I’ve done an experiment to see whether you can really make bigger smaller for the Retina of a little i. The answer is probably not.
This is such a packed acronym. In the GNU (Gnu’s Not Unix) tradition, it’s recursive: LAME Ain’t an MP3 Encoder. Ain’t is short for is not, so that’s a second abbreviation. Then MP3, which is short for MPEG 1 or 2, layer III audio. Extra points for including a comma and two different number notations. And that’s an abbreviation within an abbreviation within an abbreviation there: MPEG is the Motion Picture Expert Group. So that’s LAME is not a motion picure expert group 1 or 2, layer III audio encoder is not a motion picure expert group 1 or 2, layer III audio encoder… repeat until you fall over.
- Codec and Modem
LAME is, roughly speaking, a codec. Codec belongs to a select group of abbreviations which refer to one thing and its opposite: COder and DECoder, or MOulator and DEModulator. The words themselves sound so natural and appropriate, like boot (short for bootstrap, from Baron von Munchausen lifting himself up by his bootstraps) or mouse or kernel, that it’s easy to overlook the cleverness that went into coining them.
This is a lovely example of international compromise. The English-speaking contingent wanted to call it Co-ordinated Universal Time, the Francophones favoured Temps Universelle Co-ordonnée, so they called it UTC.
I joined Pinterest.
The logo’s nice. Fun, retro typography. But it took a while to get used to the name. I mean, I get it: pinboard, interest, Pinterest. But the first derivation that comes to mind is this:
(That’s Harold Pinter, if you hadn’t guessed. Drawn by Reginald Gray and sourced from Wikimedia.)
And that’s an abysmal idea for a social network.
But anyway, the real Pinterest gives you a bookmarklet, and every time you see a pretty picture on the internet, you click it and at pins the pretty picture to your ‘Pretty Pictures’ Pinterest pinboard. (Anyone reading this out loud, take a break to wipe your screen.) The problem comes when you try to grab an image that’s not in an HTML <img> tag, but a background. Web designers often do this to work around layout inconsistencies, or as a weak protection against people saving the images with a right-click. That one up there, for example. Try right-click-save-as. Doesn’t work. If you have no knowledge of HTML, that may be enough to stop you trying anything else. And if you click your Pinterest bookmarklet, the image doesn’t come up as a choice.
So what did I do about it? Wrote another bookmarklet, that’s what. Drag this to your bookmark bar: BackgroundImages. It takes all the background images in the page, and tacks them on the end as ordinary foreground images. Right-click-save-as, Pin away.
So far I’ve only tested on Firefox and Chrome. It won’t work on Internet Explorer before version 8, but you have no excuse to still be using that anyway. To get the page back the way it was, just refresh the browser.
I’m a bad vegan. For years, I avoided pretty much all animal products: meat, eggs, dairy, leather, even wool and honey. My biggest vege-vice was gelatine-based camera film and paper. Recently, though, I’ve lapsed. I still avoid meat and milk, but treat myself to cheese, wear leather shoes, and don’t ask questions of a nice-looking cake. It’s a question of balancing the utility and pleasure one gets from the product with the death and suffering it causes to animals, and its cost to the environment. It’s a question that is always in my mind. But I try not to be dogmatic about it, because any reduction in animal consumption is a step in the right direction; setting an absolute ‘never shall x pass my lips’ rule smacks of religion.
I’m happy with people who consider the issue and come up with a different answer (whether butchers or fruitarians). What troubles me is that it seems the majority don’t even think about it; that the dominant cultural position on animal exploitation is accepted without question. People are told it’s OK to eat as much meat as they want – or better than OK, an aspirational goal, a sign of sophistication or manliness or wealth – and so they do.
Historically, meat was a luxury. Only the very rich ate as modern society affords us: meat on demand, produced by someone else, the killing and butchery and preparation out of sight and out of mind. While meat retains some of that cachet, it is now available cheaply to all, and often processed beyond any resemblance to actual flesh. Whereas in a pre-industrial Britain an ordinary family would need to preserve some meat to live through the winter, and would most likely have caught or reared and slaughtered the animal themselves, neither that need nor that connection to the source still exists. We rarely meet our meat face-to-face.
