Version 5

You might have noticed that the layout has changed a bit. Over the last few days I’ve developed a new theme for the site to take advantage of some of WordPress’s more integrated features, in particular the wonderful JetPack plugin.

You’ll notice the comments system has changed a little (I’ve abandoned IntenseDebate for now), and there should be a much wider variety of things posted here. URLs are also much cleaner, and only rely on the post title rather than the category (although the old links should still work).

Let me know what you think. If people like this theme enough, I might well release it as a proper theme on wordpress.org, although the code itself needs some tidying.

(Photo: Stepper Point in Cornwall at sunset)

Interconnectivity: A Problem for Apple or a Developing Market?

There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of articles predicting the downfall of Apple Form the launch of the Android to the closed-nature of the app store. Nevertheless, it’s worth pondering how the future of tech might affect the giant, especially given it’s recent successes and ability to set trends in consumer technology.

Apple has excelled at determining the direction taken by consumer products. Jonathan Ive’s simple designs have been continuously aped, while the moment the iPhone was released other manufacturers began to wonder about how handheld touch screens might do without the ubiquitous stylus. It hasn’t all gone Apple’s way though – the app store was introduced in response to a general outcry at Steve Job’s suggestion that HTML5 and Javascript would be a sufficient replacement for native apps.

So I’m curious as to how Apple might handle the increasing prevalence of interconnected technology. They’ve handled multiple platforms relatively well so far, enabling printer sharing and wireless speakers by releasing their own formats. Yet there are a large number of small devices which now connect to wireless networks, computers and platforms.

Apple have already supported a few of these – the Nike+ sensor springs to mind, along with the US store listing for the Nest thermostat.

Nevertheless, there are many small projects either already launched or launching soon which intend to somehow connect with existing technology. The Arduino has become a staple of tech hobbyists, and projects such as Ninja blocks may well have a similar effect. I look forward to seeing what people can do with this sort of technology, especially given Apple’s own work on Siri, but I wonder whether compatibility will ever be an issue. Could I talk to my phone and tell it to warm-up the house as I’ll be home ten minutes early? Could I ask it whether I forgot to turn off the kitchen lights, and then have it turn them off for me?

There’s some great tech being worked on, but I can’t help but wonder whether the closed nature of Apple’s services can cope with it. Even if it can’t, things should get quite interesting, and I suspect they will adjust in time.

366 Day Photo Project: A Retrospective in Pictures

Just over a year ago, a friend suggested she wanted a project, and so decided to embark on a 365 day photo project: a plan to take at least one photo every day. I agreed to join her, and then added an extra. I would post each photo on a Tumblr account, the premise being that this would make me accountable and therefore force me to finish the project. On Tuesday, I took the final photo.

The project started well enough, and even had moments of what might be regarded as “actual photography”. By far the best days were the ones where I dusted-off the slightly neglected Nikon and went out on a mission to get some photos.

But processing photos in Aperture on a daily basis isn’t something I had planned for. Fortunately, another Apple product came to the rescue in the form of my phone and the accompanying Tumblr app. This, I had reasoned, would make life much easier – a few taps and my daily masterpiece (or whichever term you prefer for “Another Photo of a Lamp”) would be done and online. A daily reminder, set for the sensible time of 7pm, would mean no excuses.

As ever, this didn’t quite work out. Reminders are easy to forget, and even easier to ignore. Many photos were taken at 11pm, hence the surfeit of lamp, table and “texture” photos with suspicious time stamps.

Amongst the strange pictures of random objects scattered around my room, are there shots I am happy with? Yes. Almost exclusively these were taken with my actual camera rather than my phone, and a few of them even made it onto my Flickr account.

But was it worth it, and would I recommend it? Hard to say. I’m pleased I got to day 366 (an extra day due to the leap year). Despite this, I’m very glad the project is over. The main lesson was that photography takes time, and can’t be done in the same way you might happen to do the washing up on a daily basis. It needs precision, practice and patience. An 11pm dash every night for a year will never make you a better photographer, just as running to catch the bus everyday probably won’t mean you can compete in a marathon.

