Monthly Archives: December 2012

Reading List 2012

At the end of 2007 I published a list of all the books I had read that year. It was a fun exercise, so in 2008 and 2009 I did it again. And then, for some reason, I stopped. God knows what I was doing that was so fascinating in late December of 2010 and 2011, but apparently I couldn’t find an hour to sit down and bash out a shortish list and some poorly considered opinions on the year’s literature.

The upshot of Younger Me’s laziness is that I now have a list of three year’s worth of books but no clear way to figure out where 2012 started. Using a combination of Amazon receipt emails and trying to recollect whether I received a particular book as a birthday or Christmas gift, I think I’ve ended up with a fairly accurate list — not that anybody else really cares…

In previous years I split my reading list into fiction, non-fiction and fantasy. This year has skewed heavily towards fiction, but I may as well keep the same format for the sake of consistency.

Fiction

  • Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace)
  • For The Win (Cory Doctorow)
  • Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland (Lewis Carroll)
  • Through The Looking Glass (Lewis Carroll)
  • Dracula (Bram Stoker)
  • Frankenstein (Mary Shelley)
  • A Princess Of Mars (Edgar Rice Burroughs)
  • Herland (Charlotte Perkins Gilman)
  • The Invisible Man (HG Wells)
  • The Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury)
  • The Left Hand Of Darkness (Ursula K LeGuin)
  • Little Brother (Cory Doctorow)
  • Anno Dracula (Kim Newman)
  • The Stars My Destination (Alfred Bester)
  • Ready Player One (Ernest Cline)
  • The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress (Robert A Heinlein)
  • Citizen Of The Galaxy (Robert A Heinlein)
  • Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (Philip K Dick)

Between July and October I took an online course from Coursera on Fantasy and Science Fiction, which required me to read a book every week and write a short essay on a relevant topic. That syllabus accounts for the middle section of my fiction consumption this year (from Alice’s Adventures… through to Doctorow), but also inspired me to seek out further reading within the genre; classics such as The Stars My Destination and (for some reason) the first Philip K Dick novel I’ve ever picked up.

The literature appreciation aspect of the course also inspired me to start a new reviews blog, where I’ve been posting reviews since late September; I’ve linked to any reviews of books in these lists.

Non-fiction

Tuva or Bust! is the story of Richard Feynman’s attempts to reach the geographic centre of Asia; I first read it as a teenager, and the memory has stayed with me for almost twenty years. I finally bought it again, and it’s still a great (if old-fashioned) read. Wil Wheaton’s memoir is also fantastic, one of those books where the hackneyed phrase “raw honesty” genuinely applies.

30 Years of Adventure was a Christmas present from my lovely wife; for anyone with fond memories of adolescent roleplaying, it’s a fascinating look at the creative and business developments behind an almost forty-year-old brand.

Fantasy

  • The Heroes (Joe Abercrombie)
  • The Blade Itself (Joe Abercrombie)
  • The Summer Tree (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  • The Wandering Fire (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  • The Darkest Road (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  • A Song For Arbonne (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  • Red Country (Joe Abercrombie)

I didn’t realise until making this list what a limited range of fantasy authors I had been reading this year. Abercrombie remains my favourite new author, although his latest book Red Country hasn’t immediately jumped to the top of my list of his work. And, as ever, I re-read a fair amount of Kay, even re-buying several books that were lost during last year’s house move.

What is best in (shelf) life?

Of the 31 books I’ve made it through this year, my favourite — the one that had me sitting up until late at night and reading first thing in the morning — was undoubtedly Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. Wil Wheaton’s book was also very good, and of course I’ll always recommend Joe Abercrombie or Guy Gavriel Kay to anyone with a taste for fantasy.

Sitting in the pile for next year, I have Douglas Coupland’s latest Player One, more LeGuin, Ed The Happy Clown and Peter Bagge comics, Alan Partridge and Stephen Fry autobiographies, several Hemingway novels, Don Quixote, Ulysses and, um, Plato.

