XKCD: What happens when coders want to read a comic

If you keep up with XKCD (described by its creator, Randall Munroe, as “A webcomic of romance,¬†sarcasm, math, and language”), you might have seen the comic posted on Monday entitled¬†Time. It initially showed a pair of people sitting on the beach, but half-an-hour later had changed slightly. Thirty minutes later, it had changed again, with one of the characters lying down. As the day progressed, so did the comic – by yesterday evening the characters had built a sandcastle.

At this point several (myself included) might have assumed the comic was over, but the picture then zoomed out over the next few hours to reveal a second sandcastle being built. At the time of writing this post, the comic is still changing and is on its 178th version).

Although the concept is interesting, it’s also worth keeping an eye on the way those reading XKCD have reacted to the comic. One reader developed a system for recording each change and scrolling through them, while others found methods to compile them into a single animated .gif image.

It does show that often when those with a technical ability want something done, they may well find a way to do it themselves, to the benefit of anyone else interested. Something as simple as a changing webcomic has resulted in a few different tools for viewing it in just a few days.

Recipe: Toffee Crunch Ice Cream

With the introduction of a Magimix to our kitchen, I’ve found myself doing a lot more cooking. The vast majority of recipes are courtesy of phone calls or emails home (to that endless resource of cooking advice: Mum), including the below recipe for Toffee Crunch Ice Cream. You don’t need an ice cream maker or anything, although an electric whisk helps, as does an egg separator – something I’m starting to think every kitchen should have but is surprisingly difficult to find. I started making this in January and have been asked for the recipe several times already. Since I can’t seem to find it anywhere online, I thought it might not be a bad idea to publish it here.

 

Ingredients

  • 2 eggs
  • 6 Cadbury’s Fudge Bars (or similar)
  • 4 Daim Bars (or similar)
  • 500g ready made custard
  • 50g icing sugar
  • 284ml (10fl oz) double cream

Recipe

  1. Thinly slice the fudge bars into a bowl and add 2 tablespoons of double cream. Melt slowly over simmering water. It helps to stir from time to time, as this tends to take a while! You can leave it to melt while you prepare the rest of the ingredients, but keep an eye on it.
  2. Break the Daim bars into small pieces using a sharp knife
  3. Separate the eggs, mixing the yolks and icing sugar together until they form a pale mousse
  4. Whip remaining cream and egg whites in separate bowls until they both form soft peaks.
  5. Fold together whipped cream, custard, yolk mixture, fudge bar mixture and Daim bars. Finally fold in egg whites.
  6. Pour into freezer-proof container and leave overnight. You’ll need to take it out of the freezer about 40 minutes before serving.

On Demand: The Need for Immediacy and the Digital Media Market

The band AC/DC have finally released their recordings on iTunes. They initially argued that their albums should not be available as individual songs, but should be listened to as complete pieces of work.

This is a view I can sympathise with – I was never particularly fussed by the Beatles until my Dad played the entirety of Abbey Road, when it suddenly all made sense. There certainly seems to be a subtle art to the ordering of tracks – had What’s the Story? (Morning Glory) opened with Don’t Look Back in Anger and followed it with Champagne Supernova, I suspect neither song would have been quite as popular.

But AC/DC’s change of heart is almost certainly due to commercial pressures. Despite all suggestions to the contrary, the now-DRM-free music of iTunes and Amazon is making huge amounts of money. Manufacturing costs are almost eliminated by the process, and the downloads are both immediate and cheap. The industry initially insisted on DRM (Digital Rights Management) software to ensure only certain devices were capable of playing a song – an effort to prevent piracy that, like many things in technology, was ultimately doomed by how often users were able to work around the restrictions imposed on them.

Head of Valve Software Gabe Newell once commented that piracy isn’t a price issue – it’s a service issue. He theorised that if the service was made as simple as possible with as little restriction as possible, customers were more than happy to pay for content. Whether or not it was free was not nearly as significant as how constrained the user might be, or whether the product was immediately available.

This is, in part, the cause behind Apple’s success with iTunes. Not only have they put a music store on every computer, but also on every iPad, iPhone and iPod. You can be sat on a train and decide to listen to that song you still have “on the brain”, and download it immediately.

And now, you can even download Back in Black.

The same has not yet been true of the film industry. Interestingly, the birth of digital music downloads coincided with the peak of physical formats. At 700Mb each, a CD can easily contain the information needed for an album at a reasonable quality, and double albums are rare enough that there was never a need to produce a new format.

The movie industry does not appear to have quite reached the same limit. Manufacturers constantly strive to improve the image quality, with both HD and BluRay being embraced by filmmakers. Further experiments such as 3D are ongoing, as the industry explores the question of “what’s next?” and how to best tackle piracy. We may not see any significant shift until the industry feels it is running out of options.

I’m intrigued by Mark Kermode’s suggestion that films should simply be released simultaneously in cinemas, on DVD, and in a downloadable format. This again leans towards resolving ease-of-use for the customer. Given how well this has worked out for the music industry, I can’t help but wonder if this might be the solution.

Edit-in-Place with jQuery

I’ve just released a very simple JavaScript file via GitHub which provides the basis of a Flickr-style “edit-in-place” (i.e. you hover over the item, it turns yellow, you click and it is replaced with a form without you leaving the page). The file relies on jQuery to work its magic.

You can find the repository here: https://github.com/BobLoco/Edit-in-Place-jQuery

It’s not exactly a complex script and probably needs some tidying, but I hope it’s of some use. Full credit should go to Drew McLellan at 24 Ways, who provided the original example in Prototype.js

iPad Mini Predictions

Today’s the day for Apple’s October press event. The received wisdom is that the major announcement will be an iPad mini to compete with Amazon’s Kindle.

I actually really want this to be false. As useful as it would be for Apple, my own “please release this”-request would have to be an Apple television. This is only partly because I want to see what other industries Apple can change. It’s also because I want to see a genuine surprise announcement. Far too many of Apple’s recent announcements have been ruined by leaks, such as the new iPad and the iPhone 5. It would be good to see some of the famous Apple secrecy pay off again.

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.