HTML5 not HTML

HTML5 is taking the web by storm. It seems that not a day goes by without a some newfangled HTML5 creation being talked about on Twitter. Lucky for me, sickness I was able to have a conversation with Molly Holzschlag–author, rx speaker, and all-around web standards veteran–about this new and disruptive technology.

Download the mp3 or ogg.

Web Development with Curiosity

Web Development is a strange field. This is where, to use a weary metaphor, 1 + 2 will equal 3 today and 5 in six months (or other values based on which browser implements what). The specifications that browsers standardize on are in rapid and heavy development today, and browsers outdo each other in the race to implement the specifications as quickly as possible. This means that, unlike in other fields, self-learning is mandatory.

What I find perplexing is how often we outsource this learning to others. Many developers do not use certain standards because well-known experts have not expressed an opinion on it. Sometimes, unstable features find popularity because experts have explicitly endorsed them.

More troubling is that very few people take the time to read what the specifications say. Even Google ranks Sitepoint’s Reference, and W3Schools’ website higher than the actual standards when searching for CSS/HTML properties (and for a beginner, it is hard to know that the former two websites have nothing to do with the official standards body.)

Browser vendors too have a vested interest which is not immediately obvious to us. Vendors introduce vendor-prefixes for their own benefit and a few of these prefixes get into the specifications. But many of us are not aware of which vendor-prefixes have been implemented because they feature in drafts of upcoming standards and which exist because they fulfill something unique for that browser. This sometimes leads to frustration with browsers that do not implement the popular vendor-prefixes of another browser.

There are several outcomes as a result of this:

  • Unstable/undesirable features get used quickly, leaving browsers with backward compatibility issues.
  • We are not aware of the full impact of our choices on our web development environment in the race to use the latest and greatest.
  • Useful features of standards remain unnoticed for a long time, because very few developers hear about them.
  • It takes a long time for the common feature requests among web developers to bubble up to the Standards body, as they are unaware they can raise suggestions to the W3C.
  • Websites become harder to maintain because choosing to use specifications that have inconsistent implementations among browsers leads to more work (or sometimes such choices can make content inaccessible).
  • Web developers develop superstitions about browser vendors and web standards that are hard to alter (e.g. the poor opinion about Internet Explorer means, even when IE attempts to do something well, the IE team receives brickbats).
  • Browser vendors seem compelled to implement similar features as that of the competition because some web developers find it interesting, not because they are useful.

I think, given the pace of development of standards, web developers need to be more curious: investigate, and learn about standards to make it easier to apply and contribute to them (Ben Schwarz talks about it too in his presentation Take back the web). There are many ways to do it. The following have always worked for me:

  1. Code, code, code. There is no substitute for practice. Instead of trusting someone else to test a standard, do it yourself. Check if it works within the restrictions you have or the environment your website needs to work on. Some features are implemented such that they slow down the rendering of a page, and if your website requires high performance they will not be appropriate. Some only work with some special caveats. Know the caveats as there are very few free public resources mentioning them.
  2. Review upcoming standards. Not all properties are supported consistently across browsers. We should find the limitations, as well as equivalent substitutes for browsers that do not support them.
  3. Refer to the guidelines from W3C. It helps to actually read helpful documents the W3C has published for web developers (e.g. HTML: The Markup Language and HTML5 (Edition for Web Authors)), and ask the experts about content that is not clear. Most of them are happy to help (provided you show that you have done your homework and ask specific questions). Remember, the intent of any implementation is lost while reading a “simplified” version of it. For CSS, individual browser documentations are also useful.
  4. Subscribe to the W3C mailing lists. Browser representatives and people who implement the W3C specifications talk about edge-cases and debate on specifications here. In particular, www-style and public-html-comments are two lists where you can comment on the CSS or HTML specs respectively.
  5. Learn to love the bug-tracking systems for browsers. If a standard behaves inconsistently despite following the specification, you should check Bug trackers for Mozilla, Webkit, Chrome, and IE 9 to see if it is a known bug (IE has also released IE Standards Support Documents, that details IE support for various web standards).
  6. Read what other people are learning about. Paul Irish has a list of 200 front-end development feeds to subscribe to. If this gets in the way, cull the blogs you follow.
  7. Interact with other web developers. Go to your local Web Design meet-ups and do not feel afraid of asking questions that you think sound stupid, because, if you had that doubt, it is highly probable that someone else had that question too.
  8. Always ask why. Why is there border-radius? Why do we need HTML5 form elements? Why Canvas? Knowing what caused standards bodies to approve property/element is useful as it gives an insight into where they are most useful, how they can affect your web development process and what to look out for.

We are at the edge of yet another big push to what it means to develop with web standards. Instead of waiting for other people to tell us what is best and what is not, I think it is important we do that for ourselves. Be curious, be free!