This comes up because New Scientist is carrying a feature on the environmental impact ofthe meat industry. It’s a really good article on the issue, a balanced and logical look at how we can reduce our environmental impact by consuming less animal products and sourcing them differently.
Clearly, if meat, milk and eggs were on trial for crimes against the environment, the prosecution would have an easy ride. And that says nothing of animal-welfare issues.
It’s an uncomfortable truth for animal-loving environmentalists that organic, free-range farming produces more pollution than high-intensity factory farming, but they point out that the least damaging kind of animal husbandry is where otherwise unproductive land is used.
For most of human history, cattle, sheep and goats grazed on land that wasn’t suitable for ploughing, and in doing so they converted inedible grass into edible meat and milk. Even today, a flock of sheep or goats can be the most efficient way to get food from marginal land. In a world where more than a billion people don’t have enough to eat, taking such land out of production would only contribute to food insecurity. Moreover, for semi-arid or hilly land, modest levels of grazing may cause much less ecological damage than growing crops.
Sustainable hunting of game (including fishi also comes into this category. Although they’re an integral part of the British countryside now, rabbits and pheasants were both introduced by the Romans to help generate food from the hills and forests. It seems much more natural and ethical to hunt a common wild animal than to treat animals as food-producing units from the start, to breed them into new and graceless forms just for that purpose, to keep them in factories, to process tham as raw materials.
If it becomes necessary in our low-carbon future to cut back drastically on animal products, stop livestock farming as we know it, and return to a closer relationship with the animals we do use, I say that would be an improvement. But at the moment, we’re going in the wrong direction: more people are demanding more meat all the time, and it won’t be easy to turn that around.
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There you go, three glowing testimonials from visitors to this blog. I get a ton of them. They’re not very specific, but they love my writing. It actually took me almost thirty seconds from reading the first one to realising that it was spam for a poker site, and that was a happy half minute, I tell you. This post marks my 100th spam comment trashed. I have one genuine comment from a reader – or at least I think so; maybe he’s a spambot better disguised than most. Not a great ratio.
So if you like receiving praise, and you’re not too picky about who’s dishing it out, start a WordPress blog. You can write any old crap (I’m living proof) and get the adulation of dozens of made-up people. You also get a load of links to dodgy gambling sites, pornography, hooky pharmaceuticals, knockoff inkjet cartridges, fake designer goods, charity scams and so on – something for everyone, I’m sure you’ll agree.
I’ll leave you with my favourite. Not a compliment, or a direct sales pitch, unusually. I couldn’t even work out what it was selling, so I have to assume it was commissioned by some tech-savvy ursines fishing for a man-snack.
 The danger that bears pose is often vastly exaggerated, in part by the human imagination
As usual, around the time the the clocks go forward into British Summer Time, there’s a debate about whether we should stay an hour ahead all year round, or one hour ahead in the winter and two in the summer. This year, though, it looks a bit more serious than usual, with an organised campaign for change backed by the two main political parties.
The aim of the 10:10 movement is generally pretty admirable: everyone should cut their carbon emissions by 10% in the year 2010. And their point about putting the clocks forward is that we’d use less electric lighting if we had an extra hour’s daylight in the evenings. They’re probably right, but I just can’t bring myself to support this change, for two main reasons.
Let’s start with national pride. I’m not a flag-waver by any means, but the idea that Britain, more specifically Greenwich, is the centre of the map (longitudinally-speaking) is one I’m proud of. It was Britain that decided the standard for world timekeeping, a scientific and diplomatic achievement that outlasted the Empire to the present day. Every time zone in the world is GMT ± something. Call it UTC if you like (in a compromise between the Anglophone and Francophone participants in naming the standard, UTC stands for Co-ordinated Universal Time or Temps Universel Coordonné, which I find amusing), but the zero point is the Greenwich Meridian. Now, do we abandon this, and join the natural time zone of central Europe? To me, this seems worse than adopting the Euro in place of the pound – something I would vote for, given the opportunity. To me, money is just an arbitrary system for counting value, and I don’t care which units you use. Time, however, is one of the fundamental dimensions of the universe, and I don’t want it adapted to our convenience.
