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Brute Force And Ignorance

In which an Ikea Antonius takes rather more effort than normal


Hurrah! A week after it was ordered, our connection to the Internet is all jumpered up and working again. We are connected to the outside world; it’s just a shame that there’s all that unpacking and sorting out to do still.

Talking of unpacking and sorting out: well, it’s not just that. We have new rooms, different storage, so there’s new furniture to buy and arrange. Because of this, my hands are now rather sore-feeling. Not because of the furniture in general, though: because of one particular thing that was slightly harder than normal.

I always thought I was quite good with Ikea furniture. Give me a LACK table or a LERBERG shelf unit, and I can slot it together in minutes. The other day, we put together a HELMER filing cabinet with no problems at all, even despite the metal-bending skills required. So, I thought an ANTONIUS system shelf unit would be a doddle, particularly as we were trying to create the simplest type of ANTONIUS there is, a small rack of shelves to fit under the kitchen worktop.

The thing itself, when you take it out of the packaging, is indeed simple. Two side frames, rectangular, made of rectangular-section steel tube uprights joined with U-section drawer runners. Four bars, made of the same stuff, which join the two sides together. Each bar ends in a pair of Zamak* corner pieces. The product web page should make it clear. The assembly instructions are just as simple: hammer each of the corner pieces at the end of each bar into the ends of the uprights, then screw the feet on.

So, nothing particularly tricky. I find some chunks of wood to stand it on so I don’t wreck the floor, and pick up one side and one of the bars. I try it as a push-fit: it doesn’t go. Not really surprising: after all, you want it to be a nice tight fit so the thing stays together. So, I bash it with the hammer. Nothing apparently happens, other than a loud bang.

I look carefully at the work. A bit of paint has chipped off the inside of the upright, but other than that, nothing has moved. The Zamak connector has a half-inch-deep block of metal that has to be hammered inside the tubular upright, but it isn’t going anywhere. I give it a few more (loud) bangs, and take another look. The connector has budged maybe a millimetre or so, and the paint is a bit more chipped.

Maybe that paint on the inside is getting in the way a bit. I hunt around in the tool-cupboard, and find a needle file and a file handle. A few strokes with that, on the inside edge of the upright, should get rid of the errant paint. Bash bash bash, again. Still barely any movement. I give it another good hard stare, and I can see where the edge of the upright has started to cut into the connecting block, and shave metal off its edge.

To cut a long story short, then: to get the thing together took much more work with a flat file. Each of the 8 Zamak blocks needed each side filing down to get the thing vaguely close to fitting together; I didn’t take measurements,** but I’d say each block needed to be taken down by about a quarter of a millimetre overall in each direction. With only a little needle file, that took some time to do; and without a proper workbench, I jabbed my fingers and hands a few times in the process. Eventually, I’d filed off enough metal that the connectors could be hammered home. It still took considerable hammering to do it, and they’re very firmly in there; I have no idea how it was supposed to fit out-of-the-box.

Maybe the connector castings didn’t shrink as much as the mould-makers expected. Maybe the thing was designed with Swedish sub-arctic temperatures in mind, not a hot English June evening; and I’d have had more luck if I’d left the sides in the sun for a few hours and put the crossbars in the freezer. Maybe I just had one of a bad batch. I was still rather disappointed, though. As I said, I’m used to Ikea furniture fitting together Just So; I wasn’t expecting to have to start filing down castings to make them a reasonable fit.

* Or Mazak, if you prefer to call it that.

** I haven’t seen my vernier calipers since the house-move-before-last.

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Public Information

In which people are alerted


Just a quick post to say that: readers who normally use their RSS reader to look at this site might want to click through today. To see what everything now looks like. There aren’t many of you, but you are all regular readers, so I thought I’d let you know.

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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 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.*** 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.

*** Most of that 2% consists of: K reading the blog on the bus on her way home from work.

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Development

In which we anticipate the new design


Incidentally, the Grand Redesign plans, as mentioned here several times previously, are still trundling along at their own pace. Parts, indeed, have already been finished and are up on the server; although, as they’ve not been linked-to, nobody can get to them yet.

The slowest part, though, has been: backtracking through the entire post history and editing every post to conform to the new type: proper tags, proper excerpts, and so on. It’s a long slog, given that there are 3 1/2 years’ worth of posts,* and rereading them all has been hard work. It’s been a strange experience, too, because in many cases I’d forgotten an event, and reading all the posts jogged my memory in unexpected ways.**

The end is in sight now, though; so it won’t be long before I can check everything over, finish tidying up the new design, and put it all live. Fingers crossed that when it does go live, it’s all going to work.

