All posts by Matthew Pennell

How to fix your screen resolution in Windows on your 27″ iMac

When I installed Windows 7 on my new 27″ iMac, there was one glaring problem. The screen resolution — a glorious 2560 by 1440 on OSX — would only go up to a maximum of 1600 by 1200 on Windows, resulting in a stretched and pixelated interface.

Installing the Windows Boot Camp tools didn’t fix it, but after Googling for a little while I found the solution. Simply install the most up-to-date drivers for your iMac’s graphics card; mine is an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 675MX, so I downloaded the drivers from Nvidia’s website, installed and restarted. Voila, instant perfect resolution!

Getting ‘Getting Things Done’ things done

At the start of 2012, one of the things I stated I would do was get a handle on my personal time and project management through implementing a definitive GTD process. Twelve months later, I was still looking… or rather, I had decided the only solution was to roll my own. Back then it was running on Laravel. A few months later, reworked in CodeIgniter for greater development speed, I can honestly say it is up and running.

I’ve been using Ruck for the last couple of months to manage most of my work. I’m also re-reading David Allen’s book again, and the combination of discovering what works and what doesn’t in the alpha app, plus identifying the aspects of the GTD process that are missing or not quite implemented in the right way, is developing into quite a buglist.

Design-wise I was fairly happy with the layout I had worked up a couple of months ago, but as time has gone on I’m finding it more and more inflexible or just plain ugly to live with for much longer. I’ve sketched up some replacement ideas, but I hope this isn’t the first sign of the same endless redesign itch with which my blog was infected. It’s hard to avoid the standard Mac-style “menu on the left, large content area” layout, but I’m not convinced it’s the most efficient way to display different types of content together. Allen says that “hard edges” are important; keeping a clear delineation between your calendar items and other ‘next action’ tasks — to me, that suggests the UI should reflect that separation in a clearer way than just splitting a list with a header.

Once the UX is finalised I think I should be able to get through the various tasks I’ve set myself fairly quickly. The biggest annoyance right now is the delay-after-click that comes from using an online application. Pages have to load, database queries have to fire, and it’s enough to make you feel less than 100% efficient. I did briefly consider starting with a native application, and even got as far as spending an evening reading Objective-C documentation, but common sense prevailed — much better to have a working app that I can use and finesse, than spend six months struggling to make Xcode do what I want it to. When the HTML5 version is done and dusted I’ll move on to converting it for the desktop (and iPad, iPhone and whatever else looks like fun).

Sound and colour in Hollywood, another online course

Today I completed another online course, this time on the development of sound and colour in Hollywood cinema. It was half the duration of my last one, so it seems to have gone by rather fast, particularly as I didn’t exactly follow the prescribed two-films-and-four-lectures-per-week schedule; I started off well, then skipped a week and a half, so the last couple of weeks have had quite a lot of movie-watching crammed into them.

It also didn’t feel as “academic” as the last course (on fantasy and science fiction literature) that I completed. I think the lack of any meaningful coursework to complete didn’t help — last time there was an essay per week to write, but here we were only asked to complete easy, short quizzes — although I certainly subscribe to the notion that the real benefit of adult study is in an enhanced appreciation of the work (and the world) rather than a meaningless certificate. I didn’t really participate in the online community that formed around the course, either, at least not as much as I did last time, so I felt a little disconnected from the process of learning and struggled with motivation to continue at times.

Overall, though, the course was fascinating: from silent film through the dawn of sound; from black-and-white into the age of colour; and from the 1920s right up to almost the present day. The films were not your typical top ten either, but were chosen by the professor to illustrate the points he wanted to make on each topic. I particularly enjoyed Docks of New York (1928), Scarface (1932) and All That Heaven Allows (1955); the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business (1931) wasn’t as good as I thought it would be; and it was good to gain a detailed insight into my favourite director’s most stylised film, PT Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002). The lectures were never longer than half-an-hour, but still managed to contain plenty of insight into how filmmakers tackled the challenges of working with new technology — first revelling in the novelty of sound or colour, before its use becomes normalised and they can learn, over time, how to use it to effectively augment storytelling.

