+++*

Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

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The size of things

In which we measure monitors

The redesign is now almost done, which means that soon you’ll be saved from more posts on the minutiae of my redesign. It’s got me thinking, though: to what extent do I need to think about readers’ technology?

When this blog first started, I didn’t really worry about making it accessible to all,* or about making sure that the display was resolution-independent. It worked for me, which was enough. Over time, screens have become bigger; and, more importantly, more configurable, so I’ve worried less and less about it. When it came to do a redesign, though, I started to wonder. What browsers do my readers actually used.

Just after Christmas, for entirely different reasons, I signed up for Google Analytics, rather than do my own statistics-counting as I had been doing. Because Google Analytics relies on JavaScript to do its dirty work, it gives me rather more information about such things than the old log-based system did. So, last week, I spent an hour or so with my Analytics results and a spreadsheet. Here’s the graph I came up with:

Browser horizontal resolutions, cumulative %

The X-axis there is the horizontal width of everyone’s screens, in order but not to scale; the Y-axis is the cumulative percentage of visits.** In other words, the percentage figure for a given width tells you the proportion of visits from people whose screen was that size, or wider.

Straight away, really, I got the answer I wanted. 93% of visits are to this site are from people whose screens are 1024 pixels wide, or more. It’s 95% if I take out the phone-based browsers at the very low end, because I suspect most of that is accounted for by K reading it on the bus on her way home from work. The next step up, though, the graph plunges to only 2/3 of visits. 1024 pixels is the smallest screen width that my visitors use heavily.

Admittedly there’s a bit of self-selection in there, based on the current design; it looks horrible at 800 pixels, and nearly everyone still using an 800×600 screen has only visited once in the two-month sample period. However, that applies to most of the people who visit this site in any case; just more so for the 800-pixel users. Something like 70% of visits are from people who have probably only visited once in the past couple of months; so it’s fair to assume that my results aren’t too heavily skewed by the usability of the current design. It will be interesting to see how much things change.

I’m testing the new design in the still-popular 1024×768 resolution, to make sure everything will still work. I’ll probably test it out a fair bit on K’s phone, too. But, this is a personal site. If you don’t read it, it’s not vital, to you or to me. If I don’t test it on 800×600 browsers, the world won’t end. The statistics, though, have shown me where exactly a cutoff point might be worthwhile.

* For example, in the code of the old design, all that sidebar stuff over on the right comes in the code before this bit with the content, which does (I assume) make it a bit of a bugger for blind readers. That, at least, will be sorted out in the new design.

** “visits” is of course a bit of a nebulous term, but that is a rant for another day.

Classification

In which we discuss tagging and filksonomies

Another design point that’s come up as part of the Grand Redesign I keep promising you: tagging. The little bundle of links at the bottom of each post that I didn’t really think did very much.

I was a latecomer to tagging. When this site first started, it didn’t have any for the first month or so. After a while I started adding them, pointing them to Technorati. Back then, the site was running on WordPress version 1.5.something, and it didn’t have any built-in tagging support. I was trying to avoid using too many WordPress plugins, and I didn’t think that tag management (as distinct from tagging per se) mattered all that much; so I wrote all the tags manually. Like this, at the end of each post, with the <a> element repeated for each tag:

<small>Keyword noise: <a class="tag" rel="tag" href="…">tag1</a>, …</small>

Which worked, quite well; there was a visually distinct “tag” class, because I wanted tag links – which all led to Technorati back then – to be visually distinct from regular links which would go to whatever they were about.

Things move on, though, and WordPress has since gained built-in tagging functionality. Given that I’m redesigning the whole site, and putting in new built-from-scratch layout templates, I thought I may as well switch to using a more organising tagging system. For one thing, it means less typing each time I write a post. All that code up above is replaced by one little chunk in the template:

<p id="thetags"><small><?php the_tags('Keyword noise: ', ', ' ,");?></small></p>

This one covers all the tags, calling a Wordpress API function to pull them out of the database and convert them into HTML. I know all those commas and quotes look a bit confusing; but really they’re not that bad. And the point is: this is in the template, not in each post. That bit of code there only has to be written once; the previous chunk had to be typed out every time. The most awkward part is that WordPress isn’t flexible enough to let you set the class of each link individually, hence the <p class="…"> at the start.