* about 750ish, following the long hiatus last summer

** In some cases I’ve completely forgotten events – there are some posts where, if someone had showed them to me, I wouldn’t even have realised that I’d written them myself. And there are plenty of “guarded posts” where, now, a few years later, I’ve forgotten exactly what events I was describing

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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, WordPress was still on version 1.5.something, and it didn’t have any built-in tagging support. I don’t like to have too many plugins, and I didn’t think that tag management* mattered that much; so I wrote all the tags manually. Like this:

<small>Keyword noise: <a class=”tag” rel=”tag” href=”…”>tag</a></small>

Which worked, quite well; there was a visually distinct “tag” class, because I wanted tag links – which all led to Technorati – to be visually distinct from the rest, which would go to something more topically relevant.

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>

I know all those commas and quotes look a bit confusing; but really they’re not that bad. And the point is: 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: you get a page containing every post with that tag on. 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;*** 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. 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.

* as opposed to tagging itself.

** it has also buggered about with the quote marks in that fragment of code. Whatever you do, don’t copy and paste it – if you want to use it, retype it!

*** particularly now they point back within the site rather than outwards to see what other people have said on the topic.

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

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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 thnik 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.

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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 Monday’s post shows. 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.

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“Is it plugged in?”

In which we muse on set design


Imported American telly has spoiled me. When I was a kid, six episodes seemed like an age-long TV series; now, it’s over almost before I’ve realised it’s started. And now, I’m disappointed that Series Two of The IT Crowd is over. It feels as if it had barely began.

What puzzled me about the series, though, was: how come their office has changed so much since series one? At the start, it was maybe bigger than you’d expect, so the actors could move around freely, but had a suitably grey and dusty feel to it. With the new series, all of a sudden, they have a nice office, with a big leather sofa in the middle! Some of the geekery-posters on the walls have changed to slightly obscure music posters.* At least the cast’s taste in clothing and comic books hasn’t changed much.** There’s no danger, either, that the phrase “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” was going to go stale, given it only appeared once in the script.

The set might be a bit luxurious for your average IT department, but never mind. It’s good for geeks to get airtime, even comedy geeks. Now, we just have to sit back and wait to find out if there’s going to be a Series Three.

* My Morning Jacket are hardly very obscure, but Mr Scruff is still fairly unknown.

** At a rough guess, I’d say about about 17.3% of the audience jumped up during one of the episodes to shout: “Look! Jen’s reading a Love and Rockets collection!”

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Rotation

In which we crunch numbers and look at the site design


It almost slipped by without me realising: yesterday was this site’s second birthday. This is, I’m told, post number 538, which means I’ve managed to post something on average every 1.36 days. It’s been slipping recently, I know. For completeness’s sake: there are 771 comments visible,* and an inordinately greater number which have been deleted.**

After two years, is it time for a redesign? I’m not sure. I don’t believe in celebrating anniversaries for their own sake, and I do still like the design as it is. Not looking at it for a few days means I come back and look at it with fresh eyes. There’s a lot of white space round the screen; and if something is in lots of categories then the post header goes a bit ugly.*** Whether I can improve on it very much is another matter. The non-blog pages are still lurking behind the scenes undecorated – I’m tempted to use them to try some new designs out. If I can come up with some new designs, that is.

* 1.43 per post; or one comment every 22 3/4 hours.

** It’s not actually inordinate, of course – there have been around 7000 of them.

*** The list of categories wraps round beneath the date.

One comment. »

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The Diagram

In which we study some design history


I’ve recently been reading a book about design history, about the design of an icon. Mr Beck’s Underground Map, by Ken Garland. It is, as you might imagine, about the London Underground Map, concentrating on the period from the 1930s to the 1950s when it was designed by Harry Beck. In many ways it’s a sad story – Beck, throughout his life, felt that he had paternalistic rights over his map;* London Transport disagreed, treating the map as its own property. Which, of course, it was. In the 1960s, when London Transport turned to alternative designers, he became obsessed with producing his own versions, in the hope that London Transport would take his design up again.

Nowadays, Beck is always remembered as the map’s creator; his map was the first in Britain to abstract the network and present it topologically. The modern map, though, isn’t really based on his. It’s based on one of its 1960s successors, by Paul Garbutt; it was Garbutt’s first design that settled on black-and-white interchange symbols, and the modern proportions of the lines.

Design archaeology is hard, sometimes. There aren’t any old underground maps on display at stations, because they’re all outdated. Sometimes, though, you can spot things still lurking from days past. Some of the Phase One Victoria Line stations still have signs unchanged since they opened, in the days of the first Garbutt map. The northbound platform at Green Park, for example, has what looks like an original line diagram on the wall: it has a dotted-circle for National Rail interchanges, a characteristic of that time;** and Highbury and Islington is shown as a Northern Line interchange. It’s interesting to see. There aren’t any Beck-era signs anywhere on the underground, as far as I know, which is something of a shame; but it’s good that there are still examples of old designs surviving. It’s good to have history around us.

* or “The Diagram” as the book calls it throughout.

** The modern double-arrow “main line railway” symbol was introduced in 1964, off the top of my head, but didn’t become widespread for a few years

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