06/4/14

Pondering Responsive web design


Mashable graphicI’ve been building websites since the early 1990s, and have had my own websites continually since 1995. For a few years, I did website design and analysis for commercial clients – mostly small local businesses. I even taught web design at a local adult learning centre for a couple of years. Way back when the Net was relatively new, I even did some pages for local events. Although I do less coding today, mostly for my own use, I still have an interest in the developments in web technology and layout.

I taught myself the basics of HTML back when it was version 1.0, 20 years ago – not all that difficult if you were schooled in using the old word processors like Perfect Writer and Wordstar. The first word processors used similar markup styles. Some even required users to compile the text in transient files, in order to see the formatting results, because they couldn’t be shown onscreen at the same time as the markup. That’s because these programs were small, tight and efficient enough to fit in the limited physical computer memory – 16 to 64KB in the early days of computing – but not very feature rich. Ah, the good old days of the Z80 and 6502 processors.

HTML was fairly easy (for me), but clumsy. It was a flat, 2D system and building some elements – tables in particular – was awkward and time-consuming. HTML tried – with limited success – to mix design with structure in one all-encompassing language. It was predicated on the printed page – basically replicating it onscreen. The initial versions of HTML were a desktop-publishing-like environment for the screen.

But the old ways are not always suited for the new devices. Page designs and layouts done even five years ago may be outdated and ill-suited for mobile devices (as I have found from my own work). New design paradigms are needed to stay current with the ebb and flow of technologies.

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03/1/14

100,000 thank yous


100,000 hitsLast week, I passed 100,000 unique views on this blog – in slightly over two years since it was started. Not large by any means, given that some sites easily get that in a month. But a personal milestone for me.*

Thank you, gentle readers, for coming here, for spending time with my humble scribblings**, for taking time out of your busy day to read my words. I hope I have managed in some small way to entertain, amuse, delight and inform you. At the very least, I hope I have encouraged you to think about what you’ve read, even if you disagree with it.

The internet can be a harsh place, a place of anger, vituperation and confrontation, a place where conspiracies and intolerance thrive. But it can also be a place where people find common ground, can share ideas and interests. Where communities can form and friendships built through engaged dialogue and civil debate.

Although there are a lot of angry people online eager to attack anyone with a difference of opinion or thought, there are also places where people can express themselves without being ridiculed and attacked. Sometimes, you find such a haven; sometimes you have to create a space for yourself like this blog to achieve that.

I hope you share at least some of my interests and that’s what brought you here: your love of history, language, science, writing, literature, politics, music and yes, even baking bread. Perhaps you were looking for information, for ideas, for fellow aficionados, or even for some reinforcement for your own opinions. Whatever brought you here, I thank you for staying a while.
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01/26/14

The Mac celebrates 30 years


MacintoshA recent article on Gizmodo shows off some previously unseen (or perhaps just forgotten) footage of a young Steve Jobs unveiling the Macintosh computer, back on January 30, 1984.

Thirty years ago, this week.

Seems like forever ago. But I remember it, and reasonably well. I remember where I was living then, what I was working on, and who I was with (I’m still with her…)

The video clip also includes the famous Orwellian “1984″ TV ad Apple used to launch the Mac. That’s worth watching for itself. It was a really cheeky ad, and generated a lot of chatter about marketing at the time. The clip includes other Mac ads you should watch.

I had a Mac around then, bought, as I recall, in late 84 or early 85. I had had a Lisa – the Mac’s unsuccessful predecessor – on loan for a few months in 83 or early 84. I wasn’t impressed with the Lisa, but the Mac really captivated me.

I also had an IBM PC, from 82 or 83, and never quite understood the anti-IBM sentiments Jobs and Apple promoted among users. But then PC users fought back just as adamantly over the superiority of their platform.

As a computer geek from way back, I just loved having any – every – computer. When I started computing, I lived in a two-bedroom apartment; the second (the Iarger of the two, of necessity) bedroom became a workroom filled with computers, books, manuals, printers, modems, tools, chips, soldering irons, cables, and printers. As a technical and documentation writer, I always had extra hardware and software on loan from manufacturers and distributors. I once described my room as looking like a “NASA launch site.”

When we eventually bought our own house, I had a room for my books and computers, too, although they tended to escape and overrun the rest of the house. Same thing has happened here, although the amount of hardware is much reduced from the glory days (more ukuleles today than computers).

But ever since my first computer, I have not been a day without at least one computer in the house, usually several.

