.Net Magazine | July 25, 2006

Last year I bemoaned the sorry state of UK web design magazines. Most of the magazines I came across were hobbyist titles, full of Flash portfolios, “how to” tutorials in Dreamweaver, and articles about setting up a shopping site in under 10 minutes. None of these titles seems to focus on professional designers, and they all seemed stuck in an Internet of five years out of.

I used to subscribe to a magazine called Create Online during the dotcom years, and from what I remember it was pretty good. They would have interviews with top designers, check out agency portfolios, and take a look inside company offices. This was obviously a lot more impressive when agencies had sushi bars and golf courses in their buildings, but it was still a good way to see what was going on in the industry. Along with this they would run the usual feature articles, and I even remember one about web standards that included an interview with Jeffrey Zeldman.

Unfortunately the magazine stopped being published, and I got sent a copy of something called .Net as a replacement. Sadly .net was aimed more at web users than developers and was full of articles about ISPs, Spam and ways to make money off the web. There were some tutorials, but they were all very basic and obviously aimed at the amateur enthusiast rather than the web professional.

I quickly cancelled my subscription and didn’t look at .Net magazine again for a long while. Over the coming years, .Net magazine slowly cut back on the Internet news and started concentrating more of web development. It was still pretty low level stuff, with lots of “how to” articles in Dreamweaver, but there was definite improvement. There was even the odd standards based article from the likes of Rachel Andrew.

Towards the middle of 2005, .Net magazine seemed to get a renewed vigour and a small re-lunch in Oct 2005 saw a subtle change of focus from a hobbyist magazine to a more professional audience. This was typified by more in-depth articles such as Jeremy Keith’s DOM scripting tutorial, a topic that probably wouldn’t have received coverage a few months earlier. Subsequent editions saw articles on web development trends, Ajax, British design and PAS 78.

Last month the magazine went through it’s biggest overhaul yet. The magazine saw a compleate redesign, giving it a modern and unified look. However it was the new content that really impressed me. The August Issue of .net saw interviews with Mike Davidson and Jon Hicks, articles by Jesse James Garrett and Stuart Langridge, and tutorials from John Oxton, Gareth Knight and myself. On top of that there was a good article on website redesigns, a look at “the real web2.0”, a great editorial by Andy Rutledge and a sweet tutorial about mod_rewrite by Rik Lomas.

As part of the re-launch I was asked to become part of the magazines advisory panel along with Molly Holzschlag, Andy Clarke and Patrick Lauke. The idea behind the panel is to provide the publishers with industry feedback, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on the redesign, and the type of content you’d like to see in future issues.

As part of the advisory panel, we get to see the next issue a couple of days before it reaches the shops. I’ve had a quick flick through issue 153 and it looks pretty good. I hope I’m not giving the game away when I say it includes an interview with Joshua Schachter, an article on business blogging, an editorial on speculative design contests, a tutorial by John Oxton on liquid layouts and another tutorial by Rik Lomas on Google Maps.

The re-launch issue was a great read, and I hope the future issues will be of the same high quality. If you are like me and dismissed .Net magazine in the past, I’d definitely give it another look.

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BlackBooks | July 23, 2006

A few months back I discussed my dilemma about buying a new laptop. While I really like my 12” iBook, I found the screen real estate limiting and wanted to get a bigger machine. I toyed with the idea of getting a MacBook Pro, but was concerned that the 15” version may be too big to be really portable. The MacBook had just launched and the 13” wide screen looked very appealing. However I had a few concerns regarding specs, and the shinny screen was particularly off-putting.

Since my original post, I took a couple of trips to the Apple store to check the MacBooks out. They looked lovely, and the screens weren’t too off-putting. However I was concerned how hot the display models were running. On top of that, I noticed the they keyboards on the black models were getting very stained. I decided to leave it until the next revision, always a good plan when buying Mac products.

Over the next few months the idea of getting a new MacBook kept bugging me. With no revisions in sight for a few months I finally capitulated and went out and bought a Black MackBook on Friday.

MacBook

The Machine looks really slick, and the shiny screen isn’t as bad as I’d feared. In most of the environments I’ve tried it in you don’t get any reflection at all, and your photos and videos really do look crisp and colourful. However this badboy runs really hot. In fact I bet you could fry an egg on the back of the machine if you tried. The heat is at its highest when you’re charging the laptop, but it’s still too warm to have comfortably on your lap without some kind of insulation–in my case my laptop cover. Also the matt finish does seem very porous and is already starting to get a grubby, which is a bit of a shame.

