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Archive for March, 2010

A bad smell

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010
Delroy smellie versus a threat to the nation

Delroy 'Someone get the Febreeze' Smellie versus a threat to the nation

I’ve recently started, against my better judgement, watching Deadwood, which everyone says is a must-watch tour-de-force. It’s better than Lost, I’ll give them that, and is in fact pretty enjoyable. Set in the untamed gold prospecting frontierlands of America, it’s a grittier, darker, more unpredictable picture of the wild west. I’ve just watched episode 4, in which a guy who shoots *censored* dead in front of a bar full of witnesses is found not guilty. It’s unexpected plot turns like this, drawing the world as a corrupt, depressing place where certain people are beyond the reach of justice, that make the series so compelling.

I’d like to say that events like today’s acquittal of policeman Delroy ‘What’s that stink?’ Smellie, who famously hit a rather small woman protester several times on camera make life a more compelling experience, but alas they just give it a sinister air. If you watch the video I’m sure you’ll agree that his defence of ‘self-defence’ is fiction enough for a whole series of Deadwood. Though not as cleverly written; apparently only judges can suspend their disbelief long enough to find the main conceit credible.

The district judge, Daphne Wickham, said there was no evidence that his use of the baton was not approved, correct or measured, adding that Smellie had a “mere seven seconds” to act, and other witnesses had feared for his safety.

Personally I think that “7 seconds to act” when faced with being shouted at is a poor excuse for violence. Especially when you’re a policeman. And if you watch the video I have no idea where this “7 seconds to act” comes from. Just because he lost his cool in 7 seconds and lashed out does not mean he had only 7 seconds to act, it just means he needs to find better ways of dealing with confrontation than violence. I’m reminded of Begbie in trainspotting.

Now that an election’s up for grabs I wish one of the two main parties was less in thrall to the police. I really do. Maybe I’ll write to my MP.

Or maybe I’ll just snigger at the fact that Delroy ‘wake up and smell the faeces’ Smellie is so stupid he beats up girls  in front of  about 20 photographers. And then cower in fear.

Stooping to the law of averages

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

An artist's impression of my perfect office

I’ve got a bad back at the moment. It’s been far worse in the past, so I’m not really grumbling, but I have however recently started my first office job in a long time, and yet again I’m faced with the perennial problem of having a chair and desk that force me to stoop. It’s not actually too bad at this place (the screen will allow me to raise it up to close to eye level, and the non-swivel chair I have is a lot more comfortable than most of the swivellers I’ve sat in), but it has reminded me of a point I’ve been meaning to make for a while.

Years ago, when attending health and safety training, we were told that you should be careful to make sure your seat is at such a height that your legs touch the floor comfortably. Why exactly this is good for your back I don’t know, but I presume somebody knew what they were talking about. For employees with legs too short to reach the floor (does Tom Cruise work in anyone’s office?) the advice is to put a box or, if you’re gullible, and expensive footrest on the floor.

However, at the opposite end of the spectrum you have those people who, like me, have legs so long that raising the chair up to a suitable position for the legs means the torso gets lifted up way above the table, almost as if a hot air balloon were involved. This means that I have to lean forward a lot to type, even more so if the screen height can’t be adjusted much.

The worrying thing though is that, because I am only a slightly taller than average man, these people consist of a sizeable portion of the population – a bit less than half of all men and some women too -  all of whom have no option other than to stoop and wreck any chance they had of making it to retirement without suffering a slipped disk.

And finally to my point; this situation is caused by the fact that desks are made at a height to suit the average person, which is fair enough for the general office. But what frustrates me is that in IT (and probably other male dominated professions too) you don’t get higher desks, even though the average height of men is greater than that of the population in general. All these bluechip IT companies spend hundreds, if not thousands, per employee on getting them the latest, trendiest, most ergonomic chairs, keyboards, mice etc…, but it’s all for nothing if the desk is still too low.

When I run my own multi-million dollar software company (based on the success of a random muffin recipe generating website) I will proudly place at the top of my ‘work for us’ page


Beat that, Google!

Election fun

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Heavens, we’re in a lot of debt

Monday, March 8th, 2010

Or are we?

I read this article today, arguing that the constant headlines of “largest ever deficit” in the UK are alarmist and that it’s pretty abysmal that both main political parties aim to cut public spending in order to cut the national debt, when there are strong arguments to not do so. There’s a recession on, you know!

Which got me thinking about whether the national debt really is all that big. Of course it’s a big round figure (I’d type it out but am scared my ’0′ key will break through overuse) but equally our earnings, and therefore the government’s tax revenues, are much greater than most periods in history too. What really matters is the ratio of debt to how much money is in the country, surely. So I found this graph:

UK national debt vs GPD graph

Another graph on the same page demonstrates that current national debt is at around 60% of GDP, which I don’t think is too bad given that the ongoing global economic crisis is considered to be at around the same order of magnitude as the 1930s great depression, and back then national debt hovered between 150 – 200%. I know we live in a very different, more competitive world, but I doubt it’s anywhere near as catastrophic as the papers and the politicians would have us believe.

