Archive for the 'reviews' Category

David Tennant’s Richard II (RSC)

We went to see David Tennant as Richard II in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s eponymous production last night. As a production it was all you’d want from RSC – great actors, impeccably staged. But I can’t get over the feeling that actually, it’s just not a very good play (or it simply hasn’t aged well).

It’s a reasonably early Shakespeare play, almost all in iambic pentameter with very little prose, and a great deal of rhyming couplets (later plays close scenes with a rhyme, but don’t use it throughout). This made a lot of it sound like a Hallmark greeting card poem as the rhyme and rhythm are quite regular.

There’s also a howling clunker of plot, in which one character simply forgets to tell another of the death of the previous King’s widow:

[Servant:] My Lord, I had forgot
To tell your Lordship, to day I came by, and call’d there,
But I shall grieve you to report the rest
[York:] What is’t knave?
[Servant:] An hour before I came, the Duchess died.

I almost laughed out loud at this.

Another problem is that Richard II is a thoroughly unlikeable character. Perhaps it’s a failure of Tennant’s acting or Greg Doran’s direction (but I doubt it; they’re both highly professional) but Richard simply has no redeeming features, so you I didn’t care what happens to him. He’s vain, messianic and treats his nobles badly. He deserves to lose the throne. At least with Richard III, you enjoy his evilness; Richard II just seems rather wet.

Taffy at The Black Heart, Camden

Last week, I was lucky enough to spend a couple of hours upstairs in a sweaty windowless room above a pub in Camden on a scorching summer’s evening.

The reason I subjected myself to this misery was to see a Japanese punky-pop-shoegaze band called Taffy play. Taffy are a bit like The Primitives, with chainsaw guitar and great pop melodies but also sport a shoegazey-disorted lead guitar and sweet vocals from a singer called Iris. Their drummer, an ever-smiling bespectacled chap who reminds me of Penfold from Dangermouse, plays like two drummers together. They might not be ground-breaking, but they do make a great, summery sound. They’re much too cheerful to be real shoegaze, and they’re better musicians and singers than Shonen Knife, with none of their studied wackiness.

Best thing to do is listen. Here’s their latest single “Tumbling” (but the best tracks from their new Lixiviate album, Sweet Violet and Train aren’t singles):

After paying my £6 to get in, who should I bump into but drummer Ken at the bar. As my 14 year old daughter is in love with him (“he’s so adorable”, apparently) she demanded by text that I have a photo taken with him.

ken

The photo was taken by the guitarist. They both signed my CD cover. Note that Ken’s autograph is a smiling anthropomorphised drum kit. (“It’s so adorable!” squealed my daughter.) I didn’t know what Iris or the bassist looked like to get their signatures, so lost my chance at a rare collectible there.

cover

The band went on, and they were great. The sound was terrible, naturally: pub gigs never have a decent PA, the drummer plays loud to fill the room, the guitars turn up loud so they can hear themselves, and vocals are lost in the mix. Iris has a tuneful, engaging voice, but it’s quite high and not powerful. But they were brilliantly tight, and obviously loved playing. The bassist grooved around until his shirt was wringing wet, Ken flailed around on his drums, cleaning sweat off his specs between songs and never letting his smile falter. The guitarist even played an intro by hitting the strings with a glow stick.

As a band, they’ll either disappear or get really big and you’ll all be jealous of my seeing them in a room of 40 people in Camden. I think their tour finished tonight, but I heartily recommend their album.

Taffy band

Why “The Dark Knight Rises” scriptwriter should be shot

WARNING: may contain spoilers.

The kids wanted to see it, so I took them to see The Dark Knight Rises. Because it’s a film based on a comic and I’m over twelve years old, I wasn’t really expecting to like it, but there were some scriptwriting crimes so egregious that I list them here.

Firstly, the film was way too long. It didn’t help that Cineworld in Solihull decided that air conditioning in a packed cinema in the summer is a luxury that our £28 entrance fee didn’t merit. But it was still 30 minutes too long.

On the plus side, the special effects were good (of course they were: it’s a summer blockbuster) and the babes were suitably babelicious, if Hollywood collagen pout is your thing (it isn’t mine).

