The Marvel-ous Collection: A Beginning

I’m a pretty big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so it felt a bit ridiculous when I was given Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 for Christmas. To be clear, the gift wasn’t ridiculous; it’s a fantastic film and one I’ve been excited to rewatch since seeing it in the cinema. The ridiculous part was that this officially marked the start of my Marvel Bluray collection. That’s right, I might be a huge fan of the franchise and own a fairly sizeable solid-media movie collection, but I’m almost entirely absent the MCU!

I say almost, because in truth I do own both Guardians of the Galaxy (now Volume 1, I guess) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier on DVD, but for a 17 film franchise (at time of writing) that’s pretty meagre. Part of that reason is the Bluray dilemma: ultimately, I don’t care that much about the increased resolution for most films, but I definitely care about the extra features. As Bluray has become the de facto release location for collector’s editions and special features, I was increasingly left behind, waiting for both an excuse to buy a Bluray player and then, later, for prices to drop back to the realms of sanity.

Luckily, 2017 saw both goals achieved. Whilst Blurays remain expensive (Marvel’s particularly so), they’re now at an acceptable premium above the respective DVD release, so with bonus featurettes, content and a better picture quality they feel somehow more worthwhile. At the same time, Marvel finally released a collected set for both Phase One and Phase Two, something I find bizarre has taken half a decade. I mean, what other purpose does the marking of “phases” serve then to artificially create film sets? At any rate, the result was a sudden galvanisation to fill in the blanks and finally own some of my favourite superhero films.

Unfortunately, a quick look at the contents of the collected sets left me a little cold. Yes, there are new bonus scenes, animatics and fun Agent Coulson introductions for each of the films, but they also lack a number of key special features from previous releases, especially the big documentaries. As a result, I’ve thrown in the towel! If Marvel/Disney can’t get their act together and release a definitive edition of the MCU then I’ll just create one myself.

The first hurdle was finding out what variations existed, what the actual differences were and then weighing up the pros and cons. Luckily, Reddit came to my aid (after Google summarily failed) with a raft of suggestions for comparison websites geared towards just this kind of task.

Since then, I’ve been slowly going through the films, one by one, narrowing down my options until I’ve found the exact version that most intrigues me. So far, the few I have settled on have been “out of print”, but luckily a robust second hand market appears to exist, keeping resell prices low. It’s slow going, but honestly I’m finding it quite fun. I’m also tracking my decisions and aim to release a full list, and break down of why I chose each film’s specific version, once I’m done.

For now, I figured it would be worth a quick round-up of the websites I’ve found most useful, so without further ado, and in no particular order, here are my top five film hunting locations:

1. DVD Double Dip
Not the prettiest site, nor the most complete in terms of information, but what it does have is extremely easy to read, compare and review. Probably the best starting point I’ve found but take the accuracy with a pinch of salt.

2. DVD Compare
Very accurate, particularly when it comes to extra features, and great for comparing regional differences in films. Take particular note of the “Cuts” and “Overall” sections at the bottom of a search page to see if the film is actively censored anywhere in the world. I wish you could compare films side-by-side, but still easily my favourite comparison site.

3. Blu-Ray.com
Probably the most complete database of film releases on this list but a bit of a pig to search accurately. There’s no way to easily compare film versions without opening multiple tabs, but you can filter by country directly on the search bar and the user reviews are solid, often clearing up any confusion over oddly phrased features.

4. Filmogs
Another very complete database without easy comparison methods. Easier to navigate than Blu-Ray.com but the search is less intelligent (e.g. “Avengers” fails to pull back any collected sets). Again, useful for getting more information, plus acts as a competitively priced marketplace.

5. /r/DVDCollection
If all else fails, ask here and someone will probably either know the answer or own the film and be able to tell you. Really helpful bunch!

Of course, once you’ve narrowed down your options and decided which version is just right, you still need to buy the darn thing. Obviously if you’re looking at buying new then all the normal locations apply, but for second hand movies I’m having most success at the following:

1. Music Magpie – though be wary, several times I’ve spent a while looking at a film, come back later and found the price has shot up. Leave it a few days and it seems to drop back down again.
2. eBay
3. CEX
4. Amazon Marketplace

Happy hunting!