The Comfort of Spammers

Email, buy blogs, site social media, podcasts, print-on-demand, etc. Thanks to Internet, never have so many people been able to make their thoughts available to such a large number of listeners. But isn’t it that much painful when this potential audience of billions fails to connect with your message, leaving you feeling foolish and ignored?

Are you despairing to see your Twitter followers stuck at a ridiculously low number? Who will post a comment on your latest blog post, proving that you touched someone and brought value to the world? Who will write you an email and bring words of comfort in times of hardship?

Know my lonely friend that when all else fails, spam is always there for you. The obsession with money-making schemes of this nice-looking twitter follower with an unpronounceable name may seem suspicious, but she’s also your long-awaited 50th follower and it would be a shame to block such a sexy avatar from your list. Maybe she’ll even notice the wry comment you just posted about the Flash vs HTML5 controversy? She may even chuckle at your “bon mot” as she builds her vast pyramidal empire…

You may wonder why concerned people feel the need to send you kindly email messages about how herbal remedies can help you make your partner so much happier. Thankfully, an unexpected love letter from a lonesome Russian lady soon restores your feelings of adequacy by her earnest request for companionship. Sure, her spelling can be very approximate, but love may be just around the corner! If only you could send some money to resolve those pesky visa issues…

You may wonder why bother posting to your website, exposing the beauty and degradation of humanity in 500 words installments, when your comments section lay bare, exposing the indifference of the world for, apparently, no-one to see. Thank you, mister Chinese World of Warcraft gold farmer, for keeping my forum alive with dreams of massive virtual wealth and power, bringing with you a taste of the Orient with your exotic typography.

The futuristic vision of alienated and forlorn people being comforted by robotic custodians is now a reality. Thank you, mister spambot, for keeping me company in cyberspace with your eternal vigilance. Your bountiful email and forum messages keep letting me know that something, somewhere, knows I exist and wants to connect!

Links

My Big Kiwi Day Out, Part 1: One Map To Rule Them All

Last month I travelled to Wellington to speak at Webstock Mini conference and to volunteer behind-the-scenes at the FullCodePress international website-in-a-day event. Between the conference and the geek-a-thon I had a day to myself. Rather than visit museums and city sites, I wanted to get out to see some of the countryside.

This is my story of how I got lost in the jungle, and survived. Just.

Going Off The Grid

I had a full day between my speaking engagement and the FullCodePress event kicking off, and I intended to make the most of it. It was my first time visiting New Zealand – rather than spend it in museums or tourist attractions, I was determined to get out of the city.

You see, before I actually set foot in the place, the words “New Zealand” conjured up two images for me (in the following order):

As you can imagine, my trip would have felt incomplete if I had returned home without seeing a good amount of either of these things. Some hasty web-based research revealed a sleepy coastal town by the name of Paraparaumu (Para-pa-raow-moo) on the Kapiti coast – an hour’s train ride from Wellington. Given my hotel was a short walk from the train station and a ticket cost only NZ $10, it all seemed too serendipitous. And if I caught the 5pm back to Wellington, I would even have enough time to meet up with the Aussie FullCodePress team for dinner.

What could possibly go wrong?

Chugga-chugga-choo-choo

Train travel will always be the most romantic form of travel – except perhaps rickshaw, but the only time I’ve tried that was when I was in Austin Texas for the SXSW conference one year. I was, well, drunk off my ass, and my caring colleagues kindly paid for a rickshaw to take my sorry self back to our hotel before I fell asleep in the corner of the bar. Actually, I might have fallen asleep in the bar first, which is probably why they called the rickshaw. But I digress. Damn Yahoo! and their bar tab.

Anyway … after the rickshaw, train travel is definitely up there for me. I know there are hardcore train boffins out there who can rattle off the names of every steam engine built in the last 500 years. Trust me, I’m not one of them. But I do love the speed at which long distance trains chug along – always constant, but never too hurried that you can’t appreciate the scenery outside.

And plenty of scenery there was – the railway to Paraparaumu hugs coastal cliffs and tunnels through ominous mountains. The view out the window was nothing short of stunning, and I sat glued to my window as every twist and turn revealed more lush forest, grassy meadows, and – yes – plenty of sheep.

Halfway there, it started to rain. It should have been a sign, but I shrugged it off. I’m an optimist and figured it would probably stop soon. Plus, I had my raincoat. I was in New Zealand, and it was choice, bro.

Where We’re Going, We Don’t Need Trails

The next warning sign to which I should have paid attention was the fact that the Paraparaumu information centre was closed. It had been open the day before (they were moving premises) and would be reopening the day after. But on the day I needed them their door was shut tight. There were a few brochures outside, but none of them said anything about hiking trails.

I thumbed through the maps at a local newsagency, but no luck. Determined, I asked the attendant at the train station, an elderly gentleman with a trusting face, if he knew of any hiking trails in the area. He apologised, and suggested I take a stroll along the water’s edge. “My wife and I take that walk every weekend.”

