CSS2.1 support. Or why it took nearly half a decade to get an upgrade to their flagship web product?

Oh, and if you really want to know why PC’s (both Win and *nix) sell better than Macs, try changing the memory on a Mac Mini.

Having A Mint? Nope.

6 Sep

So Mint got launched. The product site is gorgeous and you can almost taste the minty tang on your tongue as you surf around. Watch for it appearing in CSS Galleries over the next few days.

Regarding Mint itself: First things first. It also looks fantastic. But then its designed and built by Shaun Inman so thats hardly news. It also works like a dream but, again, its designed and built by Shaun Inman so, again, thats not a surprise.

What _is_ a surprise is how limited it is functionally. It picks up on browser share, visitors, searches. Its a Stats programme. Call me cynical but I was distinctly underwhelmed. Whats new here that justifies $30 per site?

Most disappointingly of all, you can’t configure it to hook straight into your server generated log files. Instead its dependant on Javascript to source all stats. Thats not good. Or as reliable as getting data straight from the source.

Now I know some people will say that its very simplicity (which seems to be becoming synonymous with ‘lack of standard functionality’ on the web these days) is its attraction – thats its easy to just get the most ‘vital’ data and go. Hm. What web stat application can you _not_ do that with? Personally, I’d rather have all the options I can and then invest some time in (gasp!) learning why they’re important and how to use them.

I don’t mean to knock Shaun Inman here. He’s a web designer/developer that the vast majority of us can only aspire to be as skillful as. Maybe thats why I’m so disappointed by this. The ‘Inman’ brand usually comes with an assurance of innovation and ‘must have’-ability (sorry for the word mangling).

I use Awstats on all my sites and the sheer power is hard to beat. Its also very well organised, dead easy to use and a doddle to find what you need. Its also free.

Mint on the other hand seems like its aimed at a ‘vanity’ audience who just want the quick warm glow of seeing which of their mates linked to them. Thats all very well but whats the point in that other than a quick ego-trip? A tool like Awstats by comparison allows you to develop a brand new skill – learning to read log files in order to better your SEO skills. If you’re in business then the better your SEO skills are, the more money you make. If you’re an agency or in-house developer then the better your SEO skills are, the more money you make for your company and the better your chances of career advancement are. How can you lose?

One area of interest might be Pepper which is basically an API to allow 3rd party developers to develop plugins for Mint. But to be honest, if I’ve already paid $30 per site when I can get 100 times the power for free then I expect much more functionality to be in the core product from the word go.

Is there some aspect I’ve missed here? Something that would blow me away?

Web 2.0? No Thanks.

5 Sep

Web 2.0 – I’ve seen the phrase now and again but I’m not big on hype and I wouldn’t consider myself a really early adopter so I just marked it away for future consideration and moved on. Over the last few months though I read an upsurge in articles about Web 2.0 and have a clearer idea about what it actually is.

What it is is hype with very little substance. Steady on now as I’m going to have a bit of a rant.

First is the idea of attaching a version number to an uncontrollable system. This is the most bullshit marketing aspect of the whole deal. The whole point of versioning software is to retain an aspect of control over its staged development.

It also seems to be an attempt to add ‘coolness’ to something which doesn’t need it, in much the same way as the year 2000 become known as Y2K. I really hated that too. A year (or the web) isn’t cool, it just _is_. If it needs to have coolness thrust upon it then its almost certainly a concept that isn’t a good idea.

Secondly is my fear that this is simply a way to wrap up a series of perfectly understandable and easy to access concepts in a containing idea that simply adds mystique where none is needed and might actually be counter productive. We have enough to learn as web designers/developers without having a totally unnecessary concept put upon us.

Lets have a look at the technical components that encompass Web 2.0:

CSS, semantically valid XHTML markup, and Microformats
Unobtrusive Rich Application techniques (such as Ajax)
Syndication of data in RSS/ATOM
Aggregation of RSS/ATOM data
Clean and meaningful URLs
Support posting to a weblog
REST or XML Webservice APIs
Some social networking aspects

Wikipedia

So basically, Web 2.0 is any halfway decent out-of-the-box blogging tool.

This leads me to strongly suspect that Web 2.0 is essentially a big old-boys club for web designers/developers. Once we were able to take the piss out of those lesser than us because we could code valid XHTML and they couldn’t. Now they’ve caught up we need to up the stakes to something else in order to maintain the old boys network.

What the hell was wrong with the ‘Semantic Web’? as a concept? At least it didn’t appear to be a way to exclude rather than include people, it didn’t place a stupid amount of emphasis on blogging and it had a totally valid purpose – to make the web more semantic and thus easier to understand. Most of all it didn’t have a bloody infantile ‘version number’.

WikiPedia sums it up:

An earlier usage of the phrase Web 2.0 was a synonym for Semantic Web. The two concepts are similar and complementary. The combination of social networking systems such as FOAF and XFN with the development of tag-based folksonomies and delivered through blogs and wikis *creates a natural basis for a semantic environment*.

Thats right, it does. And a naturally developed environment has no need to suffer through the bullshit of a hyperbolic naming and packaging process. Let the semantic web evolve and stop trying to coerce it.

Lion Taming For Beginners

1 Sep

What results in a successful piece of software? Is it the power of the software itself? Is it the range of features it has? Or is is the interface design that allows a user to access those powerful features?