New Year, New Phone? Compare the Camera First

Currently, both myself and my partner are looking into replacing our mobile phones (her slightly more urgently). As a result, we’re both quite deep in the mire of tech reviews, contract comparisons and general research. For the most part, this has only gone to prove what I wrote about several weeks ago: the mobile phone market is stagnant. None of the current generation’s big, flashy marketing gimmicks are even close to being on my list of desirable features, whilst previous years’ genuinely useful innovations seem to have almost entirely disappeared (looking at you, waterproof casings!).

As a result, more so than at any time I’ve previously delved deep into the mobile market, the minor differences and quality of parts are becoming increasingly important. For both of us, one of those now-standard features which can make or break a mobile is the camera, but trying to really tell the difference between two handsets ability is getting incredibly hard. Long gone are the days of pixel wars, where the MP rating was a broadly useable mark of quality. Now all phones have far too many pixels to ever be needed, meaning the calibre of the lens and processing software is much more important. Here, too, though it has become harder to tell pro from imposter, with even relatively basic mid-tier handsets boasting chips and glass from reputable sources like Zeiss and Samsung.

So the discovery of GSM Arena and it’s phone comparison tools (all credit goes to my partner for the actual discovery, of course) is a real boon. It’s a brilliant website – irritating banner ads aside – which is surprisingly fast to load extremely high resolution, balanced images taken with any number of mainstream mobiles. Not just photos, but stills taken from video recordings are present as well, able to be synced between three phones for immediate comparison. It’s a fantastic tool for quickly and accurately comparing models, with some surprising results. Personally, my favouritism of Sony has seen me eyeing up the XZ1 Compact, but having viewed the direct comparison between the Galaxy S8 I’m now a little put off (though oddly the video still seems much sharper). Most disappointing has been the Huawei Mate 10 Lite, which impressed me in store but at this detail is clearly lagging far behind.

Still, personal problems aside, it’s a cracking service and well worth shouting about!

Death of the Internet [#50]

December 14th 2017: The day the internet died.

It’s a weird thing to wake up to, the repeal of net neutrality in the US. There’s is absolutely nothing that I, as a British citizen, could do to prevent the FCC from taking this course of action. Which, to be fair, isn’t too far from the reality for American citizens either; the result is not particularly unexpected, despite widespread criticism.

There’s also no way of knowing the impact it will have. Worst case scenario, as a non-American, would be seeing other governments (particularly my own) mimicking the decision and formally handing the web over to corporations, rather than people. Except, outside of the US the ISP market isn’t dominated by monopolies, so the market would actually stand a chance at forcing effective neutrality. That means I’m fairly insulated from the most obvious repercussions. Harder to measure, but probably more likely, are the ripple effects. How many new services will simply never exist if US providers decide that road blocks are more profitable than open highways? How much innovation in Silicon Valley will be lost to firms spending less on R&D and more on bandwidth?

On the other hand, if ISP’s in the US do abuse their new powers it could lead to the slow (or relatively sudden, depending on perspective) eroding of the US as a global leader in technology and software. Whilst the UK is not exactly well placed to pick up that slack, countless other countries would likely benefit. Less of an American influence on the web could actually be widely beneficial (of course, not to Americans).

The result is that the loss of net neutrality, from a global perspective, is a bit of a grey area. We may benefit or we may lose, but ultimately we will be slightly more able to shape that destiny. The ridiculousness of the decision is that such luxury is not afforded to the US itself. They are the ones rolling the dice, but they’re also the ones with the highest stake, all balanced precariously on an unknown odd. No matter what happens next it’s pretty unlikely the US will benefit, but the rest of the world just might.

On that note, if you are in the US and are rightfully worried/angered by the decision that occurred yesterday, I’d point you towards Ethan Marcotte’s break down. It offers a slim silver lining which is plausible (unlike some of the others doing the rounds) as well as an even, yet irritated, overview of what it could actually mean. Well worth a read and well worth enacting.