I’m looking forward to it.

album covers

2012, My Year In Music

album covers Almost exactly one year ago, I sat down at this desk (albeit in a different country) to draw up a set of lists collating my listening habits for the previous twelvemonth. Looking back at that post, it’s fascinating how wildly my favourite artists (at least, measured by volume) change each year. Only two bands — Pixies and Arcade Fire — feature in both years’ lists, and 2011’s favourite The Afghan Whigs, played obsessively last year, barely made it into the top twenty.

2012 was the year of the fan-funded music revolution. Three of my top five albums were released through the PledgeMusic site, where fans can pledge money to fund the production of new music by bands that might otherwise struggle, and in return participate in a much closer relationship with the artists concerned as they follow the production of ‘their’ album. By the end of this month, Ginger Wildheart will have released six(!) full albums through this route; the triple album 555%, Hey! Hello! with Victoria Liedtke, and the heavy-as-hell Mutation double album.

Top 10 Artists listened to in 2012

  1. Ginger Wildheart
  2. The Wildhearts
  3. Metric
  4. Pixies
  5. Foo Fighters
  6. M83
  7. The New Pornographers
  8. Guns N’ Roses
  9. Jackdaw4
  10. Marillion / Arcade Fire

Aside from the various Wildhearts material (which accounted for more than five times as much as the next artist) my only really new discovery this year was Canadian indie-rockers Metric. After two tracks from their 2010 album Fantasies somehow made their way onto my Spotify ‘starred’ list, I gave them a proper listen, bought the CD, and highly recommend them to anyone.

Top 10 Albums listened to in 2012

  1. 555% – Ginger Wildheart
  2. Fantasies – Metric
  3. Dissectacide – Jackdaw4
  4. The Suburbs – Arcade Fire
  5. Hey! Hello!
  6. Wasting Light – Foo Fighters
  7. Doolittle – The Pixies
  8. Living Things – Linkin Park
  9. Saturdays = Youth – M83
  10. The Lumineers – The Lumineers / Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming – M83

555% was a triple album, but still — more than six times as many listens as the aforementioned Metric album isn’t bad. Again, it’s been an uninspired year for me; no new mainstream albums apart from Linkin Park at eighth and The Lumineers sneaking in at joint tenth, and two albums (Foo Fighters and Arcade Fire) appearing two years running. I must try to listen to some new music next year.

Track of the Year

Aside from a weekend away during which the kitten managed to play Sonic Youth’s 100% 619 times in row, my top ten tracks are unsurprisingly dominated by Ginger Wildheart’s 555% album. Top track, by a small margin, was ‘Lover, It’ll All Work Out’:

Aside from that, one track that got played rather a lot was Metric’s super-catchy ‘Help I’m Alive’:

With so many independently released albums this year, Spotify isn’t the best place to find them. However, I’ve collected what is there into a single playlist for easy exploration: 2012, My Year In Music.

Ready To Inspire: Tammie Lister – Design For Humans Not Robots

Tammie Lister is a designer with a passion for community and users. She runs logicalbinary.com and tweets as @karmatosed.