Which brings me to my second, and more heartfelt, point. The time of day depends on the rotation of the Earth. When we are pointed directly at the Sun, i.e. it appears directly overhead, it is midday. When we are directly on the other side, it is midnight. That is the basis for any rational system for defining what time of day it is. Destroying this link, as we already do for half of every year, removes our culture one step further from nature. It is like installing bright streetlights all over the country, so that blackbirds sing all night and the stars are hidden in glare. It is like building bypasses (you’ve got to build bypasses) through ancient hills and woods. It is intellectually and spiritually ugly. And it is unnecessary.
I know the 10:10 site has a list of ten (there would be ten) good reasons to switch to SDST. Environment, health, happiness, productivity, warm feelings inside. But every one of these can be achieved without changing the clocks at all. If you needed to get up an hour earlier than usual, would you set your alarm clock to ring an hour earlier, or would you set it to show the wrong time? The former, unless you’re very strange. So why do we, as a nation, do the latter? The clock change is tailored to a subset of people: those who live in the south of England, and work, or go to school, in something like a conventional nine-to-five time slot. Those who work early shifts, or live in the far north, are disadvantaged. Those who work at other times, or make their own schedules, or don’t work at all, have little reason to be affected by it either way. So why don’t the people who would benefit from getting up earlier just get up earlier, and leave the clocks alone? The schedule for schools, universities, hospitals, libraries and other public institutions could be set by councils, county-by-county, according to location and the needs of local people. Private companies could follow suit, or not, as it suited them. Would people really complain about getting up earlier in the summer, exactly as we do anyway, just because the clock worked the same way as in the winter? I like to think we’re not that stupid.
I just upgraded to the latest WordPress, and in the process lost the latest version of my precious custom template. That’ll teach me to back up. Oh well, it wasn’t finished anyway. I’ll fix it some time, but until then please put up with ropy layout, etc.
A few years ago, I ran a monthly club night called Sausage Time. (Why Sausage Time? That’s another story, but, in short, nobody really knows.) It was a showcase of more-or-less weird music, performance and visual art; one-offs, first-timers, side-projects, outsiders and in-jokes. It was tremendous fun, but of course it made no money and it got shut down in favour of something more commercial. In fact, the visual art side was pretty sparse, and it tended towards music, but I exhibited something of my own at the inaugural event. The work was entitled ‘The one hundred and twenty names of Elvis’, and consisted of 120 6″ x 4″ prints, each containing one of the 120 possible orders of the letters E L V I S, white-on-black. They were displayed, or hidden, around the bar. I gave no notes or context for the work, which led to at least one viewer mistaking them for a Levis advertisement. My thought process behind it was along the lines of pop culture creating its own deities, a kind of mantra or meditative process in which the word became completely divorced from Presley and his music, and a mythologising transformation in which the name and the letters of the name became totemic in their own right. The title came from an Arthur C Clarke short story.
As well as producing the work, I went through the process it implies: eyes shut, systematically work out each successive anagram, contemplate its meaning, and move on to the next. So these words, mostly nonsense, became very familiar to me. My favourite, as you must have guessed by now, was SILEV. I pronounce it with the emphasis on SI, as in silence, and then LEV as in levitation.
I used it for a musical project, based around lo-fi analogue technology, prepared guitars, long drones and an avoidance of conventional tonality and rhythm. I played three or four gigs, set a few MP3s free on the web, but never got very far recording the albums I’d planned and (in an overenthusiastic bout of self-mythologising) claimed on silev.org to have discovered on enigmatic reel-to-reels of indeterminate age in a car boot sale. Like my other projects, Id Lab and Bubble Chamber Orchestra, it’s not dead, just dormant. Like Veuvius, or maybe Chthulhu. [Emoticon: smiley face with tongue in cheek and slightly raised right eyebrow.]
Originally posted on 6 January on the other version of this blog.
Here’s an article about the design of website navigation menus. I’m a web developer and designer by trade, so I can read this kind of thing and pretend it’s work. There are some pretty examples in the showcase, though the prettiest are generally the least practical. Big buttons in irregular shapes look good, but if your site isn’t just about what a fancy designer you are, they just take up space you could be using for whatever the site’s meant to be about.