By the time the Mac was released, I had been computing for more than six years. I bought my first computer in the fall of 1977, a TRS-80, and soon had several machines (an Apple in 79, an Atari 400 in 1980 and then an 800 in 81). I belonged to user groups, subscribed to at least a dozen computer magazines, and wrote for several, including one of the earliest columns on computer gaming (in Moves magazine). I attended many computer fests and exhibitions in Canada and the USA – in fact, I helped organize a microcomputer fair in Toronto, at the International Centre, in the mid-80s.

As you read this, in 2014, I’ve been at it for almost 37 years.

So I take some umbrage when I read this condescending snippet on Gizmodo:

30 years ago the landscape of personal computing was vastly different. That is to say, it hardly existed.

Hogwash. It was alive and well – thriving in its entrepreneurial glory. Only poorly-informed journalists who have not done their research would make such a claim. Or perhaps they are too young to know of the rich history of personal computing prior to their own acquisition of a device.

By 1984, we had seen the TRS-80, Commodore Pet, Apple II, Kaypro, IBM PC, Atari 400, 800 and 1200, Sinclair, TI-99, the Acorn, Coleco Adam and many others. Apple’s own IIc would be released later in 1984.

We would soon see both the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST 16-bit computers launched. Of which I had them all, and a few others passed through my hands in that time, too.

In the 80s, CompuServe dominated the field of online services with millions of customers as it spread. I was a sysop on CompuServe for many of those years. I even operated my own BBS for a while.

CompuServe was challenged – aggressively, but not very successfully – by several competitors in that decade including The Source and Delphi (I was later a sysop on Delphi, too, before moving to Collingwood).

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11/26/13

Six Rules for Politicians Using Social Media



This is an updated version of the talk I presented at the the eighth annual Municipal Communication Conference in Toronto, November 2013.

 

I use social media regularly and frequently. As a politician, that makes me either very brave or very stupid. But I’ve been doing this for the last 30 years, long before I ever got elected. Social media isn’t new to me.*

It may be slicker than it was in 1983, but it’s essentially the same text-based, monologue, just with chrome added. In fact, the tone of the conversation seems to have gone downhill since the 80s.

Back then it was mostly computer geeks like, so we were more of a community. Geek-to- geek wasn’t so adversarial, unless of course, you were arguing the relative merits of the Z80 versus the 6502 processor.

Today people debate about such important issues as Kim Kardashian’s cat, the name of a royal baby, or the recent favourite, Millie Cyrus’s backside.**

Today’s great technological advancement seems to be the consummate ease by which you can attach pictures of kittens or puppies to your posts.

Technology has improved our ability to share those photos with thousands, even millions of people. But it hasn’t made us better communicators.

Some technology actually rewards illiteracy. Twitter. For example, encourages us to cram our language into abbreviations and codes. It turns language into hieroglyphics.

Sure it can help social change. But how much is debated. Everyone points to how the Arab Spring was abetted by Twitter and Facebook. But I suspect a lot of the Arab Spring tweets went like this: “We’re overthrowing the government today. What are you wearing?”

Anthony WeinerSo when anyone in politics or municipal government asks me how to approach social media, I tell them two words:

Anthony Weiner.

I tell them there are six lessons you can learn from Anthony Weiner about social media.

Everyone knows who he is, of course. Weiner single handedly turned sexting from a minor act done by over-heated teens, to front page headline activity.The media were full of the stories about how this US congressman tweeted pictures of his underwear-clad crotch to young women around the country.

It was monumentally stupid and puerile. Weiner had to resign from Congress over the scandal. It hurt his career. And maybe his marriage. But on the grand scheme of things, it was harmless. He wasn’t Edward Snowden or Juilan Assange after all.

It really wasn’t anything more than a lack of good judgment or common sense. We’re all guilty of that. We all screw up now and then. That’s just human nature.

But Weiner was a politician. And politicians get held to a higher standard than, say, your neighbour or your cousin. If they did it, you’d probably just shrug it off. But when a politician or a civil servant is involved, the sky is falling.

At least that’s what the media tells us.

When I was in newspapers, media were the sole gatekeepers of information. We controlled how the public received it. Everyone looked to us. We had standards about what we published, and we were respected for them.

Today, there are tens of thousands of accessible sources online. Traditional media scrambles for your attention. In order to compete with Miley Cyrus or Kim Kardashian, they sensationalize just about everything.

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11/17/13

We have heading up for your net


Spam cartoonI have to admit that I frequently read the spam comments WordPress traps for my moderation, and I often do so with a smile. The clumsy, crazy constructs, the awkward English, butchered punctuation and the twisted word use just make me laugh.