Apart from those two gripes, I’m pretty happy with the machine so far. Despite having just the default RAM, the machine is pretty fast, and this should only improve when I fit the 2GB of Crucial memory I have on order.

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Layout Grid Bookmarklet | July 23, 2006

Inspired by Khoi Vinh’s post about using a background image of a grid for layout, and a subsequent post over at Smiley Cat about the same thing, I decided to knock up a quick Photoshop style Layout Grid Bookmarklet

Screenshot of layout grid

The above bookmarklet simply applies a layout grid image to the body of the page. I have also created a Layout Grid Overlay Bookmarklet which creates a div, positions it absolutely and then applies the background image to the div. Because the image is transparent, you get a nice overlay effect. By changing the position of the div to “fixed” you can also create a nice Layout Grid Fixed Overlay Bookmarklet which may be useful on occasion.

[UPDATE:] Marcus Breese just emailed me a show/hide layout grid bookmarklet, which is great becasue now I don’t have to make one. Thanks Marcus.

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Mac-based Studio Storage and Backup Advice | July 21, 2006

Clearleft recently moved into a new studio, and one of the first items on our todo list was sorting out a centralised storage and back-up solution. I’ve been looking into the various options and have to admit that I’m a little paralysed by choice. This is largely because I have very little technical experience in this field, and everybody I talk to suggests a different option.

We want to set up a machine as a local dev server so we can test sites centrally. We’d probably set up SVN and develop on the local machines, but commit to the central server for testing. As well as the actual site files, we would probably add other collateral into the repository like photoshop files etc.

We’d also like to use this machine to store common files like word templates, stock images, icons etc. We’d probably want to edit these files on the server,, rather than copy them over to our local machines, update them, and then copy them back. As such, any system we use needs to be reasonably fast. I also thought about using the machine as a centralised music server, but that may be overkill.

We’d like to back-up all the info on our workstations to the server at the end of each day. We’d also like to have a redundant back-up that we can take off-site each evening. The back-up solution would need to run automatically and be easy to re-instate files if necessary.

We want to get a set-up that will last us a few years and will be easy to expand when we add more workstations. However we don’t want to spend a fortune and an XServer is probably overkill for our needs.

We’ve been thinking about getting a mid-range G5 tower and it’s been suggested that we get two SATA drives and mirror them for extra redundancy. I’m not sure how the whole mirroring thing works, although I’ve been told that this is something OS X can handle. If not, I guess some kind of SoftRaid solution would work. We would then get a firewire drive to use as our off-site back-up and take it home every night.

A few people have suggested that, rather than back-up each workstation to the server each night, we actually have all our home folders on the server. This sounds like a sensible suggestion as it means we only have one disk to back-up, so it should be faster. However I’m worried that it may slow our home folders down, as well as leave us with a single point of failure. Basically if the server dies, none of us can work.

The other option would be to simply back-up our home folders to the server each night, minus our music directories, and then back that all up to the firewire drive. However I’m concerned that this type of back-up may take a really long time and slow everything down. I know that my home computer slows to a crawl when the back-up kicks in and it has to scan all the files for changes.

If we go down this route, we need to decide what type of back-up software to use. The Mac suppliers obviously want us to pay for Retrospect workgroup, but its quite expensive, and probably overkill. Also I never hear particularly good things about it. Another option would be to use something simple like Chronosync, at least for the time being. Somebody else recommended getting OS X server and using Net Boot and Net Restore, but I don’t know enough about these apps to make an informed decision.

So I’m really interested to hear what you guys recommend as the optimal, small mac-based studio, storage and back-up solution. Something that is easy to set-up, reliable, not too expensive, but has some room for expansion if we need it.

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First London Web Standards Group Meeting | July 17, 2006

I had the pleasure of speaking at the first London Web Standards Group meeting on Friday. This was a particular honour for me as I was one of the first people in the UK to join the WSG mailing list in Feb 2004 and there are now over 400 UK members.

Being a WSG meeting, I assumed that everybody there would be a member, and therefore a die-hard standardista. I could have done a talk exposing the virtues of web standards, but was conscious about these events becoming one big back-patting exercise. As such, I decided to do something a little controversial and gave a talk on why I think web standards are no longer important.

I may have misjudged the audience slightly, as there were quite a lot of people new to standards at the event. However reading the blog posts afterwards, at least a few people got the gist of my talk.