The comments on this tension between aesthetics and usability get interesting. In particular, the article’s author says this:
Here’s the question designers battle with on a constant basis: how can you be innovative, yet still produce a functional and user-friendly/intuitive design? Web design is both an art and a science. And unlike art, you can’t go all Picasso on a web design, the number one priority will always be function over form.
Is he right? I work on a set of corporate websites, whose function is to sell products and make money for the company. As far as that work goes, yes, he is right. The design ought to look good, but it must not prevent a single person from finding the information they need. But as a general principle of what the web should be, I disagree. Since he brings up Picasso, let’s continue the visual art analogy. A corporate website is like a diagram, a clear exposition of its subject; it can look good, but that’s not its goal. I wouldn’t want the designer to ‘go all Picasso’ on the assembly instructions for the flat-packed furniture I’d just bought, or the map of the town I was visiting. But there’s a place for abstract, function-free paintings in this world, and for the Picasso-like middle ground of figurative but highly stylised art, in which the function (depicting a woman’s face, for example) is secondary to the form. Or take a library: the corporate website is a product catalogue, an atlas or a newspaper; in another section you’ll find Ulysses and The Waste Land – documents without a clear, accessible meaning, but (unaccountably, by Jacob Gube’s criteria) considered very much superior to the phonebook.
So how does this apply to web design? What’s the Ulysses of the Internet? What does an abstract website look like? I don’t have all the answers. I’m finding it hard to think of examples. Mouse On Mars used to have one, a few years back. Their website was a Flash-based collection of interactive audio-visual toys with very little text. It was not user-friendly. It did not communicate a clear message. It was confusing, pointless and brilliant. It was just like their music, and it was art. Now it’s been replaced by the accessible, informative but rather dull blog-like site you’ll find if you click that link. They’ve shed their mystery, and become less exciting in doing so.
You might argue that HTML and its associated languages can’t be compared with English as creative tools, and you’d be right. They haven’t evolved and diverged so much as been centrally defined and standardised. You can’t deviate far from the standard syntax before it stops working entirely, whereas meaning is very persistent in written English, even if the syntax is radically transformed. But in my analogy, a computer language does not equate to a human language. It’s more like the building-blocks: the letters, numbers and punctuation that make up the work, and which, in themselves, go unnoticed by the reader. Or in painting, it is the pigment and binder that make up the paint. (As an aside, I’m making the assertion here that painting is one step removed from its physical medium, and literature two steps removed. There’s more mileage in that.) You can create radical modern literature using a standard typewriter. The creativity is expressed in the interpreted web page, not the view-source.
The web page is a new and rapidly evolving medium, and I don’t think we’ve fully worked out what it’s for yet. We’re good at informational websites; we’re good at presenting artworks in other media (textual, visual and sonic); we’re good at creating communities and complex communal systems. But the actual art of web design remains hard to pin down. Is it just the layout, the background images, the lettering? The frame around the painting, the typesetting and binding of the book? I think not. The website as work of art is already possible, and there are more opportunities for pure creativity opening up as the technology matures. So, again, what does web art look like? (I’m sure it’s not this.) If you find any examples, please post a comment to let me know.
The template has now been
ruined customised enough that it doesn’t look like a WordPress blog any more. No sidebar, no giant heading, and no blue. I’ve got the floating footer just annoying enough, and made it look suitably rubbish in Internet Explorer. In Firefox, Chrome and Safari you get two columns and nice smooth edges on the header and footer. Not IE. (Not Opera either, and that used to be the progressive, smooth and standards-compliant browser.) I can do this kind of thing because it’s my blog, and I spend far too much of my time at work getting everything to look good for everyone.
In case you’re interested, the wonky edges are done with the css border triangle technique. It goes a bit like this:
border-bottom: 20px solid black;
border-left: 2100px solid transparent;
border-right: 0px solid black;
border-top: 0px solid transparent;
That css goes on a div element with no content. When the borders are that thick, and there’s nothing in the middle, each side shows up as a triangle. I’ve seen this done to make little triangles for speech-bubble-shaped callouts, but not for big crooked lines like this. Probably because it looks so jagged on the wrong browsers.