I was looking for something a little more challenging than an old timer’s regular route. Luckily, a softly spoken woman in her thirties at the station overheard our conversation, and piped up:

“There’s a hiking trail up in the Nikau Forest. It’s a bit of a walk.”

I volunteered quickly that I enjoyed walking, and pressed her for more details. She drew helpfully on my tourist map, showing roughly where the trail began. It wasn’t the clearest of maps, but it was enough for me. I had plenty of time, plenty of energy, and now I had a vague plan for where my conquering of Middle Earth would begin. I thanked both of my substitute guides, bought a packet of chips, chocolate, and some bottled water, and began my trek.

Oh. Did I mention that the rain was really starting to come down at this stage? I didn’t care. I was an explorer!

Always Cross At The Lights

The next warning bell that I chose to ignore came as I was approaching the edge of town. There weren’t any obvious pedestrian crossings, and I needed to cross the road. I waited for a break in traffic, looked both ways like a good Boy Scout, and legged it.

Around the corner, and moving with considerable momentum, appeared an old truck, rattling along the highway towards me. I picked up the pace, forgetting that the large amounts of rain had made the road kind of slippery. Oh, and the road was on quite an incline – a heady combination.

I was in no danger of being collected by the truck, but I’m sure the driver had a chuckle to himself as he thundered past. Had I been smack bang in the middle of a game of baseball, making a dash for home base, then the two-metre slide that I performed on my backside would have made me a hometown hero.

However I wasn’t playing baseball. I was just crossing the damn road. And my home base wasn’t constructed of soft, made-for-sliding dirt. It was hard bitumen. And it hurt. I still have a bruise and grazing down the side of my leg, four weeks later.

However, always the optimist, I was undeterred. You see, I really just wanted to get to the top of a whopping great hill and gaze out at the view beyond.

I grit my teeth, blocked out the pain that was beginning to creep up the side of my leg, and pressed onwards. Lush, green mountains loomed in the distance. I was determined to climb one of them.

Next issue, Part 2: Not In The Shire Anymore

Motivation. Connection. Action.

In my last article I talked about the dangers of the work habits we develop over time in our industry. They lead to a sedentary lifestyle. That isn’t good for you, for me, or for our industry.

So what can we do to get fitter, not fatter? Turn to the tools and services that help us connect.

Flickr. Twitter. Facebook. Gowalla. Foursquare. We tend to use the tools that our friends use. Why? Because our friends are there. We get community, belonging, and connection.

These sites and services are designed to be social, and we flock to them like candy. I’m sure that is at least partly because so many of us work remotely, or we’ve connected with folks that are all over the world, and these services help bring us closer together to other people when we mostly spend time getting closer with our computers.

One of the best communities going for fitness is dailymile — a social training log. It allows you to track your workouts, progress, races you might be involved in, and pretty much anything else you’d like to track.

dailymile has feeds, Twitter and Facebook integration, and a great sense of community, if — and this is a big if — your friends are there too. I have a few connections on dailymile, but I don’t really know many of them, nor have I met them in real life. In fact, that’s part of the reason I haven’t used dailymile in a while — very few of my friends are there.

That can change, though.

Connect with me on dailymile or join the Webstyle Magazine group. Be my friend. We can all work together. If you need motivation, we’ll be there. If you have questions, ask. Log your workouts, see the miles add up, and connect with more friends. We’ll put together some challenges for everyone, not just for those of you that are already on the path of fitness.

I’m serious about this. Are you?

Becoming a Coffee Nerd

I got into the habit of buying a coffee every day when I started working in London. Every day I’d make my pilgrimage to the local coffee shop, get my coffee and often it wouldn’t last the rest of the walk to the office. I found a nice cup of coffee set-up my morning perfectly, helping me feel wide awake and getting me into the stride of the day’s work.

Someone suggested I visit Flat White, a local independent coffee shop. Once I’d been there my eyes were opened, their flat whites were smaller than the large lattes I’d been drinking, but the flavour was the thing that stood out. At that time they were brewing the local Monmouth Coffee’s Expresso blend, heavily dosed and brewed at ~93º (I once overheard one of the baristas describing the brew recipe in detail). The flavour was rounded, chocolaty and nutty, yet at the same time there was this wonderful flavour that hinted at black treacle. For anyone wondering what a flat white is, it’s similar to a latte except that it’s usually served in a smaller cup and it often contains double espresso to make it a fairly strong short coffee.

Experiencing Flat White made me realise that the coffee available in the good independent coffee shops was amazing. I started to seek out the best cafes near to where I worked, Fernandez and Wells, Sacred and the newly opened sister of Flat White, The Milk Bar. Experiencing such good coffee every day made the worst coffee stand out. I began to notice when machines weren’t being cleaned properly and I could swear it got to the point where I could tell if a coffee was going to be bad by the sound of the steam – too much noise meant the milk was likely to be scalding hot or burnt.