Dark Booking Patterns [#47]

I just fell down a rabbit hole learning about Dark Patterns, thanks largely to a link in an, as ever, well thought out Adactio post. To be clear, I knew what a Dark Pattern was, I just hadn’t come across the term for them before. In brief, then, a Dark Pattern is a UI decision created to get a user to do something without really knowing why or how. It’s trickery and marketing merged into one and can be used to generate actual sales, push you to a specific part of a website or article, draw your attention away from negative elements or get you to agree to participate in some way. Basically, Dark Patterns aren’t great. They’re a bit morally dubious, they can leave a bad taste in your mouth and they can actively confuse or negatively impact people.

Sounds like something that should be avoided and shunned by any morally conscious designer, right? And probably something that, when noticed, should be shamed, yes? Good, we’re on the same page. But then I read a well reasoned break down of why Booking.com is a pretty awful abuser of exactly this type of user experience design. The full article, titled How Booking.com Uses Stress to Rush Your Decisions and written by Roman Cheplyaka, is a smorgasbord of dodgy design decisions. From fake urgent messages (“Someone just booked the hotel you’re looking at!”) to hiding negative reviews, Booking.com does not fare well when analysed with a Dark Pattern mindset. Time for a boycott then, right?

Well, put simply, no. I use Booking.com quite a lot. I’m a registered member and a recipient of their “Genius” discounts, which have saved me a fair amount over the past few years. I like the wide selection of hotels that are on offer, I like how key information is displayed and I particularly like their search functionality which makes drilling down through results incredibly quick and easy. I’ve recommended the service to countless friends and family and I’m not about to stop anytime soon. Do I find the urgent messages and dire warnings of inaction irritating? Yes. Have I occasionally found myself booking a room faster than I probably ought to have because of a fear of missing a deal? Yes. The Dark Patterns are clearly working, and are definitely reducing my enjoyment of the service being provided, but it isn’t a big enough issue to tip the balance away from all the positives.

Interestingly, it seems like Roman comes to a similar conclusion. Somehow, Booking.com has done such a good job in their general, overall experience that the little irritations can be happily ignored. Some of them I don’t even agree with. Is cherry picking reviews a bit dubious? Yes, I guess so, but at the same time I would expect promotion to skew those results a little. I’ve left negative reviews in the past and know they haven’t been censored or removed, so I trust the reviews that are present to be indicative of general opinion. I would also never, personally, go on three reviews alone to inform my decision; as with eBay and Amazon I will always read the most recent couple of reviews, a couple of the best reviews (and note when they were made) and a couple of the worst reviews (also noting date posted) to get a good spread. Booking.com makes finding those reviews so painless that I’ve never really noticed the ones on the main page are curated.

I will also defend their five-step rating system. You can always expand a review score to see how the aggregate has been calculated and having five specific categories makes doing so a lot easier. In the example given in the article, Roman states that:

A great location will not compensate for sleepless nights

But I have to disagree a little bit. Obviously, it depends on what you’re looking for, but I will happily sacrifice comfort for location if that’s a priority. If I’m going to a big city and planning on being out until the early morning anyway, I don’t really care about late night noise but I do care about walking distance to the venue (for example) that I’ll be visiting. It’s a bit of a pedantic argument, but I feel like their ratings scheme is genuinely useful and wouldn’t, personally, regard it in anyway “Dark”, which shows that the concept can be a little subjective.

At any rate, agree or not, the article is well put together and is worth a read if you use Booking.com, if for no other reason than to be a little more aware of the strategies the are employing. If you do find it a stressful experience, perhaps it may even help.

Fair Phones & Mobile Woes [#46]

I’ve had my current Sony Xperia for nearly three years, which is a good run, but it’s definitely starting to show its age. First of all the headphone jack broke; it still works, it just doesn’t know when you plug something in. The first time this happened I had it fixed, the second was just out of warranty so instead I’ve been using a software override (an app called Soundabout) for the last two years whenever I want to use headphones. Irritating, sure, but manageable. The next thing to die was the camera. It has become quite scratched (which is my fault for not using a case) and has now fogged up on the inside lens and crystallised, leaving photos looking like they’re taken through a piece of cling film. Still manageable but I wouldn’t want to use it as an actual camera any more. The battery has been slowly dying for the last year, possibly because of an increase in general usage, but it’s at the point where the charge can suddenly disappear over a matter of hours. Finally, the memory is full. Despite having an expandable SD with 64GB of space, mostly unused, the core phone memory of 16GB has hit maximum. I’ve moved everything I can to the SD card, uninstalled a lot of apps but still I’m hovering around the 15GB mark and the phone behaves like it, lagging and generally crawling through tasks.