As with the previous literature course, I’m now left with a slightly heightened awareness of what I’ve been studying. It’s hard to just watch a film now without noticing how the costumes have been harmonised with the sets, or how lines and colours are used to focus the audience’s attention where the filmmaker wants it. I don’t know how university professors, or film critics, manage to ‘switch off’ if they ever want to watch something purely in the name of entertainment.

The next course on my schedule is an examination of storytelling and narrative in the context of online multiplayer gaming in June.

Nietzsche on critique

I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882)

Quick Fix: Google Analytics event tracking not working? Check your types!

Google Analytics’s Event Tracking is a powerful way to gain a deeper understanding of what is happening on your website. With event tracking, you can record each click, keypress or mouse move; it becomes easy to find out which fields are being filled or skipped on a form, or which thumbnails are being hovered.

I came across one sneaky gotcha this morning, though. I wanted to track the number that was displayed in a field at the point the user clicked on an “Add” button:

_gaq.push([
  '_trackEvent', 
  'Page Updates', 
  'Plus button clicked', 
  parseInt($('#count').text())
]);

On reviewing the data in GA, however, none of the clicks were being captured.

It turns out that Google will not record the event if the fourth parameter is of type Number. The simple fix was to make it a String type:

_gaq.push([
  '_trackEvent', 
  'Page Updates', 
  'Plus button clicked', 
  parseInt($('#count').text()).toString()
]);

Normally this wouldn’t come up as JavaScript has a tendency to treat most variables as Strings unless you’re careful about how they are created. In this case, relying on parseInt() to find a number turned out to cause more problems than it solved.

Resolutions, 2013 edition

January 2012 seems impossibly far away now. Moving house will do that to you — a previous life feels distant and remote, despite the year flying by in a rush of travel, holidays and new projects.

The two biggest changes in my life are causally related. In June I handed back the keys to our life in Amsterdam and returned to a decidedly quieter life in our little Fenland village. Exchanging a bike ride through the Dutch parks for a packed commuter train (or an even more packed easyJet flight) has altered the rhythm of my days, as has moving from an open-plan office of 150 to an office of six. I have much greater freedom to focus now, whether that be on reading during my commute, or headphone-insulated work in my private corner of the office.

The other change is also work related. I’ve moved, albeit temporarily (allegedly) to work on improving usability and the tools we provide to our extranet users. After three years of working on the frontend website for Booking.com, having to think about an entirely different set of users and their very specific needs and issues has been great fun, and — as the only designer on the team — I’m enjoying the freedom to make use of more modern techniques and tools than was possible on the frontend.

 Resolutions, 2012: Let’s see what you could have done…

Exactly a year ago, I published my three New Year’s resolutions. It seems apposite to revisit them and assess my success or lack thereof.

Firstly, I planned to find a GTD solution that worked. I ended up using Nirvana for most of the year, but when they moved out of beta and started charging I renewed my search. I’m temporarily using Remember The Milk at the moment, but finding it very clunky. So much so, that I’m taking steps to fix the problem once and for all. More on that later.

Secondly, I wanted to create more stuff. Unfortunately this has been an unmitigated failure; I continued to take hardly any photos (Instagram doesn’t count), left several web app ideas barely started, and failed to do much more than start a couple of new blogs. Again, more on that later.

Lastly, I promised to stay fit. That, at least, I can apparently do; I ran two half-marathons in 2012, and intend to keep going in 2013. So, more on that later. Or, well, now.

