Category Archives: Sharing

HybridConf, 2014

I’m just back from attending HybridConf, a 2-day web design/development conference in Stockholm. It was my first time in the city, and I found it strangely underwhelming. I don’t know whether spending so much time in Amsterdam has spoiled me when it comes to stunning architecture, but Stockholm just felt like it could be any of a dozen anonymous British cities, albeit with a lot more umlauts and street corner beggars.

The conference itself, in its second year and transplanted from Bath by organisers Laura Sanders and Zach Inglis, was excellent. The relatively small attendee count gave it an intimate feel, and the venue – the historic Rigoletto cinema – made this probably the most comfortable conference I’ve ever attended. Perhaps half of the audience were Swedish, with the rest travelling from all around Europe. There were even a few Americans present, and they in particular must have felt at home, as almost three-quarters of the speakers were from the US.

I and co-worker Erin Weigel managed to catch just about every talk; I particularly enjoyed Dan Rubin‘s opening talk about team communication (and it closely matched how we run our teams at Booking.com), and Scott Hanselman managed to be both funny and informative despite having to fit in a second unplanned appearance on stage to stand in for the missing Sara Chipps. But the highlights of the two days were both delivered by people building actual real things. Tom Soderstrom, CTA of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, gave us an insight into the sort of work going on there, and how they apply startup culture and thinking within one of the world’s most expensive projects.

Then on Friday, GitHub’s Andrew Nesbitt tempted the live demo gods by wiring together an Arduino-powered, joystick-controlled ball live on stage. I was only slightly disappointed that he didn’t attempt to feed his rabbit live over the internet.

We were of course there as sponsors in our ongoing quest to hire the entire world, and it’s good to hear during the many conversations I had with other attendees that A/B testing and experimentation is becoming a lot more of a mainstream aspect of modern web design and development. We’ve become something of a fixture at web conferences now, and people are much more aware of what we’re doing and how we work. We had sponsored Experience Design Stockholm‘s event the previous evening, where Erin had delivered a great talk on experimentation that was also well-received; I think it’s strange that more large companies aren’t using this route to directly mingle with our industry’s top talent and promote themselves as maybe being that potential next job.

Envious habits

In a propitious piece of timing, considering last week’s post on forming new habits, I read an article on Medium tonight about ‘The Myth of Creative Inspiration‘, written by habit-transformation guru James Clear. In it, he says:

The work of top creatives isn’t dependent upon motivation or inspiration, but rather it follows a consistent pattern and routine. It’s the mastering of daily habits that leads to creative success, not some mythical spark of genius.

So perhaps I’ve been going about this writing habit all wrong — it’s not enough to tell yourself you will find time to do something, you need to incorporate it into your daily routine. Clear uses an excellent metaphor to make his point:

Creative work is no different than training in the gym. You can’t selectively choose your best moments and only work on the days when you have great ideas. The only way to unveil the great ideas inside of you is to go through a volume of workput in your repetitions, and show up over and over again.

He’s got a point. I’m finding it much easier to stick to a workout schedule when it is the first thing I do when I get up; if I deviate from that schedule, it’s much harder to find the time to fit it in later in the day.

Another interesting article, also on Medium: ‘How to Feel Successful and Not at All Inadequate in One Easy Step‘ is about the deleterious effect that envy can have on your ambitions. I suspect it is something that is particularly rife within the web design community, a combination of our need to over-share everything we do and the ‘rockstar’ culture that grew up around some of the pioneers and early adopters in the industry during the early 2000s. At one point, it seemed that all you needed to do to achieve book deals and worldwide acclaim (and, later, tens of thousands of Twitter followers) was to come up with some new way of floating elements, or build a simple yet beautiful web app and charge people for something they already had for free. Everyone else was trying to emulate the success of the chosen few. I was guilty of it myself, publishing at least a couple of attempts at sparking a new development trend, and announcing then quietly canning a web app or three.