  • I am passionate about designing for communities; I love creating ways that people can interact with each other.
  • Sci-fi has taught us that robots don’t do emotion very well. The spark that makes us human is what makes us, us. We have all these modern techniques to help us as we design, but we forget about the passion that we want to inspire in our users.
  • We are 3 brained: Old brain (survival, animal primal), mid brain (emotions, feeling, impulse), new brain (speech, reading, thinking).
  • Multi-tasking is a lie(ish). Humans are only good at doing 2-3 things at once. More than that we feel confusion and frustration. We need simple instructions, to know where we’re going and what to expect.
  • Herding Instinct. We are social animals, we like to interact. We create small pockets within the human herd: Friends, families, conference attendees. Sharing — information, stories, news — we like knowing the latest thing. We are born dependent on each other — born social by our very nature, we don’t do all that well on our own. We mark our lives with weddings, social events, social interactions. We measure ourselves with friends, lovers — more social interactions. But there is a zombie inside us all. Sometimes people will visit your site, blindly wander through, end up in a hole and get frustrated. Don’t expect people to know where they’re going and what they’re looking for. How do you design with this in mind? Lead softly, treat them delicately (but don’t patronise). Make finding easy: What Would Google Do? Their search “simply works.” Allow people to find things easily in your design, don’t hide things. Encourage sharing: Integrate social into site, turning people into promoters. Create safe havens; we find it difficult to open up to large groups of people. Group therapy works because people let their guard down and speak more freely. If you have a forum or allow users to publish personal information, make sure people feel safe and trust you. Recognise that your users are special and not just one of the crowd.
  • The Carrot. The Pokemon effect: Gotta catch ‘em all! People like to collect things, it’s human nature; gamification plays upon that need, delivering positive and negative rewards. Don’t overdose by including every possible gamification trope, though. We learn from play, and that’s what gamification taps into. For example, achievements in World of Warcraft, or badges in Teen Summer Challenge (where users collect badges for completing reading). Gamification isn’t just about completing achievements and collecting badges; Tumblr’s homepage is a leaderboard comprised of the top stories on the site at that moment.
  • Emotional Beings. We like to feel things. If you can create a design that really touches someone, you go straight to connecting to that person. Imagery, colours, copy — there is a whole emotional palette you can draw upon. Sites can use “visual hugs” — little touches that give you an emotional response when you discover them. Use your emotional gauge. How often do you look at design and ask “How does it make you feel?” Try asking that question in user testing. Make it personal; reach out emotionally to the person, allow them to make it ‘a home.’ A personalised area, control over design/colours; greet the user by name, use their avatar, recognise their language. Example: Kickstarter’s Meet the team page. If you have a team page, put faces to names. Willy Wonka interfaces: Those sites where someone is playing, exploring ‘what ifs’, inspires a sense of awe. If you can tap into that emotion, that’s really powerful.
  • Naturally Happy. It’s in our chemical makeup to be happy; we do really well when we’re happy. When you create or design something, make it a positive experience. Freud talks about “The Pleasure Principle”: We like to feel good, on a biological and psychological level. If you have something negative, make it positive. Example: Twitter’s Fail Whale. You miss him if you haven’t seen him for a while! “Turn that frown upside down.” Don’t use “Submit” on a form; you wouldn’t say it in the real world, so why don’t we speak to people as humans? Evernote is a good example of human copywriting. Avoid user pain; simplify choices; keep calm and on track.
  • Great Explorers. We are born explorers. Remember the old Choose Your Own Adventure books? You can design experiences and moments of joy like this, where people can explore your design and site. If you can hide treasures on site that people can discover, it can enhance their enjoyment.
  • These are all aspects of human nature… but what about nurture? You have to be aware of the user’s background, culture, etc. Designers should learn about psychology; you have to know what you’re designing for; this doesn’t just apply to tools and the web medium; you must understand the people you are designing for as well.

Ready To Inspire: Breandan Knowlton – Bridging The Gap Between Designers and Clients

Breandán Knowlton is a UX Designer based in The Hague. His book on Managing Web Projects is available from Five Simple Steps; he blogs at breandon.org and tweets as @bfk.