The big change this leads to, though, is that the tag links no longer point to Technorati. Now, they point back to the site itself: tag page requests generate a page containing every post marked with that tag. And, already, that’s shown that people do indeed click on the tags. People, particularly people coming from searches, do seem to use them. Whether they find them useful or not is another matter, of course, now that they point back within the site and not to a broader variety of opinions on the matter; but they do get used.

Doing it this way means that I put more tags on each post, simply because there’s much less typing to do. Conversion, though, is going to be a bit of a job. Right now there are 760-odd posts on this site, all of which I’m having to reread and re-tag. It’s going to take a while, but hopefully the majority of it will be done by the time the new design is finished.* The only problem with this transitional phase is that: the current template is, because of its age, completely unaware of tags. So it doesn’t really know what a tag-based archive page is; so when you click on a tag, there’s no explanation as to what you’re looking at. I’m not sure if this is going to be a problem for you readers or not; and, hopefully, it’s only going to be a short-lived situation.

The word “folksonomy” has often been used to describe this sort of tagging system. I’m not sure it’s an ideal term for what I’m doing, though. “Filksonomy” might be more relevant: a bit like a folksonomy, but rather more whimsical and silly.

*** In any case, there are plenty of other parts of the new design that also need each post checking and potentially editing.

Reading list

In which we discuss books and the French Revolution

One thing about yesterday’s post: it gives you a good look at the state of one of our bookshelves. Not a good enough look to make out what most of the books are, though, unless they’re books with distinctive spines that you’re already familiar with – like Peter Ackroyds’s London, for example.

Over on top of that pile on the left, though, is a book I mentioned here a few months ago. Shortly after restarting the regular blogging cycle, I mused aloud as to whether I should restart the Books I Haven’t Read reviews, and predicted one book that might fall victim: Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down. It’s there on top of the pile, in the blue cover. And, I have to say, so far the prediction’s been right. But not because of the book itself; because there’s been too much else to read. Below it on the pile there’s Graves’ White Goddess, also mentioned as a potential Book I Haven’t Read. I still haven’t read it. Further up, though, there’s a biography of Robert Graves, which I picked up on a bookstall outside the Watershed cinema. I thought: if I’m going to write about The White Goddess, I need to know more about him to do it justice. Coming across the biography by chance, I bought it. I started to read it. I still haven’t finished it.

Elsewhere in the house there are many more books I haven’t finished reading. Amazingly, though, yesterday, I finished one, and it was a book I only made a start on a few weeks ago.* Fatal Purity, a biography of Maximilien “The Incorruptible” Robespierre, by Ruth Scurr. A shy, fastidious man, who I find very intriguing; someone who found himself trying to impose morals by whatever means necessary, because his cause was justified. He was shortsighted both literally and figuratively, and was a logical man who became trapped in his own logic. He was willing to execute his oldest friends, because he thought his cause, the Revolution, was more important.

I’m not sure I read the book properly, because it left me feeling I’d stepped through a lacuna at one point: I wasn’t sure at all how he went from being the people’s leader, to giving a speech that he apparently could see was to try to save his own life. One thing I definitely learned about, though, was Robespierre’s inability to ever, at all, admit that he had been wrong, even after his stance had changed, or when condemning people he had earlier supported. I’m still not entirely sure whether, for that, he should be applauded, or condemned himself.

* Because it was a Christmas present from K’s brother.

Surprise sighting

In which, for the first time ever, a gruntlebeast is captured on camera

You might have noticed the little mascot of this site – up there in the top right, at the time of writing, although that might change given time. Really really long-time readers might remember me explaining what it was, back in the mists of time. It is called a gruntlebeast, and, because of the considerable lack of evidence for their existence, is often believed to be mythical, invisible, extinct, very very shy, or possibly any combination of those four things. You will, I’m sure, have noticed the distinct lack of sightings of gruntlebeasts mentioned in the news.

However: things have changed! The Symbolic Forest Militant Invective Laboratories have, after many years of trying,* apparently managed to capture footage of a gruntlebeast in the wild. Indeed, the footage seems to confirm the conjectured “partially invisible” hypothesis, and also possibly the beast’s legendary shyness. See what you think:

A possible rare sighting of a gruntlebeast on video

Apologies for the low quality; but, well, if it wasn’t low quality, it wouldn’t be a proper controversial mythical-creature sighting, would it? The next task: get some evidence for its famous “Arrg kxrrt!” hunting call.