I think perhaps it’s harder to let go of what seems an achievable dream. Once you leave your early twenties, only the most deluded still harbour dreams of becoming a rock star; but having that one great idea for an app, or discovering a new and more efficient way to do your job, is possible at any age. But, like anything worth doing, you have to work at it – again, the advice of James Clear is, well, clear:

…if you’re serious about creating something compelling, you need to stop waiting for motivation and inspiration to strike you and simply set a schedule for doing work on a consistent basis.

Coursera – Online Games: Literature, New Media and Narrative

Continuing my ongoing adventures in free online education, this month I embarked on my fifth Coursera course. Online Games: Literature, New Media and Narrative is a six week course run by Nashville’s Vanderbilt University that aims to explore “remediation” — the transplanting of one form of media into another — via the book-to-film-to-game transition of the ‘world’s greatest work of literature’, JRR Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings.

Students (more than 40,000 of them according to this Penny Arcade piece) are assigned both reading and in-game assignments in addition to the pre-recorded video lectures delivered by enthusiastic nerd-in-chief, Jay Clayton. It is fascinating watching experienced gamers and those totally new to any kind of computer game, let alone the complexity of an MMORPG, working and learning alongside each other in the course forums and online. Many established LOTRO players are incredibly generous with their time and resources, supplying new classmates with enhanced items and organising special sessions to achieve in-game rewards.

So far we’re only on Week 1. I’ve re-read The Fellowship Of The Ring, and re-watched Peter Jackson’s film of the same name (and bored my wife by pointing out all the discrepancies between the two); Discelas the Elf has reached level 16 and met Tom Bombadil, and I’m all set for another five weeks of relaxed study.

Lapsed Gamer

After such a long break from my semi-serious Warcraft days, it’s strange to be back playing an MMO again. The seductively easy gameplay and progression in LOTRO is not quite as seamless as WoW, but the addition of the background mythos and characters from Lord Of The Rings provides an added depth and impetus to carry on playing through the main questline, a key aspect of the game that WoW conspicuously lacks.

It has reminded me of the reasons I gave up playing WoW, though (and subsequently EVE Online, Warhammer, Defiance, and one or two others). The constant “live”-ness of the game world, and lack of a Pause button, elevates the action in the game to the importance of real life; you can’t turn away from the game for a second to speak to a child or kiss a partner, and the further you progress in the game, the more this anti-social monkey on your back demands attention, and for longer and longer periods of time.

Add to that the lack of any real-world output after countless hours of effort, and you have a recipe for a wasted life. I gave it up to concentrate on making something tangible, and I think I’m happier for it.

dConstruct 2013

Don't worry we're from the internet

Summer is over, the rain has returned, and the kids have gone back to school … which means it must be time for another dConstruct conference, in the UK’s alternately sunny and rain-drenched south coast hipster mecca: Brighton.

dConstruct’s relevance to the web seems to become more oblique with each passing year. This year’s theme, “Communicating with machines,” promised a day of “exploration and entertainment.” My employer Booking.com was sponsoring the conference for the first time, but those of us attending for the purposes of recruitment were also lucky enough to be able to watch many of the sessions. Here are some of my highlights.

Of Cyborgs, Toast & Gay Vulcans

Amber Case, also occasionally known as: “Hey, look, someone’s actually wearing Google Glass!”, started the day with a look back at the work that she has done with her startup Geoloqi in the field of ambiently location-aware applications. She and her team have done much in the real-world equivalent of Minority Report’s imagined individual-aware notifications, although hers were mostly confined to pushing interesting wiki information at users rather than advertising. Her look at the history of wearable computing was interesting, though, taking in the work done by Steve Mann and the MIT Borg Squad and the designers who, many years later, would go on to ship Google Glass.

Simone Rebaudengo’s talk was a fascinating exploration that asked what our digitally connected devices might actually want from their owners. His socially-aware toaster experiment — wherein networked toasters bugged their owners to make more toast both through online activity and actual knob-jiggling physical prompts — was brilliantly conceived, and even if the result has little obvious practical application, it prompts interesting thought about how more socially beneficial activities can be encouraged through a subtle combination of positive and negative reinforcement.