The Guerilla Baristas

At the time I started to get into coffee in a big way I was working with a great web team who all enjoyed coffee, so we decided to club together and buy a machine for us to use at work. This had hilarious consequences as we worked long hours inadvertently over-caffeinating ourselves as we learnt how to use the machine.

During this time we kept the machine to ourselves to prevent people using it and damaging the machine by not knowing how to operate it. This nearly went wrong when some sales droids from the floor above commandeered the machine and started to burn the coffee badly by brewing it with steam. We discovered them when the smell of burnt coffee wafted around the corner.

Ultimately our team coffee experience came to an end when we came up against some over-zealous facilities staff who had decided staff couldn’t be trusted to operate a toaster let alone an espresso machine. We managed to get off the hook for a couple of months but after our machine was confiscated we had to call it a day.

The Home Barista

It wasn’t long before I bought a machine to use at home, followed shortly by the purchase of a grinder so I could dial in the perfect grind. I then spent lots of time experimenting and learning as much as possible how to balance all of the variables in making espresso. I worked within the limits of the machine I got to a point where I was pretty happy with the results.

An important part of the process was that of which coffee to brew. I’d tried coffee from Drury, Monmouth, Square Mile Coffee Roasters and Hasbean but in the last couple of years or so I’ve been buying the majority of my coffees from Square Mile and Hasbean who are probably the finest roasters in the country at the moment (imho).

The main thing here is finding coffee that works well with your machine. My machine (a Rancilio Silvia) doesn’t have the ability to control the temperature exactly so without that control I have to find coffees that are forgiving of not being brewed at a very specific temperature. Experimentation has found that some coffees seem to really lend themselves to being brewed by a home machine with great results every time. Other coffees can be hard work and difficult to get right and you’d only find perfection with them if you could set a very specific brew temp. That said, it is possible to pimp up a machine like mine with a digital temperature control but I’ve not yet explored that route.

Since  buying my own machine I’ve also spent lots of time attempting to perfect my latte art skills. For milk drinks this is all important as the milk must not  be over-heated. Also the aim is to create a textured microfoam, where the individual bubbles are barely visible. Spooning great lumps of foam into a cup is a definite no-no, your coffee should not resemble a bubble-bath in a cup. When the milk is just right I can manage a resaonable attempt at a rosette. The rosette is achieved by pouring the milk, zig-zagging from side to side using less width as you get to the edge of the cup  and then pouring a straight-line back through the pattern.

All this prancing around isn’t just for showing off, rosettes and other latte art are only possible if the texture of milk is perfect so it’s one indicator of a good coffee.

Finding Good Coffee Shops

The most noticeable thing is that lots of the great independent coffee shops brew great coffee because they are really passionate about coffee, they understand it and they know how to get the best results from their machines and the beans they are using. By contrast, the worst coffee comes from places which don’t care, they don’t clean their machines regularly and they steam their milk within an inch of it’s life.

The best tip is find a good independent. Most chains sell average coffee at best, and shockingly bad coffee at their worst. Interestingly several chains have started offering flat whites following the success of the independent coffee shops. I’ve tested some of these wares and I have to say, the one I had wasn’t a flat white, it tasted awful and was so hot I could have boiled an egg in it. So I’d personally avoid this sorry attempt at trying to emulate the success of independents at all costs.

Simple Brewing at Home or Work

If there aren’t any good coffee shops near you then consider buying an espresso machine for your work-place if you think you won’t run into trouble running it. If an espresso machine is too extravagant then consider using a French Press or Aeropress. Espressos and espresso-based drinks are great but French Presses and Aeropresses are great ways to brew coffee. The results are different but can be equally satisfying. If you do go that route be sure to look for brew recipes to help tweak the best results from whatever coffee equipment you are using. For example Square Mile has some excellent video brew recipes for brewing with a French Press. Another benefit to starting simple is that if you start with a French Press you can always step up to an espresso machine later on.

Happy brewing!

Geek chic done right

Laptop bags get a bad rap. Sure they are functional, illness but fashionable they are not. I have been searching for the perfect laptop bag – practical and oh so chic! – ever since I bought my laptop, look and I have been unsuccessful, and ended up settling for a tote that is less than functional (seriously, the zipper doesn’t even close when my laptop is in it). So what’s a chic girl to do? Well luckily for all you fashionistas, designers have embraced chic geeks and designed bags where fashionable meets functional when it comes to carrying all your gadgets.

Badgley Mischka


A beautiful and fabulous Badgley Mischka laptop bag! This chic buttery soft tote is practical enough to carry your gadgets and gizmos, but stylish enough to take with you wherever you need without it screaming “I’m a laptop!” Bonus: wear it across your body for a slouchy look perfect for weekends or when running errands.