Resolutions, 2013 edition

  1. More, but varied, fitness. Regular running is all well and good, but the scenery round here can get pretty repetitive. This year I’m going to try a change in tempo — cycling, weights and swimming are all relatively cheap and easy to take up for some variety in calorie burning.
  2. Finish what I started. Over the last year I started building a GTD app (with Django), then a lifestream app (with Kohana), and finally the GTD app again (this time with Laravel). This year I intend to actually get something into a releasable state.
  3. Read more, write more. I haven’t been reading as much as I could, and I could certainly stand to up the variety of my reading material. Equally, despite thirty posts on this blog and starting two new blogs in the latter half of the year (book/film reviews on This Reviewer’s Life and daily writing exercises on Ten Minutes of Prose), I’d like to maintain a regular output — including sharing more technical stuff. I’m still receiving emails asking for help with a tutorial I wrote in 2005, so at the very least that needs updating. And the technical blog at work could also do with some design input as well.

So, in summary, not a lot has changed. I’m feeling pretty ambivalent about 2013; there’s nothing big on the horizon, and things are fine. Here’s hoping they stay that way.

Reading List 2012

At the end of 2007 I published a list of all the books I had read that year. It was a fun exercise, so in 2008 and 2009 I did it again. And then, for some reason, I stopped. God knows what I was doing that was so fascinating in late December of 2010 and 2011, but apparently I couldn’t find an hour to sit down and bash out a shortish list and some poorly considered opinions on the year’s literature.

The upshot of Younger Me’s laziness is that I now have a list of three year’s worth of books but no clear way to figure out where 2012 started. Using a combination of Amazon receipt emails and trying to recollect whether I received a particular book as a birthday or Christmas gift, I think I’ve ended up with a fairly accurate list — not that anybody else really cares…

In previous years I split my reading list into fiction, non-fiction and fantasy. This year has skewed heavily towards fiction, but I may as well keep the same format for the sake of consistency.

Fiction

  • Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace)
  • For The Win (Cory Doctorow)
  • Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland (Lewis Carroll)
  • Through The Looking Glass (Lewis Carroll)
  • Dracula (Bram Stoker)
  • Frankenstein (Mary Shelley)
  • A Princess Of Mars (Edgar Rice Burroughs)
  • Herland (Charlotte Perkins Gilman)
  • The Invisible Man (HG Wells)
  • The Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury)
  • The Left Hand Of Darkness (Ursula K LeGuin)
  • Little Brother (Cory Doctorow)
  • Anno Dracula (Kim Newman)
  • The Stars My Destination (Alfred Bester)
  • Ready Player One (Ernest Cline)
  • The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress (Robert A Heinlein)
  • Citizen Of The Galaxy (Robert A Heinlein)
  • Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (Philip K Dick)

Between July and October I took an online course from Coursera on Fantasy and Science Fiction, which required me to read a book every week and write a short essay on a relevant topic. That syllabus accounts for the middle section of my fiction consumption this year (from Alice’s Adventures… through to Doctorow), but also inspired me to seek out further reading within the genre; classics such as The Stars My Destination and (for some reason) the first Philip K Dick novel I’ve ever picked up.

The literature appreciation aspect of the course also inspired me to start a new reviews blog, where I’ve been posting reviews since late September; I’ve linked to any reviews of books in these lists.

Non-fiction

Tuva or Bust! is the story of Richard Feynman’s attempts to reach the geographic centre of Asia; I first read it as a teenager, and the memory has stayed with me for almost twenty years. I finally bought it again, and it’s still a great (if old-fashioned) read. Wil Wheaton’s memoir is also fantastic, one of those books where the hackneyed phrase “raw honesty” genuinely applies.

30 Years of Adventure was a Christmas present from my lovely wife; for anyone with fond memories of adolescent roleplaying, it’s a fascinating look at the creative and business developments behind an almost forty-year-old brand.

Fantasy

  • The Heroes (Joe Abercrombie)
  • The Blade Itself (Joe Abercrombie)
  • The Summer Tree (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  • The Wandering Fire (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  • The Darkest Road (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  • A Song For Arbonne (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  • Red Country (Joe Abercrombie)

I didn’t realise until making this list what a limited range of fantasy authors I had been reading this year. Abercrombie remains my favourite new author, although his latest book Red Country hasn’t immediately jumped to the top of my list of his work. And, as ever, I re-read a fair amount of Kay, even re-buying several books that were lost during last year’s house move.

