Archive for April, 2005

Elbow Etiquette

There is an extremely serious design issue that continues to plague the travellers of the world. I estimate that this problem has existed for centuries — or at least since the invention of the armrest.


Feed Confusion

I’ve been thinking about feeds lately. Partly because of my recent reshuffling of the feeds here on this site, and equally due to Molly’s recent Where is Your Feed? post.

I merely offer an outsider’s perspective. I don’t study the specs on the 3,749 versions of RSS, nor the newer Atom format, but rather like many of you, I’m a user of these formats.

I realize the debate has been going on for years, with the hopes of creating a single unified standard. But as it stands now, many sites offer a bevvy of formats for the same information: RSS .92, RSS 1.0, RSS 2.0, Atom, etc. Here at SimpleBits, I offer both RSS 2.0 and Atom. Movable Type and other publishing engines make it easy to auto-generate these flavors, but frankly I’d be much happier just offering one version and sticking to it. As simple as it is to create templates, it’s still easier to only have to deal with one.

XML/RSS/ATOMBut I’m wondering where this is all going? Will we forever continue to support multiple RSS formats as well as Atom? Is Atom succeding as a successor to RSS? Will this stop people from using the term “RSS” to describe an Atom feed? It’s all very confusing — and that’s coming from someone who actually understands some of this stuff. Orange XML buttons, RSS buttons, Feed buttons — there’s no one standard for naming it, not to mention what format it actually uses.

One could argue that it doesn’t matter — that the CMS does all the heavy lifting, and why should I care if I’m pumping out 20 different files with the same information in them? But that sounds awfully familiar. In the world of web design, we know that it doesn’t have to be that way — that a single lean, meaningful XHTML file can alleviate multi-version hell. We just need that single, lean, meaningful RSS/XMLfeed/Atom file as well. Maybe?

I know that plenty of smart folks are working hard on this stuff every day. I’m just noting the current state of XML feeds (I suppose the only safe name to call all this stuff) as seen by someone who isn’t an expert.

Boston-Area Web Geeks Meetup

Continuing the tradition of past gatherings, Ethan and I are organizing a meetup for web geeks in Boston. This time, beer is involved to aid the flow of witty banter on the topics of CSS, why the definition list is underused, and other equally-crucial issues as well. So, I hope you’ll join us, where we’ll be celebrating the end of winter hibernation.

Thursday, April 28th @ 7:30PM
Boston Beer Works, 112 Canal Street. Conveniently, steps from the Boston Gahden and North Station.

Free temporary use of beer coasters to the person who comes up with a better name for “Boston-Area Web Geeks”. Also, leave a comment here or with Ethan at sidesh0w if you’re interested in attending… and we hope that you will.

New Office: The BitCave

A few months ago, I had written about the search for office space, and I’m happy to report that SimpleBits is unpacked and settled into its new office. For a while now, I’ve been referring to SimpleBits as a “tiny web design studio”. That remains accurate, but the size of the space doesn’t diminish the benefit of having a place to call “home” and also a place to call “work”.
slidesAfter doing a fair amount of searching and research, there were several things that made the choice clear — a 150 year-old brick building in downtown Salem, Mass. It’s about a five minute walk from the house. Very key, and being right downtown, I’m close to other businesses, restaraunts and, well… people. But also, having a flexible landlord helps to ease the worry of having a monthly expense this large. If things don’t work out, I can opt out of the lease. Having been here a few weeks, I can’t see that happening, but it’s a nice safety net. Also potentially helpful, is the possibility of moving to larger space within the building if necessary. Moving sucks, but would suck less if you can stay under the same roof. Something you might consider inquiring about if you (like me) just need room enough for one person now, but potentially more in the future.
Probably the most important aspect of the new office’s location is what lives on the ground floor (I’m up on the 4th floor). The Boston Hot Dog Company and (coming soon) Ben & Jerry’s (Vermont’s finest ice cream). The office will get even smaller, due to me getting larger.
As for the office itself, although it’s tiny, it took a vanload of IKEA furniture to outfit it. This was my first excuse to drive 3 hours to the nearest IKEA for the best price/design ratio out there as far as office furniture goes. It also struck me how IKEA is the “web standards” of the furniture world. Choose a couch. Grab the base model. Then choose a slip cover for the color you’d like. Choose from a crazy number of storage combinations — all modular and eventually fitting together (after a few hours of assembly). It’s designed not only to look good when it’s put together — but it’s also designed to stack and travel well before it’s even put together. I was impressed with it’s use of structured markup and CSS…. err, I mean vaneered particle board, wooden pegs, and silver framework.
So now, I get used to going somewhere to work every morning again, and things feel a bit more legitimate — like there’s room to think and grow. This seemed important, and now that I’m in here, I’m realizing how right I was.