I started off discussing the history of the screw and how it became one of the first official industrial standards. Incidentally, the first standard screw was proposed by one of the key engineers behind the difference engine, and I quite liked the fact that somebody responsible for the first computer was also ultimately responsible for web standards. I know some people wanted less screw-ing around and more CSS, but I say nuts to that (did you see what I did there!). As the first WSG talk I thought it would be interesting to talk about the history of standards and indulge myself in a spot of whimsey. I’m sure all future presentations will be overflowing with CSS goodness.

I then talked about the different types of standard, and the benefits that standardisation brings. I finished the talk by having a look at the good and bad points of web standards, before my main assertion that standards become irrelevant once they reach a certain level of ubiquity, and it was time for us standardidtas to stop worrying about standards and get on with the important job of building better websites.

Now if Molly had been in the audience, she almost certainly would have disagreed with the idea that the battle had been won, and standards were now ubiquitous. However in the context of a room full of standards geeks, I felt it was important to stress that standards are just the start of the journey, rather than the destination. Something that many of us forget.

If you read my previous post about public speaking tips, you’ll be amused to know that I failed to do pretty much all of them on this occasion. I’ve been really busy at work the last week, so didn’t have time to run through the slides beforehand. Consequently I felt decidedly under prepared and ended up tweaking the slides all the way up to London. It was a blistering hot day, so I decided to go in my shorts and new cork’d t-shirt and ended up somewhat under dressed . And if that wasn’t enough I managed to um and er my way through the talk, which may not have shown on the, er, day, but definitely stands out on the, um, podcast.

I had a really good time on Friday and would like to thank everybody who attended the event, and especially Stuart for organising such a great night out.

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Latest d.Construct News | July 13, 2006

If you haven’t already gathered, d.Construct is a one day web app conference organised by myself and the other Clearleftites in Brighton, England. I always feel a little awkward posting promotional stuff on my blog as it’s really supposed to be a personal site. However until we get round to setting up our company blog–something that’s been planned for over a year, but always gets pushed back to the queue–I hope you’ll humour me.

Preparations for the conference are moving apace, and the event looks set to be bigger and better than last year. We recently announced the schedule, so if you haven’t had a look yet, go check it out. We’ve got a great series of talks planned, all loosely based around the theme of mash-ups and APIs. We’d call it a web 2.0 conference, but we couldn’t afford the legal fees.

Jeff Barr from Amazon will open the show with a talk about the power of web services. Next up are Paul Hammond and Simon Willison with a high energy presentation about the Yahoo! Developer Network and life behind the Yahoo! firewall. Following that we have Jeremy Keith’s cheekily titled “The Joy of API”. Expect lots of drawings of bearded developers doing things your grandmother wouldn’t approve of.

After lunch, we’ll be starting strong with Aral Balkan, the surprise hit of last year. I say surprise because he was talking about Flash and Flex, something you don’t usually expect to see at a standards savvy conference. In this session, Aral will be mashing his flex up and showing you how to web 2.0 with flex 2.0. Next up we have Derek Featherstone discussing accessible Ajax, two terms not often heard in the same sentence. We then have tagging guru, and inventor of the term folksonomies, Thomas Vander Wal, explain what tagging is all about, and how to use tagging in your web apps.

Last, but most definitely not least, we have the big guy himself, Mr Jeffrey Veen closing the show with an inspirational talk on designing the complete user experience. If you’ve ever seen Jeff speak at a conference before, you know his sessions are not to be missed.

Jeff may be closing the conference, but the night most definitely won’t be over. Our friends at snipperoo are organising a big after conference party, so there should be food, drink and entertainment aplenty, well into the small hours.

Being the geeks that we are, the schedule has been marked-up in hCal format, so you can subscribe to the schedule in your calendar app thanks to a cool little tool from technorati.

Registration for d.Construct opens in a few days time, and with a modest ticket price of only £75+Vat, places will probably go quickly. If all this stuff isn’t enough to convince you to sign up, we’ll be giving away some prizes on the day, including free tickets to next years SXSW, book bundles from Apress and software from Adobe.

To help get you in the spirit of d.Construct, we’ve also launched a pre-event podcast. The first show is a retrospective, with Jeremy Keith going over some of last years talks and giving you a sense of what the conference was like. Future shows will see Jeremy talking to some of the speakers to see what makes them tick, as well as interviewing past and future attendees to find out what makes d.Construct so special. We already have a couple of great interviews in the bag, and will be releasing them over the coming weeks, in the run up to the event.