  • Will be talking about client culture, design culture, what goes into Great Work, and what to change on your new project. ‘Design’ in the broadest possible sense: Code, graphics, projects, IA, etc.
  • In web projects, you have a mass of creative people, designers of one kind or another… and then the Clients. Sometimes there are misunderstandings about each other. Are our goals the same, or can they be merged together?
  • We tend to think of clients in a specific way — suit, business, money, organisational goals. The culture of design involves looking at design constraints and finding design solutions, via creativity; be inspired, make beautiful things and good experiences. This is not how we think of clients, which is odd, because we are making products together — you need both sides. Good projects involve both kinds of thinking. We’re all people, we want the same kind of feelings out of projects: feelings of energised focus, commitment, and to enjoy the process.
  • In the best partnerships, both partners have space to do Good Work. Definition: “Enjoying doing your best while at the same time contributing to something beyond yourself.”
  • Great projects don’t depend on a single culture.; they depend on everyone working in rhythm, doing good work, being invested — in a state of Flow.
  • Creatives are really good at understanding Flow. More of our web projects could be closer to a state of encouraging flow — and you can control this. Flow just needs three things, and you can create all of them. 1. Immediate feedback. 2. A balance of capability and challenge. 3. Clear goals and progress.
  • For immediate feedback: Work in short cycles. You do something, you see it. This should be easy for designers; you code something and see the effect immediately, whether you’re a software developer, web developer, or visual designer. Social feedback cycles are also short (e.g. Dribbble) — a feedback loop is built into our design cycle. It is harder for clients because they don’t work in the same space. If you put them in charge of content and imagery, it gives them the chance to see their words appearing on screen and creates a feedback loop they are part of. User Testing, which is something we need as part of the design process, can also create a nice feedback loops for clients, helping to bring them into the project.
  • To balance capability and challenge: Both clients and designers spend too much time not being challenged due to their high skill level. To move into a state of Flow, designers tend to increase the level of challenge and set ourselves new goals. The best position to be in is High Challenge, High Skills. We create challenges for ourselves all the time – we started creating responsive, adaptive, elastic grids even before the client asked us to. We’ve pushed web standards in the same way (HTML5, CSS3). The question is how can you challenge the clients so they can experience that same exhilaration of being on the edge of something. Challenge them to know their customers/audience better; to write good copy; to do meaningful research. Even if you have brilliant copywriters, IAs, etc. on the project, you can still assign a lot of work to the client that requires them to ramp up their skill set and gets them engaged and in a state of Flow.
  • Clear Goals. We all like to see where we are. Design culture has a set of goals, client culture has set of goals, and they’re not always the same. For designers, getting paid, preparing for the next gig, portfolios, awards, and learning may be goals. For clients goals may be related to customers and their needs, financial impact, and changes in internal processes. Find goals to agree on: Reflecting the value of an organisation, creating measurable value, finishing the project on time/budget. But be aware that goals are pulling in different directions.
  • Time for action. Here’s what I challenge you to change on your next project: Bring the client into your Flow. Make the short feedback cycles stretch across both designer and client, build in the magnitude of challenge that requires building new skills, increases the amount of challenge, and pushes the client closer to something they are truly engaged in. Recognise that people on the project have different goals. The result: Designer and Client are both in a state of Flow. Both invested. Both learning. Both experiencing the spontaneous joy of creating. It drives what we do.
  • Result: You can do Good Work together; something that neither could create alone.
  • Projects make us super-human. When we start working together, we can build things that are meaningful and big. Create conditions so that everyone involved can have the same sense of excitement.
  • Go do some work that you’re proud of! Find good clients, teach them what they need, and bring them along. Create the conditions where we can find spontaneous and wonderful joy in what we do.

Ready To Inspire: Owen Gregory – A Spanner In The Works

Owen Gregory is a copy editor from the UK. He works on the 24ways.org advent site, and tweets as  @fullcreammilk.