The problem is, I hate upgrading my phone. Part of that is just how used to the Xperia I am. I know all of its quirks and special features, I can navigate the menus with only the slightest of glances and have it setup just so for my particular tastes. The other part is that it feels so wasteful. Yes, the phone has seen better days, but it still ostensibly works. What’s more, the environmental impact of smart phones is pretty scary. Taken together, no matter how much I love new toys, I try to make my mobiles last as long as possible.

Which brings up another issue: what to replace it with. Because I want my phone to last several years and don’t plan on upgrading constantly it needs to be future-proof, durable and also something I will enjoy using. That means it needs to have all the functions I want, stuff like NFC and a good camera, whilst also being comfortable in the pocket and hand, easy to use with good software, and also look good. The last point feels shallow but if you think something is well designed I believe it makes using the device feel that much more fun. Unfortunately, the mobile phone market appears to have become incredibly stale over the past few years. With the exception of biometrics, which I’m completely nonplussed by, there really haven’t been any exciting new innovations in the field and, from a design point of view, your options are iPhone rip-off (square, thick bar top and bottom, black and mild bevel) or Samsung rip-off (curved, all screen, no bevel). I was hoping the release of the iPhone X would shake the market up a little, but instead the only talking point is more biometrics and whilst the design is no longer classic Apple, ironically, it now looks like a Samsung rip-off instead. Repetitive and boring design coupled with an increasing trend to get rid of core requirements for daily use, like headphone jacks and expandable memory, and honestly I haven’t been this unexcited by the phone market in almost a decade.

Part of that lack of excitement is knowing where I had hoped the industry would be by this point. When I picked up the Xperia it was with a mindset that this would be the last ‘fixed’ smartphone I would ever own. At the time, the web was buzzing with news about projects like Project Ara and Puzzle Phone. The future of mobile was modular, focused on handsets that could be tweaked and customised to meet an individual’s requirements. Phones would be easier to upgrade, modify and fix, leading to much less e-waste and, hopefully, lower upfront costs. That lower barrier of entry could have even created a large third-party landscape of modular accessories. We might even have phones with removable batteries again! Unfortunately that utopian vision has somewhat faltered and, with a couple of lacklustre exceptions, the modular ecosystem has utterly failed to reach consumers.

It was therefore with some excitement that I saw an advert for a fairly different kind of phone (hehe). The “FairPhone”, on paper, is a perfect fit for me. It’s ecologically sensitive, designed with environmental principles at the core of the process and actually has a modular design. They are selling genuinely interesting ‘upgrade’ modules, like better cameras, proving that the concept works. Had I picked up the FairPhone 2 at launch I would now be looking at an upgrade cost of only about £70 to get the latest specs, rather than around £400 to upgrade the whole device. Core specifications weren’t bad either. The FairPhone is designed to be maintained by anyone and last several years, so the chassis is deliberately aimed at durability. The screen seemed decent, it has a replaceable battery, headphone jack, duel SIM and large expandable SD slot. Even screenshots of the custom rolled Android OS looked solid.

But then I read some reviews and the dream screeched to a halt. First of all, whilst the specs are by no means awful they’re also far from top-end. The CPU and OS are already a generation or two behind, RAM is comparable to what I currently have and the camera has pretty awful output. The latter can be upgraded, as mentioned, but the base phone itself is already sitting in the price range of top-end competitors. It’s not quite as inflated as an iPhone, but it’s pretty far from good value for money. I realise eco-friendly resources and the R&D required for a modular layout will mean a higher price, but it’s a shame the price is top-end when the result is distinctly mid-tier. On top of which, it’s incredibly ugly, even if you go for a non-see-through case, and the battery is getting some pretty shoddy scores. There’s a lot to love about the FairPhone and I truly hope they continue forging ahead. Perhaps, with a couple more iterations under their belt, the price will drop or the quality will improve to match it. It’s definitely the most exciting phone on the market right now, but as tends to be the way with eco-tech the actual tech part leaves something to be desired. Maybe the Xperia has a few more months left after all.