Marc Jacobs


If laptop sleeves are more your style, Marc Jacobs has designed a collection of funky cases that are sure to get you noticed. Bonus: they are very affordable (at $80 a pop, you won’t go broke trying to look fab)!

Coach


Dress up your laptop with a splash of colour. The Coach Poppy Laptop Case gives new life to the designer brand, breaking away from the iconic print.

eReaders

When Apple’s latest creation hit the market, it was uncertain what its lifespan would be. But it’s quite obvious now that the iPad is here to stay. With the tech world accepting the new gadget, it was no surprise that the fashion world soon followed.

Salvatore Ferregamo and Louis Vuitton were the first to come out with iPad cases.

Trying to separate itself from the pack, DvF created a collection of cases for the Kindle in her signature funky prints.

So no matter what your gadget of choice, you can seek comfort in the fact that there are plenty of chic options to help you tote them around.

Managing your career in the world of Web development

I used to be that guy, once.

The one-man webmaster, creator and designer and strategist and coder and sysadmin and dBA. Yes there really was a time when one person could do all that – and more. Do it for many websites. Some of you reading this were likely in grade school when this was so – the art and craft of mastering websites has evolved exponentially, to the point that even the simplest blog requires a minimum of 2 people – you and the person managing the hosting.

Back in the day it was easy to plan your career. Things fell into place easily and largely because you were one of a rare few that understood the arcana of http, ftp, gopher, IRC and you actually had a netsol ID number. (Mine is KS443 – for us old fogeys they kept some of the records alive for posterity even they don’t use them anymore ). You could command vast sums of money, work any hours you chose, get all the latest toys and have a total blast using view Source and Kai’s Power Tools. A great day in the office was downloading the newest version of Navigator.

Nowadays, not so much. In fact, it’s fair to say the current generation of web workers (web developer is too limiting a box) has become commoditized. Technical schools, arts colleges, even some Universities now have programs designed to compress 20 years of whirlwind innovation into 2 or 3 years of specialized training and spit out an unending stream of assembly line workers. We have hierarchies and R&R documents.  We have Architect, Front End, Back End, Middleware, User Experience, Strategy, Rich Media – all of whom are good at one thing and familiar with a couple more and fully expect to work in a team environment where artifacts of their labour get passed around like so many auto parts waiting for final assembly.

Sound familiar? I’m not surprised. It’s a case of the pendulum having swung to the other side and while I am sanguine to know it will cycle back to normalcy I am both impatient for that time and struggling with my own contributions to its kinetic energy. I am spending a lot of my time recently interviewing candidates for various positions within our company and I see daily evidence of what I speak. And I ask myself time and time again ‘how are these people ever going to get out of the assembly line?’.

In our next installment, and at the risk of sound patronizing, I am going to offer some tips on how to manage your career in the coming years. And in a third and final episode I will offer some tips on how to avoid the pitfalls of ambition in the world of Web development.

Confessions of an IT conference traveller (part 2 of 6)

Christian Heilmann covers the different stages of travelling for IT conferences in this six part series. Be sure to read part one.

Dealing with discomfort and public humiliation

In the first installment of this series we talked about how to pack for a trip and how to get to the airport. Now it is time to quickly talk about the ins and outs of your journey from the entrance of the airport to the plane. And an arduous journey it can be.

Once you come out of your taxi/car/public transport your main task is to check in and get to your gate. Focus on this. Have your papers or emails ready – some airports don’t even let you in without a boarding receipt. There is nothing before security at an airport worth while for you as a traveller. Restaurants, shops and other facilities before security are for people who pick up other people who just arrived – you’ll only be in their way. Don’t bother with any of those – instead proceed to the check-in immediately. For there are a few obstacles in your way that might make you miss your plane even if you came in time:

  • Other passengers
  • Check-in
  • Passport Control
  • Security

Hell is other passengers

Probably the biggest obstacle is other passengers. Rocket scientists, brain surgeons and theoretical physicists are prone to turn into total tools as soon as they are faced with an airport check-in process. The simple rules of happiness in check-in are:

  • Carry no liquids
  • Have no metal objects distributed all over your clothing
  • Have all your information on you (passport, flight time, airline, flight number or reservation code)
  • Carry a pen – you will have to fill out a lot of random forms in some places (India being the masters of this feat)

This should be pretty simple but you will find yourself stuck at security behind people who forget keychains that would make a medieval jailer blush with envy, are amazed that the half litre bottle of vodka or machete in their hand luggage is not OK to take through or wonder why a metal belt buckle the size of a baby elephant might register on a metal detector. These are also the same people who stand on horizontal walkways built to accelerate your progress or stand as if struck by lighting at the end of an escalator looking around for divine input on how to read signs with an arrow on them instead of moving out of the way of you who is stuck on an escalator that is actually moving you towards these human statues of ineptitude.

