And the Winner Is! | April 20, 2006

The entries are in, the votes have been tallied, and I’m pleased to announce the winner of the CSS Mastery iPod competition.

The first prizes of a 512MB iPod Shuffle goes to Daniel Costello for his excellent, CSI inspired rail against tables. Top marks fella!

Man with gun threatening a kitchen table

The first runner up is Mika Talvenheimo for his excellent Ray Meares inspired arctic survival entry.

Man reading CSS Mastery book in the snow

The second runner up is Adam McArdle for his ice hockey entry.

Man reading CSS Mastery while in goal during ice hockey

Both Mika and Adam win their choice of either Web Standards Solutions, DOM Scripting or Blog Design Solutions. We’ll be in touch soon.

Thanks to everybody else who entered. There were some fantastic submissions, which made it really tough picking a winner.

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LinkedOut | April 17, 2006

A couple of years ago when social software was all the rage, a friend recommended I joined LinkedIn. The idea was based on the concept of Six Degrees of Separation and allowed you to make new contacts through your existing group of friends and colleagues. For this to work you obviously had to sign up everybody you knew, so I spent the next couple of weeks trawling through my contacts list and growing my network. At the end of process I was pleased by the number of cool people I knew and how I was only a couple of steps away from Jeffrey Zeldman.

Every now and then somebody I knew would ask to get connected, to which I’d dutifully comply. Occasionally somebody I didn’t know asked to get connected, to which I’d politely decline. A couple of times I noticed spikes, where a bunch of people obviously just discovered LinkedIn and started adding contacts, often related to some kind of conference or event. However apart from adding the odd contact, I never actually used the service. In fact I never quite understood the usefulness of the application.

A couple of times I wanted to contact friends of friends, but rather than using LinkedIn I’d just email the friends and ask for an introduction. If I wanted to contact somebody else I’d just contact them through their blogs or company sites rather than searching for them on LinkedIn to see if there was a connection. Even if there was, I’d probably contact them directly rather than going through a two or three step process.

The only time I’ve been contacted by somebody on LinkedIn has been by friends asking if they could connect to one of my other friends. The weird thing is, most of the times these people already knew the person in quuestion, and undoubtedly had their email or could get it off their website.

Since SXSW there has been a new flurry of activity, with lots of cool people asking if I’d like to get connected. If you’re one of those people I apologize for not responding to you, but I’ve been considering unsubscribing from LinkedIn as I really just don’t see the point. However before I do unsubscribe, I was wondering if anybody has actually found any value in the service apart from generating a warm glow from how many cool people they know or how many steps away from Jeffrey Zeldman they are?


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Consultant Rant | April 13, 2006

One thing that annoys me about this industry is the flagrant misuse of the term “Consultant”. A consultant is generally somebody who provides professional advice to a client for a fee. So as an accessibility and user experience consultancy, clients will come to us for our advice on improving the accessibility and user experience of their products, and we’ll respond with some form of report or documentation, often backed up with a formal presentation.

One of the benefits of hiring a consultant is that their advice is independent of the internal and external political factors surrounding a project, so is generally seen as more reliable. It’s sad, but clients will often take more notice of an external consultant than their own internal team, who may have been recommending exactly the same solutions for some time. In fact, one of the benefits of employing an independent consultant to back up what your in-house team has been saying all along.

We are often brought in at the start of a project to give companies an overview of the problems and issues they face. We can also be bought in during a project to give unbiased feedback on the performance of other agencies. More often than not we start by providing consultancy services and then get asked to implement our recommendations. The key defining factor is the provision of professional advice, hence the use of the term consultancy.

Unfortunately I see a lot of companies using the term consultancy because it sounds impressive, rather than because they offer a true consultation service. This is even more true of the freelance market where the term “consultant” has simply come to mean “short-term” or “temporary” contract work. It may sound cooler than freelance web designer, but unless you’re offering professional advice rather than design and implementation, I’d avoid calling yourself a “Web Design Consultant”.

It is sort of like calling yourself “President and CEO” of a one man company. It may sound good on paper, but looks less impressive to clients when they find out that you’re also the secretary and office cleaner.

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Tag, you're it! | April 11, 2006

As you’ll no doubt know, tags are essentially user supplied metadata. Tags are useful as a means of data recall, so you can tag your images as SXSWi and then a search on your images using that tag will bring back all the pics you took during the conference. However I find tags much more useful for data discovery, so by searching for the tag SXSWi on everybody’s photos, you’ll be able too see all the pictures taken at the event.

This is great in theory, but in practice tagging can very quickly become a chore. When you have one or two photos you want to tag, it only takes a minute or two to tag them. However when you take a lot of pictures like me, you start to get into scalability issues. If it takes you a minute to tag a photo and you’ve taken sixty photos, you end up spending an hour just adding meta data to your images. Not what you really want to be doing with your spare time.

I want to add descriptive data to my pictures so that other people can find them, but I often find that it’s just not practical, or enjoyable. One of the benefits of technology is its ability to reduce menial and repetitive tasks, but sometimes it has the oppressive effect, enslaving you instead. However I’ve always felt that a technological solution wouldn’t be far away.