Insta Inspiration [#45]

The recent update to Lightroom (and descent into League) means that photography has taken a bit of a backseat once again, but I have actually managed to turn posting to social media into a bit of a trend. I’m enjoying it so far, which is good, but have discovered that my reasons for enjoyment are very different across the two platforms I’m utilising.

On 500px, the kick I get from uploading a new image is very much a stereotypical social-media hook. I enjoy seeing people’s enjoyment; getting likes, follows and comments. Sure, each upload comes with a slight worry about how it will rank compared to those that came before, but each image that reaches Upcoming or Popular status feels like an achievement, which makes me want to upload again. It’s a simple feedback loop that keeps me engaged with their website, even if some photos do unexpectedly well or bizarrely poorly (seriously, as far as I’m concerned my shot of the Old Man is the best photograph I’ve edited to date).

However, my engagement with Instagram has come from a very different source, which has surprised me. Possibly because I’ve been using the service as a log book for several years, I really don’t care how much traction my images get. In fact, unlike 500px, I basically view likes on Instagram as irritations, creating notifications on my phone to be swiped into oblivion. That does change if I know the person that has liked the image, especially if they’re someone who enjoys photography or creative outlets themselves, but otherwise I’m completely nonplussed by direct engagement metrics on the platform. So why bother uploading there in the first place?

It sounds completely strange, but I actually find Instagram much more valuable as a tool than as a service. Uploading an image is less about the sharing as having a very quick and intuitive way of tweaking settings and playing with filters to see if I can improve it a little more. Once that’s been done, I’ll often fire up Lightroom again and actively compare the two images, slowly tweaking Lightroom’s settings to make it more Instagram-like before re-exporting a ‘final’ version for 500px. I strongly believe that the style of images presented on both platforms should be different, and never try and copy Instagrams filters wholesale, but they do tend to point me in a new direction or just help with refinement.

That’s the process that I used on my Old Man shot and is largely why I love the outcome as much as I do. I thought it was a great photo before I ran it through the Instagram tweaking process, but the version that came out the other end blew me away. Taking those changes and reproducing them myself ultimately led to a final image that I think is better than either of the previous two outcomes. Other times I’ve decided to just upload to 500px, partially because I couldn’t see how Instagram could make the image better and partially because the process of getting a file onto Instagram is incredibly frustrating. In pretty much every instance that I’ve chosen this route I’ve regretted it, often re-uploading to 500px at a later time having flip-flopped on my decision.

Just to show what I mean, here’s my latest upload, a shot of a snow leopard checking out his recently snow-bedecked surroundings at the wonderful Hellabrun Zoo in Munich, Germany (taken on a trip almost two years ago):

Snow Leopard, Winter, Munich Zoo by Murray Adcock on 500px.com

I uploaded the image to 500px first because I didn’t think it could be tweaked any more. I also wanted to retain a very natural feel, which isn’t exactly Instagram’s forte. That said, here’s the same image uploaded a few minutes later and tweaked subtly in Instagram:

Now, I wouldn’t ever consider copying that style wholesale to 500px. It definitely isn’t as natural looking, with a weird purple haze, and it’s lost some of the ruggedness of the environment as a result. However, something about that combination of settings on Instagram really makes the leopard pop, creating a much nicer sense of depth and focus. I was extremely tempted to try and replicate the look, except for the colour, and re-upload to 500px. Unfortunately, I can’t picture in my head what settings to push around in Lightroom to achieve the outcome I want, so right now the original remains.

How I’ve come to use Instagram is not at all what I expected, but speaks volumes about how clever their rendering algorithms are (or how much I still have to learn about Lightroom, of course). For now, it feels strangely inspiring knowing I can quickly iterate a number of ‘looks’ for my image and then replicate the bits I like. That’s a creative process which seems to be providing quite a hook.

Asking the Right Answers [#44]

I have been taking part in Google Rewards for over a year now. For the most part, I complete the various surveys to feed an ongoing habit without feeling like I’m being too indulgent or wasting money. It’s a fast and easy way to make a bit of completely disposable income and, honestly, the service works well.