Musician Sarah Angliss discussed uncanny sound by way of the Uncanny Valley. Her talk took in music over the last several hundred years, digital versus analogue performance, and ended with a haunting theremin-and-talking-dolls-head performance of her music.

Maciej Ceglowski, the man behind Pinboard, delivered a deliciously funny insight into the world of fan- and slash-fiction. From his admitted initial mockery of the largely female community and their homo-erotic copyright-busting short stories, he explained how he came to appreciate their boundless enthusiasm and love for their community, and his examples of the lengths to which they would go to improve and maintain the tools they love provides an optimistic counterpoint to the usual mindless trollery of many online communities such as YouTube commenters.

Speaking of YouTube comment trolls, the day was closed out by comedian Adam Buxton taking a rambling look at things he did with his laptop. His question was allegedly: “Is my laptop ruining my life,” but from that starting point Buxton managed to encompass kittens with breasts, Garage Band, motivational quote websites, and of course his now-familiar descent into the strange world of YouTube commenting. With the audience in hysterics, he concluded that perhaps his laptop was not ruining his life after all… and with that, we all shut our laptops and went to the bar.

A word from our sponsors

dConstruct’s unique approach to ‘web’ conferences draws a much more diverse crowd than you might normally encounter, and the affordable price contributes to that diversity. Despite that, we still managed to talk to many designers and developers about the roles we’re looking to fill at our Amsterdam head office, and I’m happy to hear that our presence at these kinds of conferences is starting to become familiar and welcomed by delegates. We’re not a recruitment agency, as one confused delegate seemed to think; we are the designers you could be working alongside, and it’s great to have the opportunity to get out and share our enthusiasm with potential future colleagues. If you didn’t get the chance to come and chat to us during the conference, we’re always happy to talk — seek us out on Twitter or visit booking.com/jobs for all the details.

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!

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)

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.

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.

Alfred shortcuts for writers: find definitions, synonyms and antonyms

Today I finally got around to something I’ve been meaning to do for ages.

If you’re anything like me, then quite often when you’re writing your brain will refuse to supply you with anything but the most limited vocabulary. Or, equally annoyingly, it will suggest a word but with the caveat that: “I’m not completely sure this means what I think it means.”

So, to cut down on keystrokes, I’ve created a couple of shortcuts for the king of Mac productivity apps, Alfred. If you have Alfred installed, just click on the links below to add ‘def’ and ‘syn’ to your custom searches, and save yourself those crucial seconds when inspiration makes a run for it.

Alfred ‘def’ shortcut to find definitions of a word

Alfred ‘syn’ shortcut to find synonyms/antonyms of a word

 

(Yes, I know Alfred already has a “define” shortcut to call up the built-in Dictionary.app — which also has a Thesaurus — but a) I prefer loading a website than opening a separate app; b) my shortcuts are shorter.)

Synaesthesia.js

Ever found yourself struggling to choose a colour scheme for a new project? Maybe you browse sites like Adobe’s Kuler or COLOURlovers; perhaps you find photographs that capture the mood of the site you’re trying to design; or maybe you click aimlessly on Photoshop’s colour-wheel until inspiration strikes.

Well, fear not – here’s another pointless and entirely arbitrary way to select those all-important tints and shades. Synaesthesia.js is my JavaScript solution for the inspiration-impaired.

How it works

The script converts whatever you type (discarding any non-alpha characters) into shiny hex colour codes, and shows you the result. The results update as you type, so you can try out creative new ways to spell.

How it actually works

  • Letters are matched to a hex code: A becomes 0, B becomes 1, C becomes 2, and so on through to Z (9, in case you were wondering).
  • From the resulting string of hex, each substring of six characters is used to create a colour block.
  • The colour blocks are appended to the target element, together with the hex code for easy copy-pasting into Photoshop or your text editor.

And that’s all there is to it! Have fun – the project is also on GitHub if you want to play with the code.