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Public Speaking Tips | July 6, 2006

I got an email from a friend a couple of days ago asking for advice about public speaking. Now I’m no Jeremy Keith expert, but I have spoken at a few conferences recently, and have a couple more lined up in the next few months. Rather than reply by email, I thought it may be useful to post my thought online, just incase any of you have to give a speak or presentation.

I guess my top tip is be prepared. I know many speakers who prepare their notes the night before they talk, or even just before they speak, and this seems to work for them. However if I took this approach I’d be a mess.

I start thinking about my talk several months in advance and start jotting down notes a good 4-6 weeks before the event. I write everything out in as much details as possible, almost like a transcript, and then read the notes out-loud several times.

Once I’m happy with the basic structure I’ll move everything into Keynote. I used to use S5, and for technical talks where you need to flip between code examples I still think this is the best option. However I like the layout control Keynote gives you, and it’s just a lot easier than messing around with HTML/CSS.

The first couple of times I spoke, I literally wrote everything I was going to say in bullet-point form on my slides. However while these provide you with an excellent prompt, they are pretty dull for the attendees. As such, I’ve started to pair my slides down so they just show the bare minimum, and dump everything else in the notes section of Keynote.

Speaking notes in Keynote

The next thing I do is to run though the slides and time myself to check the amount of material. It’s fine having too much material as you can always skip over bits. However there is nothing worse than running out of material and having to tread water for 30 minutes. When you get on stage you’ll most likely be a little nervous and talk faster than normal. As such, you’ll need to be conservative with your timing. If it takes you 45 minutes to go through your slides when relaxed, it’ll probably only take 30 minutes on the day. Usually I’ll slightly underestimate the amount of material I have, so will usually go back and expand my notes or add a couple of extra slides.

I’ll then read through the slides again out-loud again, and again, and again. I like to run through my presentation at least three times so I’m confident I know the material. Practice makes perfect, so the more times you can test the presentation the better. Try doing the presentation in front of a small group of friends and colleagues first. This will get you used to presenting the material to a group of people, and should hopefully elicit some feedback and suggestions.

People tend to have fairly short attention spans, especially if it’s just after lunch or nearing the end of the day. This is why I try to add visual interest to my slides. Good quality, and preferably funny pictures help people keep interest. Pictures of people are always good as we’re naturally programmed to respond to happy, smiling faces. If the pictures you use can back up the theme or concept in some way, even better.

Slide from my @media 2006 presentation

Slide from my SXSW 2006 presentation

Once the slides are done, I tend to leave them alone and blank them out. Some people like to continuously tweak their slides up to the last minute, but I find this makes me a little agitated. The more you think about having to speak the more anxious you get. As such, I stick my head in the sand and completely ignore the fact that I have to speak in front of a room full of people. I can usually blank this out until about half an hour before going on, by which time it’s too late to worry. You just get up, do your things and hope all the planning has worked out for the best.

I subscribe to Jeff Veen’s notion of being slightly smarter dressed than your audience. So if everybody is in shorts, you wear jeans, if everybody is in jeans, you wear some smart trousers. This helps set up an expectation of authority with your audience, as well as making you feel a bit more confident about yourself. I also find a good haircut a couple of days before helps.

I also agree with Jeff that stories are a very powerful tool. The human race are natural born story tellers and we like noting better than a good yarn. Rather than simply explaining why something is a certain way, put it into context with a story. When people leave the conference, they probably won’t remember all your bullet points, but a good story will stay with them for years.

Getting up in front of a room full of people isn’t the most comfortable or relaxing thing you can do, so the natural tendency is to try and get it over with as quickly as possible. As such, your talking pace will quicken and you’ll start to um and er a lot. II know because I’m guilty of doing this as well. You don’t know you’re doing it at the time, but it really stands out on the podcasts afterwards. This sounds like obvious advice, but the way to combat this is to slow down and make plenty of strategic pauses. For a speaker, silence can be intimidating. However pausing for a few seconds after each important point helps the information sink in and improves the flow of the presentation. I also find it helps making eye contact with people in the audience. Doing this helps you engage the audience and can also reduce your nerves as you feel like your talking to individuals rather than a mass of people.

Here are a few more resources to get you started. If you have some of your own suggestions, please feel free to chip in.

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d.Construct Registration Announcement | July 3, 2006

Just a quick post to let you know that the registration date for d.Construct 2006 has been announced. Registration will start at 10:00 am on the 18th Jul, and if it’s anything like last year, tickets will sell out fast. So if you’re planning on attending d.Construct–and I hope you are–pleasse register bright and early to avoid disappointment.

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