Broadly, the surveys I get fall into three categories: store feedback, google reviews and marketing surveys. Store feedback is usually a case of confirming that I visited a given location and then rating them out of five. It’s quick, interesting enough to see which businesses feel the service is worthwhile and lets me provide some limited feedback. I don’t really imagine that the data is all that worthwhile, but enough stores do it, some of which having done so for an entire year at this point, that they must get something from the results.

Google reviews are a little more tedious but also have a higher reward, so I quite enjoy receiving them. I’m one of those people that routinely reviews online purchases, fills out in-store questionnaires and generally says “yes” when asked if I have a minute. I totally understand why most people ignore these types of things, but I try to do them whenever I have spare time for two main reasons. The first is that I’ve worked retail, I’ve been the person with the clipboard and I am fully aware how much that role sucks. I literally spent two months, for 4-5 hours a day, wandering around Durham trying to get people interested in taking a flyer for a store I worked for, and that was difficult enough. Getting people to actually engage with you for longer than ten seconds… that sounds like hell on Earth. The second reason is that I like having a record of my opinions, which should be fairly obvious from this website (and elsewhere), and that extends out to the services I’ve used and the items I’ve purchased.

So, the first two groups are easy for me to understand and pretty common. But once every month or so I’ll get a survey from group three: marketing research. Not market research, but questioning me on the adverts that I remember having seen or my awareness of brands. I imagine most of these are Google trying to gauge how well its own advertising algorithms are, something which is totally apparent when I get a survey like the one I received this morning.

That survey was incredibly quick and began by showing me a thumbnail of a Youtube video by Philip DeFranco. The video was several years old (I could see the uploaded date on the image) and the survey wanted to know if I had watched it. Now, I’ve been subscribed to Phil since I first created a Youtube account back in 2009 and had already been watching him for over a year before that. I quite literally created my account just to be able to track which of his back catalogue of videos I had watched. As a result, I could say with pretty high certainty that I had watched the video they were showing me. I also assume, considering that Youtube is tied to my Google account, that they already knew that I had watched the video. The first question on these surveys tend to request confirmation of known information, so that made sense.

But then they did something which I don’t understand, at all. I think what they were trying to do was refine their suggested videos algorithm but the way they went about it was just weird. There were two more questions to the survey and both showed another thumbnail of one of Phil’s videos from over a year ago. Both asked me to rate, out of five, how useful these would be as suggested videos on Youtube. Now, I don’t propose to understand the exact results or answers Google are looking for here, but I can imagine that they’re hoping to confirm that, yes, someone who wants to watch a video on current affairs would like to watch more videos on current affairs. The problem, though, is that their survey is completely ignoring my own video watching history. I am subscribed to Phil’s channel; I have watched every video he’s uploaded in the past decade. I don’t need to have his old videos suggested to me because I’ve already seen them. However, none of that information has been requested by the survey, so from the perspective of the questions I’ve been asked then, yes, based on the fact I enjoyed watching the first video I would want the other two videos to be suggested.

Yesterday I was reading an A List Apart article on why asking the right questions in user testing is key to not screwing up. Perhaps because that was on my mind, this survey through me round a loop. On a personal level, completely honestly, those videos are useless suggestions to me and I would have liked to rate them 0 out of 5 (which is, irritatingly, never an option). However, I’m a huge fan of Phil and want his channel to keep growing. Saying “Yes, I watched that one video of his and never want to watch another” seems wrong. I don’t want Google to take that message away from this survey. On the other hand, I hate how my current suggested videos feed is full of videos I’ve already seen and content from channels I’m already subscribed to. It’s a personal pet peeve of the current Youtube setup because it makes that page incredibly pointless, so I really don’t want to reinforce that behaviour and say that these are good suggestions.

At this point, I’m definitely over analysing what’s going on, but you would hope a company the size of Google would understand that the way they present a survey will have differing impacts. The questions are needlessly broad and non-specific, leaving the interpretation open to the user, but the subject matter leaves me stuck trying to guess what data Google actually want from me. Do they want me to know if I like those types of videos or do they want me to ‘confirm’ that suggesting other videos from channels I’ve watched before is a good thing? Unfortunately, I don’t know which it is, which means I don’t really know what the question is, and if I don’t know that, how can I answer it?