  • Want to draw attention to how we use received ideas about craftsmanship as designers; how traditional physical crafts have influenced our approach to our work, and how we overlook our own materials. A true web aesthetic.
  • This is not a practical talk, there will be no list of tools or resources; it is a talk made out of other peoples words and ideas.
  • ‘Craftsmanship’ carries the glow of history. In an era of commodification and speed, ‘craftsmanship’ is a signifier of time; the master and the apprentice; we appreciate the craft of the people who created things. A well-made item speaks to us of the hand of its maker. ‘Craftsmanship’ is almost as tangible as the objects themselves.
  • Craftspeople make real objects. What do we as web designers and developers have in common with these physical techniques and experiences? Is hand-coded equivalent to hand-made?
  • Practices and disciplines from other areas such as print have informed web design; at the birth of the web, there was no better field available to describe what we were doing. Computer-based work has needed concrete metaphors to help everyone understand: Desktop, window, trash, cut, paste, etc. These metaphors anchor us in reality.
  • We are creative people, making things. There are techniques and best practices; room to learn from experts. We collaborate and compete, and strive to be better at what we do.
  • We have embraced traditional craft disciplines as sources of inspiration. We search for and profess our craft credentials; call ourselves architects and builders and engineers and makers. We clothe our work in the trappings of craft. “Code is poetry.”
  • There is some value and truth in this outlook, but there exists a rarely acknowledged tension between our perception of ourselves as craftspeople, and what craft in the web medium actually involves.
  • This tension does find oblique expression. James Bridle attempted to create the atmosphere of a workshop for code — the This is a working shop project. In a workshop you get the sense a skill is being performed, craft is being done. You understand work, time and skill went into making a thing. Our work, skill and craft are not valued and appreciated in the way traditional work is, which leads to misunderstanding. The invisibility, intangibility and obscurity that goes into our craft turns us into magicians, possessing a body of arcane knowledge. We must be proficient in many disciplines, and understand still more. Our audience doesn’t want to understand how the trick is done, they just want the magic to work.
  • I can’t agree with James that we work with our hands. Working with your hands lies at the heart of craftsmanship… but our hands don’t guide our tools. You can’t run your fingers through elegant JavaScript. We just type, and this is a profound disconnect; all interactions ‘feel’ the same.
  • There is an increasing fetishisation of “the one-off”, the authentic, the hand-made. Web designers have leaned heavily on traditional printing crafts, not just as inspiration but as craft, producing magazines, letterpress posters and books. For a number of web designers, the attraction seems to be the tangibility of the object itself, the process in making it, and the response of people to the object itself.
  • The Manual is a thrice yearly hardback book with a “textured handcrafted feel” that is “a collectible artifact” created because “web design is defining itself as a discipline.” At BuildConf, workshops were held in axe restoration and coffee-making. The Manual was created to inspire reverence in the reader, add weight and heft, texture and the crackle of age, to the intangibility of creating online. There can be a feeling of thinness about developing digitally.
  • Web workers have to be fascinated with process and craft, rather than with finished product… there is no finished product, because it changes immediately, and in time will probably disappear.  The presence and longevity of a physical thing have a value that we aspire to. Craftsmanship invites permanence.
  • Could it be we believe that craftsmanship belongs in the realm of the physical and traditional?
  • Wilson Miner in “When We Build” said he had an inferiority complex to architects and industrial designers that make things. Websites seem flimsy, fragile and fleeting; underserving of serious labour. Even the longest-lasting websites are “a blip on the timeline” compared to a house, car, etc. We are craftspeople shaping the world of screens.
  • Understanding our medium and our tools is essential. Older disciplines are useful foundations, but it is time for us to reassess our relationship to the web. Responsive design  is an example of how empathy with the medium can deliver new techniques.
  • In ALA, Paul Robert Lloyd wrote The Web Aesthetic, where he discussed how we look too much for standardised technical solutions, instead of creating new ones. We rely on things we have done years, rather than reset our assumptions. We should be inspired by the conventions of other media, rather than governed by them.
  • We need  craftsmanship that matches our medium. The web is flexible and mutable, so our craft must be too. Our products are never finished products (Agile acknowledges that). Simply keeping up is a challenge. What kind of crafts can acknowledge the breakneck pace of web development?
  • New tools are appearing — Bootstrap, Typekit, FontDeck, et al — the best tools, the ones that will last and be treasured, are the most appropriate tools, the ones designed for manipulating our unique medium.
  • It’s only through the application of tools in flexible processes by people that understand the medium that the new web craftsmanship can be born.