But the script was terrible. Now, in a Hollywood blockbuster based on a kids’ comic, I don’t hope for emotional depth. But as the Bad Guy had mobilised thousands of normal people who were prepared to be blown up by a nuclear bomb he’d planted, it would be satisfying to be given even a cursory explanation of why they would. Or even, why Bad Guy and Bad Girl would. (“Because they’re bad” doesn’t work.)

Two can’t-be-arsed script devices were employed repeatedly. The lazy, lazy flashback-with-a-voiceover technique was used several times, as was clankingly clumsy Obvious Explication Dialogue:

“I want you to give me Clean Slate”.
“you mean, the computer program that lets you type in your name and erases you from databases?”
“Yes!”

Imagine if people in real life spoke like that:

“Have you got the keys to the car, Bruce?”
“You mean, our blue Nissan Micra that I bought from my father when he upgraded to a Passat? The one I scratched when I reversed it into a wall outside Aldi last Wednesday?”
“Yes!”

Then there is the mysteriously common movie trope whereby a character who doesn’t speak English suddenly learns it in time for them to utter the words that allow them to fulfill their plot function. I’m thinking of the bald guy in prison who needs translation until he whispers encouraging, motivational words to Batman. Imagine being that guy! All that time, unable to communicate with the Anglophone world and, just when the deus ex machina grants you fluent English so you can go to the pub and chat up girls, you disappear from the world as your bit of plot has finished. Bummer.

And don’t get me started on the unrequited homo-erotic thing between Michael Caine and Christian Bale. Any scriptwriter that requires Caine to cry should be drummed out of the scriptwriters’ guild. He’s spent 85 years being celebrated for not acting – he’s not going to start now.

More fool me for expecting anything other than cartoon characters, I suppose, but grown adults had promised it’s “dark” so I expected a Bergmanesque investigation of why a man would wear tights, with added “Pow!” overlays. Should’ve gone to see The Lorax instead.

Review: Design Is A Job by Mike Monteiro

I’ve been doing a lot of flying lately, and can’t use the lappy on a plane so decided to read computer books (so the boss can’t berate me for enjoying myself on company time) and review them, actually on a blog rather than simply tweeting “Awesome!” or “EPIC FAIL”.

Presumably because I have incriminating photos of Zeldman, the A Book Apart people send me free copies of their publications, but they haven’t asked me to review them, let alone required me to be nice.

This book accompanied me to Bulgaria and I was, I confess, pretty sceptical. I’ve seen a lot of hand-wavy “design and inspiration” talks at conferences (“Look at the lovely Flickr images, I’ve got an iPad, aren’t we all awesome“). I’ve also seen lots of scarily aggressive Americans talk about how they went from start-up to millionaire in less time that it takes me to get around to scratching my balls in the morning, and disliked those talks even more because they displayed a very un-British lack of taboo about money.

Therefore, I was worried that a book about design and money would be some ghastly hybrid of this: “Hey, we’re all children of the universe which is awesome and like, totally full of, like, emptiness. So make all your websites full of whitespace, then grab that mofo and leverage it into the dollar domain!”

My fears were unfounded. Firstly, there is precisely zero designer handwaving in this book. The author explicitly rejects that:

A designer requires honest feedback and real criticism, and that’s not going to happen in a realm where colleagues or clients are worried bout crushing the spirit of a magical being. The sparkly fog of affirmation gets in the way…A designer solves problems within a set of contraints…a designer understands goals…

There is money talk, as there has to be in a book called “Design is a Job”. But there was even a section entitled “Your ethical responsibility” in which Monteiro writes

You have a responsibility to the community at large to make sure that what you’re signing up to design is worth being designed…So before you take on a client, ask yourself whether the problem the client is asking you to solve is one that you feel good about attaching your name to…There is absolutely nothing wrong with making money…but making it to some else’s detrimnent makes you complicit in that persons’s downfall. If a product you design does harm, then you have done harm.