In the end, I just stuck them both at 4/5 stars. Typing this up now I feel that was probably the wrong thing to do, but oh well. At the end of the day, Google asked what seems like a fairly innocuous question, but one which has two wildly different answers. I doubt I’m the only person getting that question but I’ll probably be an outlier in my response. Still, it’s a prime example of where the phrasing, setting and simplicity of a question can leave it horribly ambiguous. The result will likely go on to inform some form of policy at Youtube, which is a shame, because no matter what question they thought they were asking I doubt it’s the one they’re actually having answered.

Welcome to the Grid [#43]

There are a lot of new web technologies emerging at the moment which really feel like we’re entering a new era. Over the last decade, the likes of HTML5, ES6+, flex box etc. have brought the web, and the technologies on which it is built, very much into the modern day. Accessibility, responsiveness and flexibility have become standards, instead of the nice-to-have pipe dreams they were when I first built a website. Still, a lot of the new features and developments have been addressing limitations of what the web was back in the early noughties.

Right now, then, is a little different. There are still plenty of problems with how the web operates, limitations to its functionality and misuses of its resources, but with a little time and effort a website can become everything it was ever designed to be, and much more. The next round of technological implementation, then, is redesigning the way the web works. Do you need an active internet connection to be ‘online? Not any more. Want a website to do more than simply house and interlink static text? That’s getting pretty common.

Despite these huge leaps forward in terms of functionality, one element of those old, dark days has remained missing. Right when I started to learn HTML the standard approach was to mimic page setting from magazines by using <table> elements. That practice died a deserved death, but ever since the web has been slightly restricted in how it can display information in a dynamic, yet rigidly structured, manner. There have been improvements, such as display:table, flex box and semantically clearer HTML (section, article, aside etc.), but ultimately none have met the ease of application of a table layout.

Hopefully that’s about to change, thanks to CSS Grid. It’s a technology I’ve heard bits and bobs about for some time, but I’ll admit it hasn’t excited me like service workers or PWAs have. Thanks to (yet another) great article from A List Apart, I’m now firmly on board the Grid train and willing it to go faster, and faster, and faster. Honestly, I love the whole concept, but for me one of the most exciting aspects is the quick prototyping available through template-areas. For a full breakdown, read the article, but the “aha!” moment for me was seeing how this:

.cards {
        display: grid;
        grid-template-columns: 1fr 1fr 1fr;
        grid-gap: 20px;
        grid-template-areas:
               “a a b”
               “. d d”
               “c e e”;
}

Is automatically translated into this:

Layout of 5 grid blocks and 1 empty cell, showing how CSS Grid can span columns and rows, auto-fill containers and be easily spaced.
The beauty of CSS Grid.

That’s not just replicating all the functionality of the table-based layouts of yesteryear, it’s taking the best part of it, the flexible rigidity, and removing all the irritating parts, leaving just the essence. It’s wonderfully simple yet extremely powerful and has clearly been thought through to an obscene degree. The fact that even blank cells are inherently catered for, rather than having to just set a blank <div> or similar, is just fantastic. Vendor/browser support will be the next big hurdle, but by the sounds of things that’s coming along extremely well. Give it a year and CSS Grid looks like it could well be the new standard approach.

Forgotten & Surreal Instruments [#42]

Two nights ago we had the privilege of listening to the latest show put together by the Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments. Never heard of them? Well, neither had I. In fairness, had we not known one of the musicians (who, it turns out, was stepping in for another member) we still wouldn’t know about the Society and certainly wouldn’t have heard them perform.

Which is rather lucky, because both the members and the performance itself were brilliant. I had absolutely no idea what to expect and, frankly, even if I’d read a blurb or heard an explanation I doubt my expectations would have fitted the reality. In brief, the hour-or-so performance was a string quartet playing a medley of medieval and modern compositions, interspersed with readings from Sir Francis Bacon, the 16th century philosopher and naturalist. Oh, except the string instruments on which they played were not your standard violins, cellos etc. but rather the likes of the trumpet marine (one of the only ones in the world), viola bastarda (the only one in the world), gothic bray harp and utterly bizarre looking nyckelharpa (to name only a few, with each musician swapping instruments at least once throughout the performance). Layered on top of these medieval instruments were sound recordings, (occasional) electronic music and various distortions – these being the remit of the fifth musician, whom we know.