Image Siphoning Fun

Image siphoning seems rather common. That is, people referencing images on your server via an absolute URL. Using your bandwidth. Often, a referrer check shows the culprit. Ah yes. They’ve used a CSS example I posted a long time ago. That’s cool — but they’ve changed the relative URLs in the example to absolute URLs instead of copying the images to their own servers. Not cool at all.

before and afterThere are several ways to prevent this, or deal with it after the fact. There are times when I like to have fun with it, swapping the image being siphoned with something a little more humorous (Figure 1). The fun part is seeing how long it takes for the offending site owners to notice and make the change.

Depending on the size of the image being “borrowed”, you could get even more malicious with the image that you replace. I’m not advocating that, but encourage something harmless, yet funny to get the point across.

This technique is nothing new, just something I was (unfortunately) reminded of this morning while checking a referrer gone wild. If in fact the culprit likes your modified image, then well… you haven’t solved the bandwidth issue at all.

Update: To avoid confusion, my solution of just replacing the image with a new one would probably not be optimal for most (for instance, if you’d like to still use the same image by the same filename). Be sure to check the comments for “hotlinking” fixes that don’t require replacing the image.

The Cheapening of Music

Not too long ago, a good friend of mine still working in the music business said something that struck me: “music’s been cheapened”. I agreed immediately, not knowing exactly why, but gave it some more thought. It relates to how technology will affect music — not how we listen to music, but how we digest it, buy it, perceive it.

Let me first say that I love the iPod, and the device has even allowed me to rediscover music that was previously boxed away in racks of old CDs. The technology is wonderful, making it so easy to carry around your entire record collection at all times. But is the art of recording an “album” — an LP — in danger? I guess that’s what I’m questioning here.

One of my favorite rituals has always been going to the record store and buying a CD or two. The physical act of purchasing something, taking it home, opening it up, lookng at the artwork, reading the lyrics, etc. Will that become something of the past? Probably. For years we’ve been hearing things like “yeah, but you’ll be able to print out your own artwork to go along with the digital downloads”. Somehow that just doesn’t sound as nice.

The album as an artform

album coversCreating an album — not just a collection of songs, but an entire “experience” has long been an artform in and of itself. It’s part of what got me interested in design early on: studying the packaging design and album artwork of bands and artists I worshipped. The collection and artwork combined with a group of songs recorded within the same time period always seemed like a time capsule of what the band was doing at that moment. But with the ability to buy a single song immediately via the web, will a shift materialize? Will we go back to the days of 7″ 45s, where the single ruled?

When my friend said that he believed music has been cheapened, he was referring to the fact that music is now everywhere. It’s in your cellphone, on the web, on your microwave, TV, toys, etc. It’s even a marketing tool. It’s become easier to get, but will that affect the music itself?

The web site “album”?

What has become crucial is the band’s web site — the depot for news, info, photos, music, videos, etc. It’s possible that the web site will become even more important as digital distribution gains even more steam. Perhaps an “album” will really be a web site devoted to a group of songs released at the same time. Each “album” will stand on it’s own like an archived article.

I don’t have any answers, of course. We’ll just have to see how it all plays out. The Compact Disc is the end of the line as far as a physical medium for music — but even as technology progresses, I hope there continues to be a way of relaying the special qualities that only a packaged album can deliver.