Keeping that in mind the first rule of getting into the airport is to stay clear of people likely to be in your way: huge groups of tourists, people carrying lots of printouts of their flight information and with dozens of little bags and families with lots of children. Business travellers and people with light luggage and clothes are a safer bet but you might get some bad surprises there, too.

Checking in

A lot of airlines have great online check-in systems. You can fill in all the things you need, print your boarding pass and be on your merry way past everybody in the airport straight to the “Bag drop” areas where you put your bag on a conveyor belt, have a nice chat with the clerk and be on your journey towards Mordor (otherwise known as airport security). If you cannot print out your boarding pass, checking in online is pointless as I have yet to encounter a check-in machine that remembered what I did online (this might be a BA thing).

Depending on the airport you have to queue either at a desk to wait for a clerk to check you in or you queue for a check-in terminal to tell you after entering a lot of details that you have to go to a desk to get a clerk to check you in. This can be a good thing though – if your check-in on the terminal fails this could be a sign that you have been upgraded to a better class (it happens!).

This process gets much better when you reach a certain frequent flyer status – you get your own desks and you have a frequent flyer card that has all your data on it to swipe at the terminal. One of the perks to look out for.

Some airports won’t let you get in if you haven’t got a paper printout of your travel details but in most cases this is not needed. Very sophisticated airlines (Lufthansa was the first to do that) give you a message on your phone with a 2D barcode to scan at the gate – I wished this was the norm.

When you drop your luggage you will be asked once more the questions you already answered online and on the terminal you tried or did check-in on: did you pack your bags yourself, have you been asked to carry anything and could somebody have interfered with your luggage. This is no time for attempts of humour – simply say yes, no and no (even if you had your luggage picked up from your room and delivered to the taxi by some random hotel clerk which is the normal and only way hotels do it in Asia). Amazingly enough acetylene torches or firearms should also not be in your luggage unless you are on a peace mission or about to go and weld some oil rig in the North Sea.

Passport control

Once you are checked in and got rid of your luggage hopefully to arrive where you are going (and hopefully at the same time) it is time to brave the passport control. Smile, open your passport at the right page, say a little prayer and nod when the (most of the time moustachioed) official has questions for you – clever things like “is this your passport?” – answer truthfully and quickly. I found smiling and asking “how do you do” helps to disarm them a bit first. I normally also keep the boarding pass on the page of the passport that has the visa for the country I am visiting – that also speeds things up.

Mount Doom – otherwise known as airport security

Being a traveller with the frequency of my trips I can safely say that airport security has become one of the bigger annoyances in my life. I am tempted to go there, strip naked down to my shorts and drop the rest of my belongings in a pile on the conveyor belt.

However, even that will not be the right procedure. There is no common logic or sense in the way different airports handle the issue of making sure that evildoers can not bring dangerous goods on a plane. At some airports you need to take your laptop out of the bag and put it in an own tray, at others you have to keep it in. Sometimes you need to remove belts and shoes, other times you don’t. I’ve had razors, deodorant, toothpaste and even a bottle of water in my hand luggage and got them through at times – at other times I had to give away a bottle of perfume I just bought because I failed to keep the receipt.

There is also no human or clever social interaction in most airport security. The poor people working at the belts spend their day repeating themselves over and over again reminding travelers about no liquids and taking off shoes and taking out laptops whilst this could be very obvious big signs for them to point at and they would be able to only address issues instead of constantly shouting and being annoyed. I find it a terribly stressful and annoying experience to go through airport security – and when it comes to security this is the worst way of making people feel. Social engineering works by making people feel rushed and uneasy – and this is what current security checks do to people on both sides of the scanner belt.

So I keep my sanity by coming up with things one could do to ease the tension but never should do. There is no humour allowed and everything you do that is out of the ordinary will get you into trouble, other people even more delayed or actually allow real security threats to go unnoticed. The theatre in my head goes like this though:

  • When asked if I have any liquids, knives or glass in my hand luggage I could just say “no, I am flying business this time and I will get my bottle of wine and cutlery on the plane – no need to bring my own”.
  • I could speed up the body search when the security guard pats your legs and back by moaning softly and saying “ouhhh, you got really strong hands, did you know that?” whilst winking.
  • Keep a surprise in my hand luggage that throws people off – maybe something related to taxidermy. “Sir, what is this?” “This is my pet duck-beaked platypus Alfred!” “This is a dead animal.” “That is your point of view. I love Alfred, he is a good friend. I preparated him myself. I think he likes you.” “Sir, I am not sure I can let you bring that on board” “Oh, really? There is nothing to the procedure, really. You got lovely skin by the way – worthy of keeping in its current state for future generations…”

Or something like that. As it is, I take off my shoes, take out my belt, feel my trousers slipping and listen to the shouting and the endure the rushing and annoyances of other passengers forgetting what not to bring in their hand luggage as there is no way around it right now. I make it as easy as possible by having a back pack with an extra compartment for my laptop so I can slip it out quickly. I keep my shoes unlaced before I go into security and I put all my mobiles, money and swipe cards into my jacket before putting it in a tray. I leave all my washing utilities and toiletries in the bags I check in so there is no hold-up. This can be annoying as hell when you only have a one day trip as you need to wait for your luggage but its better than having your toiletries taken away from you.