Yes, like everyone else, I detest spam, and I quickly delete the comments into whatever digital wastebin they descend to. But I often chuckle to read them first. They make me wonder: are they deliberately written poorly, are they the sincere efforts of someone struggling to learn English, words strung together in random order by a bot, or are they the result of some Google translation gone awry?

Some have question marks which suggest symbols from other languages that didn’t get through the translation process. or are they just machine constructs dropping in characters at random?

This one is a good example, taken from today’s lot waiting for the delete button:

Of training course exceptional post. We have heading up for your net. Usually publish with your very own encounter and share. Oh! really grateful.

Some read like odd poetry, if you parse them so. Take the above, for example and write it thus:

Of training course exceptional post.
We have heading up for your net.
Usually publish with
your very own encounter
and share.
Oh!
really grateful.

Okay, not great poetry. Reads like computer-generated poetry, though, doesn’t it?

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10/24/13

Words, words, words


Elements of StyleWriting before the arrival of the internet*, Bob Blackburn commented on the nature of exchange on then-prevalent BBS (Bulletin Board Systems), words that could as easily be written today about the internet:

“…the BBS medium reveals not only a widespread inability to use English as a means of communication but also a widespread ignorance of that inability, and, in consequence, a lack of interest in doing anything about it.”

Words that were prescient. As if he could foresee Facebook. Blackburn also wrote that most people thought they spoke and wrote well…

“The majority of English-speaking people I’ve come across…think they already know it. After all, it’s their native tongue, and they’ve been to school.”

Which is, for most of us, a fallacy. Language, like any skill, needs training, practice, experience and reminders. Yes, we have an innate  sense of grammar from an early age, encoded in our genes, but it is rudimentary and needs refinement.

A new study from the University of Pennsylvania has shown that children as young as 2 understand basic grammar rules when they first learn to speak and are not simply imitating adults.

Like our muscles, our ability to speak and write develops with use. But it does not develop with haphazard, unfocused usage. Just visit some of the many sites that illustrate the grammatical nightmares found on social media sites like Facebook. While these are good for a chuckle, they reflect a greater problem with education and learning.

Anyone who attempts to correct the written wrongdoings online is labelled a “grammar Nazi” (or more often, a “grammer nazi”). As if writing poorly is some protected, constitutional right. The term has been adopted by some of the practitioners themselves. I sometimes count myself among their company, although I do not belong to any of their organizations.

Still, like Lynn Truss, I bridle at the egregious mistakes in grammar, punctuation and spelling I find online (not everyone likes her, by the way, but her book is great fun to read). And yes, sometimes I am prone to comment thereon. That may be an automatic response, according to a recent study:

Your brain often works on autopilot when it comes to grammar. That theory has been around for years, but University of Oregon neuroscientists have captured elusive hard evidence that people indeed detect and process grammatical errors with no awareness of doing so.

This week, I began again what used to be an annual activity for me – back when I was working in the media or in publishing – rereading the classic work, The Elements of Style. I felt my metaphorical red pencil was in need of a sharpening.

It’s a small book – the fourth edition is just over 100 pages, including the afterword, glossary, and index. At a chapter a day, it can be easily read in less than a week, even by people who don’t read quickly. It encapsulates a mere 22 basic rules of style. Rule 19, for example, states: “Omit needless words.” It follows with this:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Who can argue with that? Ron Sudol, Professor of Rhetoric at Oakland University, comments on this:

Strunk’s attitude toward style is that English is more beautiful the more direct and spare it is. As White notes in the introduction, “for sheer pith I think it probably sets a record that is not likely to be broken.” The students at Cornell in 1919 were probably more wordy and pretentious than students today, whose writing is more often underdeveloped and oversimple. Nevertheless, the lessons — and that’s exactly the right word for the direct orders issued by Strunk and White — are eternally valuable to anyone who wants to take writing seriously. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject. Put statements in positive form. Use the active voice. Omit needless words. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

TEOS sits, almost hidden, in a bookshelf packed with many books on grammar, style, writing, punctuation and communication. They range from the whimsical works of Richard Lederer to the dense, academic Chicago Manual of Style. Most of the rest I read sporadically and randomly. Some – like Safire and Lederer – I read more for entertainment and amusement. Others I read to keep my writing sharp, like the periodic honing of the knives in my kitchen drawers.

Strunk & White alone of all my style and grammar books I read cover to cover because, for me, it is the quintessential book, the source from which all the others derive. And its short little rules are like little jabs; pointed reminders to pay attention.

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