And another thing, I grew up in a northern town with mines, steelworks and baths that don’t take half an hour to pronounce, so naturally I hated Thatcher. But then the rhetoric of the past 10 years – that she may have been harsh, but by God she prepared us for the harsh, competitive world to come – has, if not softened, at least confused that view a little. But I recently came to the realisation that she was one of the chief instigators of this new harsh world. Claiming she’s alright because she prepared us for it is like saying the guy who pushed you in front of the train is alright really because he gave you a mattress to hide behind.

It’s not what you say, it’s which font you say it in

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

I’m redesigning this site at the moment and one thing I wanted to pay closer attention to this time around was choice of fonts. Notwithstanding the fact that web browsers were, until recently, pretty shoddy at allowing you to use the fonts you wanted to, the main reason I hadn’t paid much attention to fonts in the past was that it’s so darn hard picking one, for a number of reasons:

  1. There’s so damn many of them
  2. There’s no relation between names and appearance (as opposed to, say, #f60283 being guessable as a garish pink, closer to red than to mauve)
  3. They’re difficult to preview and compare

So in the interests of productivity, quality and, dare I say it, working smarter, not harder, I’ve devoted some time to sorting out how I choose fonts, reduced to the following four steps:

  1. Organise your fonts in themed folders
  2. Find a good stand alone font previewer i.e. don’t rely on photoshop and windows’ poor tools
  3. Narrow down to a short list
  4. Use javascript to make quick comparisons easy

Read on if your curiosity is piqued.

1. Organising the fonts

Windows’s default font collection (and, I imagine, Apple’s too) and the collection of 2000 fonts I also use are organised alphabetically which is rubbish. Unless you have web design OCD you’re unlikely to want to narrow down your choice of font by it’s first-letter. But, on the other hand, it is difficult to categorise fonts; I’m yet to see a website do it effectively, and I’m not entirely happy with my choice. But in the end I plumped for the following: serif, sans-serif, script, stylised, symbol, stencil.

Stencil could easily fall within stylised, and stylised could easily be split into subfolders (Art Deco, Gothic, Celtic …), and I realised part way through that I should have a subfolder within symbol for fonts depicting alphabets other than Roman, but I think a minimal folder system would be serif, sans-serif and other. In the serif and sans-serif folders I included only sensible fonts you could print a book not aimed at children in, which I think is a useful distinction to make; often the hardest task when picking fonts is to find the one which is subtly different to other ordinary fonts, but somehow suits the design better than almost indistinguishable alternatives. Cutting out all the fancy fonts makes this task a lot easier.

So once you have all these folders put a copy of each font you have in one of them, and you’re ready for the next step. You don’t need to bother with installing them yet.

2. Previewing your fonts

My criteria for a good font-previewer are:

  1. Choice of text to use for the preview
  2. Choice of text-size and colour
  3. Ability to organise fonts how you want them organised
  4. Speed and ease of switching between one font and another
  5. Ease of installing a font

Windows’ control panel fails to meet conditions 1 and 2, and Photoshop’s built-in font selector fails to meet 3 and 4, and they both force you to install a font before using it. The best free solution I’ve come across for Windows which meets all 5 conditions is Fast Font Preview.

3. Short-listing

Once you’ve got Fast Font Preview installed you can start picking your shortlist. Simply browse to your organised font folders, click on settings to type in your sample text, adjust the font-size to what you want, and double click on any contenders. Once the font is opened you can install with one click. While the font is open you’ll also want to jot down its official font name.

4. Use javascript to make comparisons

This is where I stop being pedantic and hopefully can be of some use. Insert the following script into the head of your web-page-in-need-of-a-font, substitute your list of font names and the id/tag name of the elements to be affected and, hey presto, a handy font-switcher should appear, making choosing exactly the right font much easier. If your web page already uses javascript then add the body of the function to your existing onload event. (NOTE: It tends to work better in Google Chrome than other browsers as Google Chrome seems to be a bit more forgiving when it comes to font names).

window.onload = function() {
 var body = document.getElementsByTagName('body')[0];
 var id = '';
 var tagName = '';
 var fonts = 'Comma,separated,list,of font,names';
 fonts = fonts.split(',');
 var elements = (id)      ? [document.getElementById(id)] :
                (tagName) ? document.getElementsByTagName(tagName):
 var switcher = document.createElement('DIV');
 for(var i=0, il = fonts.length;i<il;i++){
 var buttons = switcher.childNodes

 function createButton(pos) {
   var button = document.createElement('a');
   button.innerHTML = fonts[pos];
   button.onclick = function() {loadFont(pos);};

 function loadFont(pos) {
   for (var i=0,il=elements.length;i<il;i++)
     elements[i].style.fontFamily = fonts[pos];
   for (var j=0,jl=buttons.length;j<jl;j++) {
   return false;