Past mount doom – waiting for the gate to be ready

Once out of security you will realise that people start smiling, you feel a ray of sun shining on you and you start breathing again. Now your job is to locate the gate and plan when you have to leave to arrive there in time. I don’t normally do any shopping at airports – most of the souvenirs or presents you buy for friends are cheaper outside and I wouldn’t know the difference between Kenzo Flower and Boss Bottled (most taste the same, really). I don’t smoke so that benefit of airport shopping is not appealing to me either.

That said, when it comes to electronics you might be able to grab a bargain. At one time Curry’s in Heathrow Airport in London had MacBooks £300 cheaper than the high street.

The next course of action is depending on who you fly with and in what class. If you are planned on a business class flight don’t bother with eating at the airport before the flight. If you are eligible to go to a lounge then there is some food for free, too but in general you are being fed on the plane anyway. That said, the first class lounge at Heathrow Airport in London has really good food. If you want to eat something as you are on a cheap flight without any food spend some money. You will be strapped in a seat for a few hours and the last thing you want is feel uncomfortable or needing the bathroom several times. One very ironic thing is that the vegetarian meal on flights to India in BA is a three bean something – yes that is what I want when my body is cramped in a seat for 10 hours.

I generally don’t drink at airports or on flights but if you’re out for a party it is a cheap way as the thinner air will get you hammered much faster than on the ground. If you are nervous about flying this will also send you sleeping faster (more on the problems with sleeping on planes in the next issue of this series).

An absolutely grand idea is using the bathrooms of the airports before your flight as you will be fighting for the ones on the plane with the other passengers.

If you want to use your laptop, I don’t know any airport that has free wireless outside the lounges other than Hong Kong. Power points are also not that common but if you look around you will find them (cleaning staff have vacuum cleaners). You might have to rough it sitting against a wall rather than in a (comfy) chair though.

The general rule of thumb I have is to arrive 10 minutes after boarding starts. If you have a fast lane access this means you can go in after the elderly and children and before the large mass of passengers. You’ll want to be one of the first in the plane as this ensures you have a storage space above your head and that you can settle in without people bumping into you all the time.

If you are late don’t get too scared. The general rule is as long as it still says final call and nobody calls out your name yet you are still fine. 30 minutes before take-off is the last call normally. If you hear your name over the PA at an airport you know something went really bad.

And that’s the airport tricks, next time we’ll enter the plane.

How Ableton left the back door open

Introducing Ableton and Control

Ableton Live is a loop-based software music sequencer and DAW for Mac OS and Windows by Ableton. The operator works with many forms of audio, ampoule instruction, and and programming. Audio data  such as *.wav, *.aif(f), *.mp3 files. Instructions via MIDI and Max (and Max for Live), and APIs (Application Programming Interface) for various types of communication.

The graphical user interface is logical, offering grid type organization and a timeline. Each of which can operate independently or in unison. In the past few years, Ableton has gained maturity as a platform and has become recognized as an interface that plays well with others. Some of the contemporary programs that operate in conjunction with Ableton include Reason, Serato, Traktor, Max, plus MIDI and beyond.

Controller-ism

“Controllerism is the art and practice of using musical software controllers (e.g. MIDI, OSC, Joystick, etc.) to build upon, mix, scratch, remix, effect, modify, or otherwise create music, usually by a Digital DJ or “Controllerist”. (wikipedia)

Ableton Live is a controller(-ism) heavy application communicating via MIDI bi-directionally to provide both control and visual feedback (such as turning LEDs on and off relative to the current state of the GUI).   Ableton Live (version 8) introduced a new level of native control with the Akai APC40 and soon after the Launchpad by  Novation.

Both of these devices allow for absolute and relative mapping of control for audio and functions inside the Ableton environment.  These products mark the introduction of consumer level relative mapping as a element of native control (via API) in Ableton. To understand relative mapping it is important to understand how it compares to absolute mapping.

A Dichotomy of Control :  Absolute versus Relative

Mapping is how you define the relationship of a controller, often hardware, to software such as Ableton.

It is common to find hardware and software are mapped in an absolute or static fashion.  Using a piano as an example, the keys are the controller and they are absolutely mapped to the notes.  There are 88 buttons/keys triggering 88 sound/notes allowing you to access all of the sounds in the piano.

In the above image all of the notes would be accessed because we are using 1 button/key for each note in the piano system.