* well, you saw how old that last blog post was

Design points

In which nothing, design-wise, is accomplished

As I mentioned recently, I’m embarking on a Grand Epic Ground-Upwards Redesign of this site, because, well, the design hasn’t been changed since I first set it up. I knocked it together in a few days holiday in August ’05; back then my holiday year ended in August and I often had a few spare days at the end of the month where I had nothing to do and needed to keep myself occupied. In 2005, this blog was the result.

Anyway, my point is: it was put together in a bit of a hurry, with most of the design code ripped out of a standard theme I downloaded, without me really understanding what each bit did. The design’s always had a few rough edges, and there are lots of things that I’ve meant to develop further but never have. Hopefully, some of those points will be addressed, attacked, and taken by storm.

Thinking about the design, though, and what I want it to achieve, has made me think about one of the things I was most unhappy with when I first put this site together. One of the things I liked about this theme when I first saw it was:* the little boxes for the date on each post. You know, these ones:

Date with cardinal number

But one thing I didn’t like, though, was the cardinal number. Maybe it’s because I’m English, that that’s how I was taught, but when I read a date, I always read it with an ordinal number. “January 11th”, not “January 11″.

I can’t remember, to be honest, if it was possible to fix that easily when I first started using WordPress. Possibly it was, possibly it was something that’s been added later.** In any case, I didn’t fix it. I know I tried to, at one point; but abandoned the fix and didn’t go back to it. Then I forgot the issue, until, coming back to the redesign, I tried the fix again the other day. When I retried it, I remembered that I’d given it a go before. Because this is the result

Date with ordinal number

Those two extra characters mean that on most days, the text is just marginally too long to fit in the box. The box gets pushed down. Which isn’t so bad; but, it doesn’t always happen. You can’t necessarily know what the date box will look like; how it will relate to the elements around it. Moreover, I don’t know how it will look on other computers, where the fonts have slightly differing metrics to mine.

There are ways to fix it, of course. The box could be slightly wider. I could make sure that the horizontal line always comes underneath the date box, although that might leave annoying white space under the post title. The question, though, is whether it’s worth doing. However many times I tweak it, I’m not sure I’d ever get it quite right based on the current design.

And so, this all is partly why I’m going to start pretty much from scratch. The risk is that I’ll reinvent the wheel; the upside is that at least I’ll know how it works from its heart.

* and still is

** To be pedantic: it’s not a feature of WordPress itself, it’s a feature of PHP, the underlying language. I’m too lazy to go back through PHP’s version change logs and find out when the feature in question – the “S” character in date formatting strings – was added.

Footnote

In which we debate a design detail

Regular readers might have noticed that yesterday’s post was a bit of an experiment. In case you didn’t spot what the experiment involved, here’s a clue:

Screenshot

Ever since it started, this blog has gone in for copious footnotes, on just about every post,* flagged up with stars in the usual way. One thing I’ve never been entirely happy with, though, is that the more footnotes you have, the more stars each note requires. A fifth or sixth footnote starts to get unwieldy, as some previous posts have demonstrated. So I’ve been idly thinking about other ways to indicate a footnote: symbols, numbers, or something else.

You can tell I’ve been idly thinking about it, because it’s taken me over three years to try an experiment with using numbers instead. I’m not really sure, though, whether I like it or not. K, I know, definitely doesn’t like the new numbered style; she was almost tempted to leave a comment saying “Bring back the stars!” so she must care. Or I could try out a series of different symbols, instead of a line of stars. More experimentation might be called for.

* When I first started drafting this post, it didn’t have any. “Oh, the irony”, I thought to myself, “of having no footnotes on a post about footnotes.” Fortunately, one soon came to me.

Failure and Success

In which we muse what book to abandon reading next

Getting this website going again, and posting things regularly, I was thinking that maybe I should resurrect Books I Haven’t Read, an ongoing series of posts in which I reviewed books that I hadn’t managed to finish reading, and briefly discussed why. This was on the grounds that reviews of bad books are often more interesting than reviews of good books;* many book reviewers probably get away without reading the whole thing; and if I’m going to talk about something, I may as well be honest about whether I’ve read it or not. Hence, Books I Haven’t Read, which annoyed at least one author who discovered it and couldn’t resist responding.**

The problem, though, is that it’s been a while since I’ve managed to fail to finish a book. The only candidate at the moment is Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, which has to be described as a masterpiece, even though in many ways it is mistaken and wrong-headed.*** It’s also a very hard read, and I’ve got such a small way into such a long book that I feel I can hardly do it justice.