The author (who I’ve never met and know nothing about) comes across to me as a craftsman – someone who takes pride in the job he does, and the wider craft, but who wants to make an honest living doing it. Whether it be design, or branding, or coding doesn’t really matter. Monteiro writes about design because that’sd what he knows best, rather than because the points made in the book are only relevant to product or web design.

Standout chapters for me were the ones that deal with sticking to your own process and the importance of having lawyers. If I were ever in business by myself – regardless of what type of business – I’d keep those chapters close by me.

To conclude: I’m surprising myself to be recommending this book, even though I expected to hate it. Lots of practical advice, written without bullshit in a voice that seems Monteiro’s own rather than that of his editor or publisher, and which can be read on a couple of European flights.

Review: Build Mobile Websites by Castledine, Eftos, Wheeler

I got this book free in lieu of payment for my Sitepoint article Notes on Designing Websites for the Asian Market. When it arrived, I looked in the index for “Opera” and found no entry at all. As this is a book is called “Build Mobile Websites and Apps for Smart Devices” and is about designing mobile websites (not just apps), I decided that the book would be another iOS wankathon, and put it immediately in my recycling pile. (“iOS wankathon” is the technical term employed by medical professionals to describe articles/ books/ conference talks that stupidly assume all mobile users have iPhones or other webkit-based browsers.)

Luckily, I decided to give it a go and picked it up just before getting a flight. It’s actually a really good book, with only one webkit wank (a very low number when “apps for smart devices” is in the title).

There’s good information on responsive web design, although it doesn’t replace Ethan Marcotte’s book, it summarises well. The second edition should add information on CSS Device Adaptation (“CSS viewport”) now that IE10 and Opera support it.

I found the chapter on design for mobile very useful with its different patterns for organising information. The chapter “markup for mobile” was less so, probably because I know more about markup than design.

One slight niggle – in an example app, the use of ellipsis is shown by including the name of a person “I am a celebrity with an incredibly long name for some unfathomable reason”. Long names seem quite common in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Russia, Greece etc; it’s only “unfathomable” if you think in the context of English names.

The only example of webkit wanking comes in the “Mobile web apps” chapter. In order to navigate from page to page, -webkit-animation is used with no other vendor prefixes. The authors have ensured that a simplified page swap is available on other browsers, but that tests WebKitTransitionEvent in JavaScript. Why not just use all the vendor prefixes and the non-prefixed version, and only then fallback to a “simplified” page swap? It’s particularly remiss when Firefox supported Animations from May 2011, while the book was published in June 2011.

Better still would be to ensure that vital functionality like navigation is available everywhere and only then progressively enhanced.

In conclusion, this is a decent book. Client-pleasing stuff such as touch, accelerometer, geolocation is covered. But while it was languishing on my shelf more cutting-edge features have become available. You can still learn from this book now, especially if you’re interested in sites that work well on mobile rather than all-singing all-dancing applications, but it would be good to see a second edition that addresses getUserMedia and proper cross-browser vendor prefixing.

Creative JavaScript with Seb Lee-DeLisle

One of the many joys of going to Fronteers 2011 (even more than seeing Jake Archibald in a mankini) was Seb Lee-DeLisle’s presentation “CreativeJS – beauty in the browser”. Watching sexy particle systems, using mobile phones as pixels and playing NyanCatch was fun and exciting.

I’m a JavaScipt n00b, but an old hand at programming, which I taught myself in the 80s by coding visual games like space invaders and lunar lander. So when I heard that Seb was giving a two-day workshop in Leeds on how to code creative visual effects and games, I decided to go along.

Seb didn’t start at the very beginning; it’s assumed that we have a text editor, a web inspector (I was using Opera Dragonfly, of course) and that we know what variables and loops are. There wasn’t much talk of prototyping and inheritance either – the emphasis was on the making rather than the theory.

We looked at canvas, how to make simple shapes and simple animations. Then we used Seb’s simple library to add drag, velocity, gravity and randomness to particles, all the while building pretty effects that responded to the mouse. We learned canvas rotations and transforms (which I hadn’t really bellyfelt before) by making a generated tree (which I topped off with random cherry blossom).