What is best in (shelf) life?

Of the 31 books I’ve made it through this year, my favourite — the one that had me sitting up until late at night and reading first thing in the morning — was undoubtedly Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. Wil Wheaton’s book was also very good, and of course I’ll always recommend Joe Abercrombie or Guy Gavriel Kay to anyone with a taste for fantasy.

Sitting in the pile for next year, I have Douglas Coupland’s latest Player One, more LeGuin, Ed The Happy Clown and Peter Bagge comics, Alan Partridge and Stephen Fry autobiographies, several Hemingway novels, Don Quixote, Ulysses and, um, Plato.

I’m looking forward to it.

album covers

2012, My Year In Music

album covers Almost exactly one year ago, I sat down at this desk (albeit in a different country) to draw up a set of lists collating my listening habits for the previous twelvemonth. Looking back at that post, it’s fascinating how wildly my favourite artists (at least, measured by volume) change each year. Only two bands — Pixies and Arcade Fire — feature in both years’ lists, and 2011’s favourite The Afghan Whigs, played obsessively last year, barely made it into the top twenty.

2012 was the year of the fan-funded music revolution. Three of my top five albums were released through the PledgeMusic site, where fans can pledge money to fund the production of new music by bands that might otherwise struggle, and in return participate in a much closer relationship with the artists concerned as they follow the production of ‘their’ album. By the end of this month, Ginger Wildheart will have released six(!) full albums through this route; the triple album 555%, Hey! Hello! with Victoria Liedtke, and the heavy-as-hell Mutation double album.

Top 10 Artists listened to in 2012

  1. Ginger Wildheart
  2. The Wildhearts
  3. Metric
  4. Pixies
  5. Foo Fighters
  6. M83
  7. The New Pornographers
  8. Guns N’ Roses
  9. Jackdaw4
  10. Marillion / Arcade Fire

Aside from the various Wildhearts material (which accounted for more than five times as much as the next artist) my only really new discovery this year was Canadian indie-rockers Metric. After two tracks from their 2010 album Fantasies somehow made their way onto my Spotify ‘starred’ list, I gave them a proper listen, bought the CD, and highly recommend them to anyone.

Top 10 Albums listened to in 2012

  1. 555% – Ginger Wildheart
  2. Fantasies – Metric
  3. Dissectacide – Jackdaw4
  4. The Suburbs – Arcade Fire
  5. Hey! Hello!
  6. Wasting Light – Foo Fighters
  7. Doolittle – The Pixies
  8. Living Things – Linkin Park
  9. Saturdays = Youth – M83
  10. The Lumineers – The Lumineers / Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming – M83

555% was a triple album, but still — more than six times as many listens as the aforementioned Metric album isn’t bad. Again, it’s been an uninspired year for me; no new mainstream albums apart from Linkin Park at eighth and The Lumineers sneaking in at joint tenth, and two albums (Foo Fighters and Arcade Fire) appearing two years running. I must try to listen to some new music next year.

Track of the Year

Aside from a weekend away during which the kitten managed to play Sonic Youth’s 100% 619 times in row, my top ten tracks are unsurprisingly dominated by Ginger Wildheart’s 555% album. Top track, by a small margin, was ‘Lover, It’ll All Work Out’:

Aside from that, one track that got played rather a lot was Metric’s super-catchy ‘Help I’m Alive’:

With so many independently released albums this year, Spotify isn’t the best place to find them. However, I’ve collected what is there into a single playlist for easy exploration: 2012, My Year In Music.

Ready To Inspire: Tammie Lister – Design For Humans Not Robots

Tammie Lister is a designer with a passion for community and users. She runs logicalbinary.com and tweets as @karmatosed.