The result is a fascinating walk down both scientific and musical history. Francis Bacon has some wonderful excerpts on the nature of sound, the concept of his titular “Sound Houses” (from his New Atlantis, which I really must read) and Medieval anecdotes about noise in general. I doubt that a group of revellers truly did clap hard enough to “make the air thinner and cause the birds to fall from the sky” [paraphrased] but his observations on sound propagation are wonderfully modern and his vision for the future of music consumption is, at times, eerily prophetic. The excerpts were performed brilliantly by a live actor, lending a very clever degree of wit, movement and comedy to proceedings.

Alongside, and greatly overshadowing, the classical excerpts from Bacon was the music itself. For the most part, the musical performance was just incredibly well played Medieval fare. It’s a genre which I love, because it feels somehow incredibly alien whilst the core rhythms and structures, at times, feel almost pop like. The sound mixing was brilliant, allowing the whole medley to produce a wonderfully lyrical and complementary music whilst still permitting you to hone in on individual instruments, which you absolutely wanted to do from time-to-time. In particular, the trumpet marine was fascinating. A single stringed instrument with dozens of hidden vibration panels and sympathetic strings it could produce a bizarre array of sounds. I’m not so convinced as to the claims likening it to a trumpet, whose sound is much fuller and cleaner, but there is definitely a level of reverb and rasp which I’ve never heard from a stringed instrument before. I’m genuinely tempted to donate to their crowd funding campaign to get four of them made, just to hear what several of these instruments could produce together! Personally, though, my favourite was the weirdly altered bray harp, with small pegs fastened to the end of each string creating a very harsh, discordant noise completely antithetical to the classically perceived sounds of a harp.

Whilst there were new compositions interspersed with ancient, you really couldn’t tell them apart, and although the mixture of Medieval strings and modern audio sampling sounds odd on paper, in reality it worked extremely well. One of the last pieces performed, with the most electronic overlays, in fact felt ripe for sampling beneath a grime track, a combination I would happily pay to listen to. When paired alongside the esoteric poetry of Bacon’s prose and the atmospheric setting, an equally ancient church in the centre of a mist enshrouded town on the Moor, the result was wonderfully evocative and utterly riveting. An extremely fun way to spend the evening!

Stickers, Eclipses and Lighthouses [#36]

Today is a day for another round-up of interesting pieces from across the web. Nothing too special, but hopefully a little intriguing.

First up is Google Lighthouse, one of the many branches of the Alphabet behemoth and a pretty interesting little project. I haven’t actually managed to get it up and running, but I’ll definitely be trying it out on theAdhocracy some time soon (and probably weeping at the result). I don’t need to test it, though, to see it will be a very useful tool in battling the increasingly problematic issue of internet lag.

Second is the article which led me to Lighthouse in the first place: AMPersan, by Ethan Marcotte. Not much to add to this one, just another voice adding weight to my uneasiness with the idea of AMP and similar projects. Well worth a read if you’re interested in the open web.

In third place is a collection of ‘achievement’ stickers doing the rounds of the blogosphere right now. Originally designed by Jeremy Nguyen, published on The New Yorker and personally discovered via TheLogoSmith, the stickers are a humorous look at the pitfalls of being self employed. They’re specifically designed for freelance designers, but I feel a lot of them are applicable across disciplines. If you work from home, you’ll probably find yourself smiling and nodding.

Fourth on the list is a simple article from Martian Craft outlining “The Importance of Routine“. The post is aimed at remote works and is far from news to me, but it is a well written example of how to apply this kind of thinking. I’m saving it here more to try and force myself into setting something like this up for my own free time.

Finally, I was blown away by the “Lifetime Eclipse Predictor” visualisation created for The Washington Post (discovered via Source). In the wake of the recent total eclipse in the US, along with reading various posts on the rarity of such events, I’ve been left with a real urge to try and make sure at my path eventually coincides with a path of totality. It is a ridiculously awesome coincidence that our moon’s diameter and planet’s solar distance align so accurately. I mean, even if there are other life-hosting planets out there, we’re certainly one of an incredibly small number that can witness this phenomenon. That makes it practically a responsibility to see a total eclipse, at least once.