We learned how to code the game Asteroids, with a reminder of trigonometry that shocked me: who knew I’d ever need SOHCAHTOA or the Pythagorean theorem in real life? This also helped us learn how to make natural-seeming physics.

We all had a brief foray in webGL, albeit abstracting away most of the horrors via Mr Doob’s THREE.js.

It was a great fun course. Seb’s an engaging and effective teacher and I feel much more confident with my JavaScript now (I even suggested an optimisation to Seb’s collision detection code!). Thanks to Seb, Clare who co-organised it, and my fellow attendees.

If you’re looking for an “in” to JavaScript, and you learn by mucking about and seeing what comes out the other end, sign up to Seb’s next course.

Full Frontal 2011 notes

Full Frontal is organised by my co-author, Remy Sharp and his wife Julie (who both juggled recent parenthood with conference running – respect!). I’ve been unable to attend in previous years due to being out of the country but was looking forward to this one, even though I was a little worried that the JavaScript content would be well over my head.

I needn’t have been too scared. The first talk was on CoffeeScript which seemed to me quite intriguing as it (seems to) encourage you to continue thinking of JS as JS (rather than turning it into Java or some such horror) but smooths away some of the syntactical gotchas that get on my moobs. (See Mike Davis’ write-up.) However, I’m a great believer in not cheating until you know the rules properly, so I’ll be delaying CoffeeScript until I’m more confident in my JS.

The second talk was Phil Hawksworth “Excessive Enhancement – Are we taking proper care of the Web?”, which wittily harangued developers to ensure there is proper semantics underneath the JS shizzle and CSS bling – a subject dear to my heart recently. (And he even quoted me, which is nice!)

I skipped talk #3 “Respectable code-editing in the browser” for some synergy-leveraging as I thought it would be too advanced for me. Only afterwards did I realise that the talk was by Marijn Haverbeke, the author of Eloquent JavaScript that I was greatly enjoying on the train coming down on the recommendation of Noo Yoik JS lovegod Mike Taylor.

The talk on Cloud9 IDE by Rik Arends was a bit of a product pitch, but interesting. I wonder if it works across all browsers?

“Scalable JavaScript Application Architecture” by Nicholas Zakas was the tech highlight for me. He discussed a method of structuring an application so that everything was controlled by a main control app with messages passed into it and back out, with everything else being a black box to everything else. This means the programmer must spend a lot of time at the start of the project, designing the sandbox, controller and APIs. This may not be revelatory to most JS coders (or it may be, I don’t know) but it reminded me of learning Jackson Structured Programming in the late 80s when a systems analyst at AT&T. I’d like to see Zakas do a follow-up talk on how to design the sandbox and controller.

Glenn Jones’ “Beyond the Page” talk discussed – and demoed – techniques and emerging standards/ idioms to make Web sites less separated from other apps. We saw Drag and Drop, Web Intents etc. Some evil hackery, too!

Brendan Dawes always scrubs up nice and today was no exception. Although he’s a quivering Flash-lovin’ aesthete (albeit with a Northern accent), he had the techy crowd warming to him and then in stitches with a stream-of-consciousness talk about creativity, new interfaces and expensive pencils.

Last on was Marcin Wichary from Google, who talked of Google Doodles. Who knews that they user-test them? It was a fascinating talk and the good news is that he’ll be blogging about them in the future.

FullFrontal was a super day. The after party had lavish quantities of free grog. The venue was quirky and fun, with free coffee all day. Each talk was handpicked – in fact, everything about the event was curated by Remy and Julie. I’ll be going next year (although not staying in the Travelodge, Preston Road, which was a dump, and nothing to do with the event).

Review: Interact with Web Standards

(Disclosure: several authors of this book and its technical reviewer are personal friends of mine.)

Once upon a time there was a grassroots group of Web designers and developers called the Web Standards Project (WaSP) that pressured companies such as Microsoft and Adobe to ensure that those companies’ products were more standards-compliant.

They were largely successful; although some companies occasionally relapse, most of the time standards are given more than mere lip-service.