Its a bit of everything really but that would make for a very short and dull post and you’d feel like you wasted your time if I finished with that so let me explain.

I’ve just started a new role working for a software development company. Their flagship product is an immensely powerful data management tool – and ‘tool’ is an understatement, it doesn’t _begin_ to do justice to the level of complexity this bad boy has. If you’re an ordinary user you can view and generate reports and charts based on data from either an OLAP or relational (SQLServer in this case) DB. If you’re a Developer then you can design custom forms, reports, get down and dirty with your own SQL and a wide variety of other frighteningly techy things I’m too right brained to get right now. Take it from me, this is one powerful piece of kit.

And its driven through the thinnest of clients – a web browser. When I first saw it working, it blew my ‘cool’ rating up to 11. Its the first time I’ve ever seen anything this powerful working in a standard install web browser.

But as Spidey’s dead Uncle once said: “with great power comes great responsibility.” and thats where this colossus falters just a _little_ bit. Its too easy to get lost in it and its a very steep learning curve to learn how to use it. We know that and this is one of the reasons they took me on – to put an interface on it that is easy to navigate and make it work like the very best web based applications such as “Rojo.com”:http://www.rojo.com – a big powerful beast with an interface that tames it wonderfully.

I suspect I may have a bit of understandable resistance to overcome. There’s a lot of people who invested a lot of time in this product and it’ll take some time to convince them that I also want whats best for it. I’m hoping I can find a way to let them see the potential of this without treading on anyones toes.

Semantics Is The New Black

30 Jul

Every year around January time, the design/development community make a few predictions as to what will be the big thing for the upcoming year. Predictions range from popular colours, site types, font choices as well as more esoteric things such as concepts (AJAX was touted as the coming thing this year with some apparent justification) but a few things become popular due to events or industry leaders making them news (for example Andy Clarke’s recent post about accessibility and societal control and SiteMorses recent footshooting debacle has placed accessibility back to the forefront of the community’s collective mind).

And then some things quietly and unobtrusively instill themselves into our design/development lives with scarcely a ripple.

The ongoing movement towards semantics on the web is something that does seem to pass by even us in the community responsible for its promotion. I want to take a look at a few things that we might not even have thought of as examples of web based semantics and how they are affecting us on a daily basis.

What we mean by semantics as they apply to the web is the principle of the ‘thing’ itself having meaning as well as the message that the ‘thing’ is overtly conveying. A prime example of this:

This is a paragraph.

You can’t get much more semantic than that! We use a ‘paragraph’ element to convey the covert meaning on the section in question as well as to display the text in that element overtly.

But these days, semantics cover a much wider range of possibilities and meanings than a simple markup element. Lets take a look at Search.

Search engines such as Google, Yahoo and MSN will place an increasing amount of importance on semantics. This process is already underway – I’ve discussed before how Google are implementing a process called Latent Semantic Indexing – and will only increase pace. But what does semantics mean for search engines? It can mean lots of things. Firstly there is the semantic relationship between the search word/phrase you use to generate results and the actual results themselves. Obviously, the better that match is the more accurate your SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages) will be.

From a web developers point of view, semantics affect our sites relationship with search engines in two major ways. Firstly if you want to promote the phrase ‘bad credit loans’ on your site then creating phrases that share a semantic meaning with that phrase or the words in that phrase is a good idea ‘bad credit loans’ could be semantically matched with ‘debt consolidation’ or ‘secured loans’ or ‘credit worries’. The second way semantics is important to us comes in terms of the sites that link to us. If I’m in charge of a travel insurance website then my automatic assumption might be to get lots of backlinks from finance related sites. However, the semantic way of looking at the relationship would be to get links from sites that share a common or similar theme – holiday sites, airline sites etc.

A more intriguing and tantalizing possibility regarding semantics and search engines is the possibility that search engines are capable of determining the _type_ of site. By this I mean is the site an e-commerce site? Is it a forum? Is it a basic brochure site? Is it a blog? This semantic relationship between the underlying code of a site, its structure and its overall purpose does seem detectable by engines albeit in a fairly basic ‘brute force’ way – so far.

Moving away from search a little bit we should take a look at how blogging has powered a massive increase in constructing a semantic structure to its particular environment. Sites like Technorati which are essentially search engines for blogs have a core functionality which lists all the other sites a particular site is receiving links from – in the blogosphere links are awarded by bloggers who feel the linkee shares a common goal/spirit/language/understanding with them and hence Technorati’s Cosmos feature is a foundation of semantics – communication going beyond just the overt. With blogs becoming increasingly popular its no wonder the big search engines are interested in matching sites like Technorati’s semantic influence.

Then of course there are the blogs themselves – categorisable and taggable as sites never have been before and capable of creating a vast community based not just on what each blogger finds interesting but on the way that blogs store, produce and display information. Again, the way its said is as important as whats actually _being_ said. And as new formats and new offshoots appear (del.icio.us/ and flickr for example) that semantic relationship between blogs that share no visual similarities and _who might not even be aware of each other_ builds and builds. Flickr and del.icio.us can be fed into a lot of blogs and blogs can export their content in meaningfully rich ways via RSS.

So, semantics – its the new black. As our understanding of what can be achieved by making sure we write to a common format and how relationships between codable structures fire relationships between people increases so will our ability to have a web that can finally begin to bring things to us with increasing accuracy. The future isn’t Search, the future is Delivery.