Stuff I’ve seen and read recently: January 2020

I read a lot of stuff on the web, and while a lot of it flies by, some of it sticks or leads me onto other things. From time to time it’s nice to go back through the links and tabs I’ve saved and share the good ones.

It wouldn’t make sense to just publish my Pocket queue. Some things exist only in my phone browser. Some goes to Pocket where it may languish for months. Others get sent straight to my Kindle* to be read before I go to sleep.

Here’s what’s been occupying my mind and eyeballs in recent weeks.

  • Amelia Tait wrote this great piece on her electronic diary. It struck a chord because I too have the majority of my diaries from 2002 to present in an electronic form and it means I can instantly look up places, people, moods… And it’s a blessing and a curse. This kind of article would have been invaluable when doing my university project, and reading things like it always makes me want to return to that area of study.
  • Dan Milnor’s blog is very frequently updated and he talks about cycling, photography, environmental issues, books and whatever else is on his mind. He works for Blurb so he also often has interesting things to say about photobooks and similar projects. As an unstoppable force, he recently announced his latest project/collaboration: AG23.
  • Adam Elkus’ blog was yet another nice one I found on my recent trawl of Kicks Condor’s HrefHunt or that Hacker News thread. I enjoyed a few of his posts, but one that held my attention was this recent one about the videogame DOOM. Something about these sort of very in-depth posts is so enjoyable to read. One person giving their thoughts, impressions, insight and expertise on a (sort-of but not-really) niche subject.
  • Very related, Sophie Haskins‘ website pizzabox.computer (god I am actually starting to love these new TLDs when they’re used well) documents her quest to investigate slim workstation computers (in a so-called pizzabox form factor :3!). I had Sophie’s blog in my RSS feeds from a while back and I was so glad to see a new post for the first time in over a year. Her latest post covers setting up NeXTstep on a HP machine in enjoyably verbose detail – in a very chilled, conversational style which I loved. Even better, she also made a video of this process presented in a similar style which, she teases, should be the first of more to come. Bring it on.
  • I’ve already mentioned Frank Chimero’s blog covering his website redesign ‘in the open’. This recent post which is basically on the subject of website headers and footers is long, sprawling, and thoroughly readable. He writes so entertainingly but also knowledgably. Which is definitely a word.
  • Another find from my latest descent into the hypertext mines is Roy Tang’s website. He writes posts about the state of the/his world, and web and software development past and present.  He also actively writes weeknotes. A recent post about burnout was very interesting, and older posts on redeveloping his website – use of WordPress and Hugo etc – have kept me delving into his extensive (and beautifully-represented) archives.
  • This New Yorker piece on device addiction struck a chord. It was sent my way by Sean Bonner and his excellent email newsletter. The initial mentions of life in north west London were interesting, and the wider concepts discussed tend to make for an fascinating subject. Really interesting to read about the century-old book which explored similar themes of disconnection from human touch. I’m afraid I didn’t know much about the piece’s author, Oliver Sacks, and so it was especially poignant to learn at the end that this had been published posthumously.

*Some such items, like this recent longform piece on Instagram which I didn’t love but didn’t hate, lead to my Kindle’s screensaver having the most incongruous/weird/soothing/serendipitous images displayed on my bedside table:

img_20200201_120411-1-5378400-3040389

Pushing around text blocks

I’ve been following along while Frank Chimero redesigns his website in the open. He writes well, and the process of redesigning a website – no matter how simple – is interesting to me.

In a recent post, he wrote (emphasis mine):

I’ve designed for many years, but again and again, I have to relearn where to draw the line. I will strap myself to my desk and push around text blocks until I drive myself crazy. I will waste hours.

And suddenly a dim lightbulb at the back of my mind flickered into life. He’s talking about redesigning a website, but he’s pushing around text blocks? Unless I’m mistaken, I guess he’s talking about prototyping in something like Photoshop.

Of course! It’s all coming back to me now. I remember learning about this method in the web design unit I took in my degree. You figure out how you want your page to look using graphical tools, and then you write and edit the code to make it look that way.

But that’s just not how I’ve ever tinkered with web design.

Let me be honest here: the closest I’ve come to redesigning a website in recent years is picking the least worst WordPress template from a gallery of hundreds. I do occasionally use my c.2002 HTML skillz to tweak a layout or check how something is being presented – the vagaries of my work website’s CMS mean I often have to code HTML tables by hand which is quite a mental workout. But I don’t think I’ve coded a webpage from scratch since about 2013.

Anyway.

What I’m trying to say is, when I have done that, I’ve tended to just create some dummy copy, then tweak the HTML and CSS until it looks roughly how I want it to look. And that tends to mean that every line break or pixel shift is sticking to an invisible grid of defaults – I’m just adding a number to this bit or moving that bit over or down a bit. So my lumps of content just kind of slot into place according to how the code is interpreted by the browser.

This is compounded by the fact (or, indeed, exacerbates the fact) that my knowledge of HTML and CSS is just enough to get by. So I don’t know how to make complex layouts for webpages; I’m just sticking to the web design of the web when I learnt it in 2001/2002 – and that in turn is probably the web design of many years before as it trickled down to mere mortals like me.

But I like this way of working – I guess it’s almost like using a Word processor to style text. It makes me feel like I have control, but I’m only making moderate changes and letting the code/browser slot it into place. It inevitably means the page ends up looking very simple and conforming to some sort of grid – and that’s fine. It appeals to my quest for order. And that’s probably the fundamental difference with how I approach what I would very generously call ‘design’. I’m not being creative and making something from scratch. I certainly wouldn’t be able to use Photoshop to rough out a new design. I’m taking something existing and just moving it around into different slots.

That’s what web design is, to me.

Anyway. This is all to be read alongside a giant flashing banner which reads “Paul hasn’t sat down to design a webpage from scratch since about 2013, so… y’know…”. But with the recent promotion of the personal website and homepage by the likes of Kicks Condor and Matthias Ott, I’m thinking about this stuff a bit more, and crucially I’m browsing and finding myself inspired by scores of other people’s personal websites. Websites made by the kind of people for whom spending a weekend indoors tweaking their layout is time well spent. I love that. And I miss doing the same.

So I’ll probably continue tossing up between WordPress layouts for the time being. But I know that some time soon I will find the temptation too great, and I’ll sit myself down with some digestives and a pot of coffee, and I’ll try and bash out a set of webpages from scratch.

In fact, one box I’d like to tick that I’ve never tried before is handcoding an RSS feed. I’ve read a few tutorials. I get the idea. It doesn’t look difficult at all. I’ve just never actually done it. So that’s on the list. A few different webpages connected by an index page, and some content worthy of presenting in a blog format, tied together with an RSS feed for those of us who still dabble in such things.

Watch this space.