When I was younger I remember seeing a science program where a University researcher created a program that could recognize famous landmarks. It used a database of images which it compared with the target picture in order to find a match. At the time it could only pick out a few major landmarks, and only if the picture was taken at exactly the right angle. However I remember thinking that it wouldn’t be long before the database got large enough to cover most major landmarks, and processors got fast enough that landmark or location recognition became common place.

Another thing I’ve been waiting for is geographically aware photography. With GPS receivers getting smaller, they can now be fitted inside a digital camera. Take a picture somewhere and the image can automatically be tagged with the longitude and latitude. Now if you were to combine this with a locations database you would know exactly where each of your photos was taken. Hooked this up with landmark recognition software and you could automatically identify and tag a large number of your pictures.

This may seem like science fiction, but Bath University have already done something pretty similar. You can take a picture of a location using a GSM phone, and because the phone is location aware it scans a database of local pictures and tries to find a match. I can’t wait for this kind of functionality to enter the consumer market.

So that covers location photography, but what about pictures of people? If you look at my SXSW photos, you’ll notice that most of them are pictures of friends and colleagues. It would be great to have these pictures automatic tagged with a location, but it would be even better if they could be tagged with the persons name as well. Well as it turns out, facial recognition software is actually fairly advanced and a recently launched service may have the solution to my tagging problem.

Riya is a photo service similar to flickr that allows you to upload, store and share you images. However it has one fairly major trick up its sleeve in the form of facial recognition software. When you upload your images you can tag them, and overtime the software in the uploader learns what your contacts look like and begins to tag them for you. I’ve not tried the service out yet as predictably it’s in beta, but if it does what it promises, one part of my tagging dilemma may be over sooner than I thought.

[Update:] Just found out that if you’re a Yahoo! US user you can sign up to ZoneTags and automatically geotag any pictures you take on your mobile phone. Cool.

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Podcast Recommendations | April 9, 2006

I’ve been listening to more podcasts of late, mostly while traveling or at the gym. The two podcasts I listen to the most are Diggnation and Mark Kermode’s Film Reviews. I really like hearing Marks thoughts about the latest movies while Diggnation is very funny in a geek Animal House kind of way. I listened to the Ricky Gervais podcast a few times, but couldn’t quite manage to get into it. It was funny, but after a while it started to get a little repetitive. I occasionally listen to the Web 2.0 Show, although the quality of the audio bugs me, and This Week in Tech is worth dipping into every now and then. Apart from that, I mostly listed to event podcasts such as those from SXSW. There are bunch of other podcasts I’ve tried, but none have kept my attention for long.

I started using Odeo as a way of discovering new podcasts – mostly by seeing what my friends were listening to. However I didn’t like the fact that you’d end up with one giant feed, so switched back to using the iTunes music store. I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of the iTunes music store, as it doesn’t support my preferred browsing behavior, but it will have to do until I find something better.

In the meantime, I’d be interested in getting your recommendations and finding out what podcasts your listening to at the moment and why.

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CSS Mastery Availability and Competition Update | April 7, 2006

If you’ve been waiting for your copy of CSS Mastery to arrive, I just wanted to give you a quick update on what’s going on. It appears that my publisher (bless their little cotton socks) seriously underestimated demand for the book and didn’t print enough copies. Consequently, the first print run sold out surprisingly quickly and caught them on the hop. They rushed out a second emergency print run, which reached stores a couple of weeks ago, and went some way to clearing the backlog of orders. So if you ordered your copy a while ago, it should hopefully get to you fairly soon.

There is another, much larger print run on the way and I’m confident this will sort out the current supply issues. However if you don’t want to wait, you can now buy CSS Mastery as an eBook.

Because of the delays, I’ve decided to extend the CSS Mastery Photo Competition until Sunday the 16th April, to give you enough time to get your copy and start snapping. There are already some great pictures up there so picking a winner is going to be a tough call.

[Update] btw, if you do choose to buy the book from Amazon, please consider using my associate links. The commission you get from writing a book isn’t huge, so using the affiliate links makes a big difference.

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Manchester Ajax Workshop | April 3, 2006

Following the success of our recent Ajax Workshop we’ve decided to take the show on the road. While everybody who attended the London workshop had a fantastic time, the majority of attendees were from the south of England. This was a shame as there is a fantastic web community in the North of England, especially in cities like Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds. The few people who did make it down had a bit of a journey on their hands, not to mention an overnight stay in the big smoke. To make it easier for all the web developers in the North of the country, we’ve decided to hold another Ajax training workshop in Manchester on the 26th May.

The details of this workshop are pretty much the same as before. Ajax and DOM scripting expert Jeremy Keith will explain the fundamentals of these techniques before detailing their application through a series of practical examples. Unlike other workshops, this one will focus on core techniques rather than the use of script libraries, ensuring your Ajax applications are as accessible and degradable as possible.

The workshop is aimed at all experience levels. However you’ll probably get the most out of this workshop if you’re a CSS’er interested in learning what this Ajax stuff is really all about. On that subject, don’t worry if you’re not a JavaScript expert as we’ll be giving a free copy of Jeremy’s book, DOM Scripting – Web Design with JavaScript and the Document Object Model to everybody who attends.

Space on this event is very limited, so if you’d like to come along, start bugging your boss or training department now. We hope to see you there.

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