Everything else I’ve started reading, I’ve finished reading. Books that I’ve already told you I haven’t read, I’ve since completed. I’ve even got to the stage where I’m considering going back to some of the books I’ve written about here, getting them out of the library, and finishing them off. Which is a good thing, I suppose; but it leaves me at a loss for things to criticise. Maybe I should try to be a lazier reader.

Things might be solved by a book I came across in the local Oxfam bookshop the other day: Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During The English Revolution. I’ve always been slightly confused by the history of the Civil War – or the Great Rebellion, or the English Revolution, or the Wars Of The Three Kingdoms – see even the list of names it’s been called are confusing, or whether there’s an “it” to start with. I’ve also never really got on with Marxist historians that well, so I’m thinking that there’s a good chance it’s going to completely baffle me sideways and leave me ranting about Ranters and Levellers.**** Let’s see how far I manage to get.

* For the ultimate good review of a bad book, the exemplar has to be Slacktivist‘s ongoing page-by-page and scene-by-scene reviews of the Left Behind books and movies, which many of you have probably already heard of.

** not to mention, a second response about how I was too pathetic to deserve a response. Hurrah!

*** much like Graves’ Greek Myths, which is somewhere close to being a standard work on the subject – even though much of the author’s commentary on the myths is now extremely outdated, given that it was based on a poor understanding of outdated archaeology and anthropology.

**** Now I have heard of Levellers – but not, I suspect, the ones that were around in the seventeeth century.

Yes, I do still exist

In which we miss the Interwebs

Hello there.

Well, I’ve never missed an entire month before. A couple of months, really.

I received a very nice email this morning from someone asking how I am. It was a pleasant surprise, and it made me think: I really should do what I keep meaning to do, and start posting here again.

It’s been quiet, because I’ve been busy. And quite a lot has changed. I’ve moved house, well away from the family, to the other side of the country. I’m living with someone, someone who I actually want to live with. But on the other hand, I’m living without internet for the first time in five years ago. You don’t realise what you’ve got until it’s gone; you don’t realise how much The Internets are now part of the infrastructure, like heat and light. “Oh, I’ll just look that up on… ah.” “Oh, I’ll just email… ah.” “Oh, I’ll just check the times on their we… ah.”

This is all because we’re living in a flat, which used to be a house. For some years* it’s been two flats, one up, one down. All legal and above board (we’ve read through the planning permits to double-check this), but nobody ever bothered to tell the Post Office this. As a result, getting services involves persuading people that our flat does really exist, first. British Gas: no problem. Phone suppliers: more tricky. Particularly, the Post Office, who are (understandably) wedded to their database of genuine addreses, but (not so understandably) took three weeks to realise we weren’t on it. Bah. Ah well. No need to bother ringing them when we want to change our insurance, at least.

* I could look up the exact number on the city council’s planning department website, but … ah.

For when you have something to say

In which things get hot and sticky

Was I saying how nice summer is? I’m regretting it. It’s hot, sticky, damp and humid, with a constant light drizzle which isn’t at all refreshing. Every so often there’s a flash of summer lightning in the sky, so far away the thunder can’t even be heard. The world is quiet, and I have the desire to do something creative but not the energy to do it. I can picture any number of opening scenes in my head, but lack the power to describe. Time for the third cold shower of the day. I can picture a closing scene, but don’t know how to reach it.

Quietude

In which we relax

Yes, things have been a little quiet recently. This is because things are happening. Not necessarily good things, not necessarily bad things, not necessarily either. For that matter, not everything is by any means one or the other.

Besides: the other evening, when the day had cooled off a little, we sat on a park bench on Brandon Hill and watched. Hot air balloons drifting across in front of us, kites either side of us, and smoke wafting up from barbecues dotted around the park. Why would I want to spend my evenings sitting at a writing-desk when we could laze in the summer sunshine instead? It’s time to stop worrying so much about the day-to-day, to relax against whatever we’re faced with, and turn the other cheek to anything bad that might happen.