If you decide to do the project, don’t resort to your phone, and make sure you have the time. You don’t have to post the results to the Internet, so save the time for taking the photo itself. I honestly believe a photo a week (or even a photo a month) would be more satisfying. The project adds “another thing to do”, and it can feel like a chore getting in the way of long term side projects. It can be great fun if you spend time on it, but as always in life, it shouldn’t be rushed for the sake of it. I won’t be doing the project again – at least not in a hurry. But I took away many lessons, and the odd photo. So that’s certainly something to be happy with.

NB: For some reason day 366 was posted on July 3rd 2012, but day 1 was July 1st 2011. I’m not quite sure what happened here, but suspect I accidentally counted a few days twice when uploading to Tumblr.

Retina images on the web

Techie post alert! This isn’t one of my normal politics posts!

As I’ve mentioned on Twitter, I’m working on a new version of this site, which will have room for a little more content.

With the release of the new iPad, websites will be forced to improve. Traditionally, sites could be built by just using a straightforward image, with a defined number of pixels per image. The whole point of the retina display is to try and hide the existence of the pixel, to make the image as detailed as possible.

This is something of a challenge for web designers – sites built with the old methods can look a little blurry. For an example, just look at any app which hasn’t yet been updated with retina graphics.

There’s some discussion as to how to best go about this. Progressive JPEG files seem to work well, whilst Apple themselves use javascript to reduce the load on the site.

I’m not happy with using javascript. Although the new iPad supports it, eventually high resolution screens will be the norm on PCs, which may be using NoScript to block the use of javascript. I’ve gone with progressive JPEG files:

  1. For each file, I save it at double the size I will be using on the site, and save it in Photoshop as a progressive JPEG (File -> Save for web -> JPEG -> Checkbox marked ‘Progressive’)
  2. The section (or div) I’m using has a fixed width, and has background-size defined as the same width. So for an image of 1260px, the below CSS code is used:
#sections {
background-image:url('img/parliament.jpg');
background-size:630px; 
width: 630px; height: 300px;
}

The drawback of this method is filesize. This site doesn’t get a huge amount of traffic at the moment, so the server is fine. I’d be interested to know if anyone has any problems loading the new site, although I’ve moved to a new web host who should be more reliable. The other problem is the lack of transparency, which was always a wonderful feature of PNG files.

There’s always SVG files – vector images. (For the non-technical, these are images that don’t record pixels, but rather points, and then work out the lines in between them). These are great for logos (and can be zoomed to an infinite level), but are no good for photographs.

Either way, the result is much clearer, even using progressive JPEG files.

There’s a great demo of what the results are here. You need an iPad to see the true results, but it’s definitely worth it. The possibility of the wide use of high resolution displays is an interesting one.

Stuff I've been working on: Full Fact

A quick update on what I’ve been doing with my life recently. I’m currently doing an internship with the good folks at Full Fact – an independent factchecking organisation who take newspaper headlines, political claims etc and, well, fact check them.

Here are a few of the articles I’ve done over the last few weeks:

There are of course, many more factchecks available on the Full Fact site, which (unsurprisingly) I very much recommend.

Silicon Valley in the UK?

David Cameron has revealed plans to transform part of London into the UK’s take on Silicon Valley, creating the East London “Tech City”.

The Wikipedia page currently has an enormous list of agreements that have been made to develop the area, with investment from the likes of Facebook or Google.

Whatever your views on whether or not this will be a success, if it does succeed things could get pretty interesting.

But it does raise one question: is this a bit of a gamble? The UK’s economy is mostly built on finance (I imagine this is why the government is loathe to tax banks too heavily), so it would be a bit of a stretch to suggest this would immediately transform the economy. Any tangible results will also take time to develop.

Assuming it has the potential to succeed, will politicians (and the media) have the political patience?