  • I am passionate about designing for communities; I love creating ways that people can interact with each other.
  • Sci-fi has taught us that robots don’t do emotion very well. The spark that makes us human is what makes us, us. We have all these modern techniques to help us as we design, but we forget about the passion that we want to inspire in our users.
  • We are 3 brained: Old brain (survival, animal primal), mid brain (emotions, feeling, impulse), new brain (speech, reading, thinking).
  • Multi-tasking is a lie(ish). Humans are only good at doing 2-3 things at once. More than that we feel confusion and frustration. We need simple instructions, to know where we’re going and what to expect.
  • Herding Instinct. We are social animals, we like to interact. We create small pockets within the human herd: Friends, families, conference attendees. Sharing — information, stories, news — we like knowing the latest thing. We are born dependent on each other — born social by our very nature, we don’t do all that well on our own. We mark our lives with weddings, social events, social interactions. We measure ourselves with friends, lovers — more social interactions. But there is a zombie inside us all. Sometimes people will visit your site, blindly wander through, end up in a hole and get frustrated. Don’t expect people to know where they’re going and what they’re looking for. How do you design with this in mind? Lead softly, treat them delicately (but don’t patronise). Make finding easy: What Would Google Do? Their search “simply works.” Allow people to find things easily in your design, don’t hide things. Encourage sharing: Integrate social into site, turning people into promoters. Create safe havens; we find it difficult to open up to large groups of people. Group therapy works because people let their guard down and speak more freely. If you have a forum or allow users to publish personal information, make sure people feel safe and trust you. Recognise that your users are special and not just one of the crowd.
  • The Carrot. The Pokemon effect: Gotta catch ‘em all! People like to collect things, it’s human nature; gamification plays upon that need, delivering positive and negative rewards. Don’t overdose by including every possible gamification trope, though. We learn from play, and that’s what gamification taps into. For example, achievements in World of Warcraft, or badges in Teen Summer Challenge (where users collect badges for completing reading). Gamification isn’t just about completing achievements and collecting badges; Tumblr’s homepage is a leaderboard comprised of the top stories on the site at that moment.
  • Emotional Beings. We like to feel things. If you can create a design that really touches someone, you go straight to connecting to that person. Imagery, colours, copy — there is a whole emotional palette you can draw upon. Sites can use “visual hugs” — little touches that give you an emotional response when you discover them. Use your emotional gauge. How often do you look at design and ask “How does it make you feel?” Try asking that question in user testing. Make it personal; reach out emotionally to the person, allow them to make it ‘a home.’ A personalised area, control over design/colours; greet the user by name, use their avatar, recognise their language. Example: Kickstarter’s Meet the team page. If you have a team page, put faces to names. Willy Wonka interfaces: Those sites where someone is playing, exploring ‘what ifs’, inspires a sense of awe. If you can tap into that emotion, that’s really powerful.
  • Naturally Happy. It’s in our chemical makeup to be happy; we do really well when we’re happy. When you create or design something, make it a positive experience. Freud talks about “The Pleasure Principle”: We like to feel good, on a biological and psychological level. If you have something negative, make it positive. Example: Twitter’s Fail Whale. You miss him if you haven’t seen him for a while! “Turn that frown upside down.” Don’t use “Submit” on a form; you wouldn’t say it in the real world, so why don’t we speak to people as humans? Evernote is a good example of human copywriting. Avoid user pain; simplify choices; keep calm and on track.
  • Great Explorers. We are born explorers. Remember the old Choose Your Own Adventure books? You can design experiences and moments of joy like this, where people can explore your design and site. If you can hide treasures on site that people can discover, it can enhance their enjoyment.
  • These are all aspects of human nature… but what about nurture? You have to be aware of the user’s background, culture, etc. Designers should learn about psychology; you have to know what you’re designing for; this doesn’t just apply to tools and the web medium; you must understand the people you are designing for as well.