With relative control we still have 88 sounds/notes on our piano but only 14 buttons/keys.  To access all of the notes we need to introduce the concept of a focus (area) and navigation. We dedicate 12 buttons/keys to playing notes in our focus area. The 2 other buttons/keys are used to navigate the focus area to the left and right putting the notes available in the focus area where button/key #1 always triggers the sound/note directly below. The sound/note changes as the focus area moves. The next 2 images show the same piano buttons/keys under our focus area where we move to the left and right to gain access to more  notes.


The above image shows us our focus area (the bright spot) over the keys while the next image shows the position of the focus area after it is moved (navigated) to the left a few notes on the piano.

It would be rather difficult to play some Mozart with only 12 notes accessible at one time, but this very helpful in Ableton where hundreds of clips of audio are ready but only 10 or 15 may need to be used at any given point.

Take a look at this  video on YouTube demonstrating the APC40’s interaction with Ableton.  There is a red box on the computer screen showing what clips are in focus and directly correspond to the buttons on the controller. This is a relative map representing Ableton information that the operator puts in focus through methods navigating the “red box”.

Brilliant!

Relative control, the ring, or the “Red Box” is the game changer.  Suddenly an Ableton performer can quickly and easily work with huge canvas of audio data. An entire evening’s program (or even a life’s worth of music production) can be contained in an Ableton set and performed using this type of relative control and navigation.

This mapping and navigation introduced new ideas, modes of expression, and organizational patterns.  There was one problem: access to this advanced control was pretty fuzzy as only the APC40 communicated at this level (on the Python.org site this API implementation if referred to as “experimental”). It was not looking good when you consider that the Akai APC40 and the Launchpad were explicitly a collaboration between the closed Ableton system  and Akai / Novation.

Or so we thought

In May of 2009, the APC40 is released and opened the doors to new ideas in performance and audio control.  The APC40 and Launchpad quickly gained a de facto status as controllers in various circles of music production and performance.  These controllers are fundamentally solid and easy to manage via a plug and play environment.

Personally, I got bored using my APC40 and 6 months later I purchased a Livid OHM64. Fast and slick, the OHM64 was low latency, infinitely programmable, and exactly what I needed. But no red box.

With a fancy new OHM64 delivered to my doorstep I soon began to miss the red box. Buyer’s remorse, possibly, but missing this element led to new and exciting possibilities elsewhere in Ableton.

Moving on with my work it was May 2010 when the folks over at Max4Live.info released the script to interface the OHM64 to Ableton with the “Red Box”, relative mapping capabilities with navigation.

Control via the API was now in the process of being mapped and documented.

Victory!

Ableton is a smart company and provides access to this control and navigation by means of a folder called “MIDI Remote Scripts”.  This script folder is an Ableton API written for Python scripts that is slowly getting cracked open despite having no access to debugging scripts in Ableton.

So we celebrate as the resources grow yielding tutorials, documentation, forums, code, and hacks.  For many electronic musicians, music producers, DJs, and Ableton artists this is a very exciting time.  Stoke the fire of excitement even further as “The Bridge” should release soon making the line between DJ and other electronic music  freshly blurred.

WTB PY SCRIPT 2 PWN LED SQRS

The exact thinking behind Ableton leaving the door open to advanced control via a Python API is not totally clear.  For those interested, start your journey at the Python site where there is an Ableton listing. Regardless of the exact reason, thanks guys! The controller-ism genre is growing rapidly as large and small companies are supplying the market with new controllers, quality ideas, and the knowledge necessary to introduce a new type of instrument and professional. The luthier of electronic music control is rising where custom solutions, made to order control, and experimental variations are available.

Ableton as a program added mass to the controller idea for just showing up. Now they left the door to the Python API open allowing things to get crazy.

Enjoy the ride and don’t forget about all the hard work that preceded our glorious mastery of audio and technology. More to come and thank you.

Make Beer

We—the makers of the Web—like to do just that: make.

We build sites, applications, frameworks and tools. We write articles, organize conferences, populate social networks, record podcasts, create blogs, aggregate data, design typefaces, and shoot video. We get a kick out of making things—any type of things. If we’re not making things, we’re changing things.

For me, the non-web thing comes in liquid form. I’ve been making beer for around 8 years, now (and making good beer for over 3).

The hobby is extremely rewarding (you get to drink the results), and I’ve met many different kinds of people through my brewing obsession—a much more diverse group than we web geeks.

Getting started isn’t terribly expensive (you can buy the necessary equipment and ingredients for your first batch for not much more than the equivalent amount of beer), and it’s truly easy to make something drinkable.

You can extend your skills, upgrade your equipment, and hone your knowledge as much or as little as you like, and if you catch the brewing bug, you might just find yourself with a kegerator full of tasty beer—on tap!

So, find your local homebrew shop, or your local brewing club, ask some questions, read howtobrew.com, join the community, and get started. Beer wants to be made (and let’s face it: you want to drink it).