The WaSP then sought to educate Web developers to code to standards, not to browsers. Again, it was broadly successful. While there are many, many developers out there testing only in IE (or doing the 2010 equivalent of testing only in WebKit) it’s easy to find other standards-aware developers out there in the world, and standards are generally understood by professional developers to be the ideal—even if that ideal is not always achievable in a particular project.

The WaSP finally ran out of steam and with Interact became its successor in taking the Standards gospel to the next generation, because learning the right way is so much better than unlearning bad habits. Interact with Web Standards is subtitled “a holistic approach to Web design”: it’s a curriculum to learn from or to teach.

The state of Web education in universities is utterly out-of-step with industry best practice (with some notable and welcome exceptions). Students go into courses in good faith, believing that they’re going to emerge ready to work in the Web industry. Employers, however, find that most graduates are ill-prepared. When I was interviewing for a new member of a team in 2007, I found no candidates whose portfolio sites used valid HTML or which worked cross-browser.

Another employer told me “For the first time ever, this spring we grabbed a couple grads with some solid standards skills”. This means spending time and money training so-called graduates in the discipline that they should already be experts in. “Almost every comp. sci. peep I’ve ever worked with has been around 3 years behind on current tech / standards” says tomnomnom.

The reason is that University Computer Science courses treat the Web as something of an afterthought, and pay no attention to Standards. “I’m a 2004 graduate, and I was actively marked down for using web standards over tables and Java widgets” says Steve Marshall. “We weren’t taught standards in college – it was more ‘here’s dreamweaver, best of luck with it’” adds onepixelout.

The Interact book fulfills a vital need. Like Opera’s complementary Web Standards Curriculum, it is a course textbook, a self-study primer, an on-the-job training manual. Its aim is to equip new entrants to the industry with skills that today’s employers really need: the ability to develop accessible, usable, good-looking web sites that are based on Web Standards so that they work across all browsers, operating systems and across devices.

The pedigree of the book’s authors is excellent: educators, highly-rated conference speakers, industry stalwarts, designers and coders combine to give the reader a well-integrated series of lessons that progresses through project planning, content development, information architecture, HTML, CSS and accessibility. (See table of contents.) The book is also pleasant to read, with attractively designed layout, full colour illustrations and guided “try it out” sections.

Gripes? Not many. There’s little on JavaScript in the book, which is an increasingly important part of Web development (volume 2 perhaps?). There are a couple of minor proofing errors, and I’m not completely convinced that writing for the Web is as different from writing for print as the chapters seem to suggest.

All in all, the book is an very good primer for those beginning their education in Web development, and provides an excellent framework upon which to build knowledge.

Of course, you don’t need to know the contents of this book to find a job in the Web. But if you want to rise above the badly-coded, thrown-together sites that plague much of the Web and join the top tier of Web professionals, you need to know the information this book covers.

Arabian Nights, Royal Shakespeare Company

Last night, a whole house load of Lawsons, my mum and stepdad, my half-sister and her kids went to Stratford to watch Arabian Nights by the RSC as a pre-Christmas treat.

Arabian Nights is the story of a storytelling Queen, Shahrazad, who will be executed by the King unless she can think up new stories to tell. Like the Canterbury Tales or Decameron, it’s basically a framing story for a disparate collection of folk tales; some are high and courtly like The Knight’s Tale and The Story of the Envious Sisters, others bawdy like The Miller’s Tale and How Abu Hassan Broke Wind.

The latter had such a triumphantly staged megafart that every child in the audience (and juvenile adults) were laughing hysterically for minutes. The cast used puppets, slapstick, and mime to tell the stories in a manner that consistently held our attention (as did the gorgeousness of lead actress Ayesha Dharker).

The show was quite long—over three hours—but it rarely dragged. Perhaps the final story could have been pacier if there had only been one brother to fail in the quest, rather than a second who repeats the first’s failure. Once or twice, some of the dialogue jarred for me; most of the dialogue was in a high narrative style so Shahrazad’s reponse to a request with “I’ll see what I can do” sounded clichéd and lazily written.

But those are small criticisms of an otherwise excellent production.

Dear KLM

As sent to their customer service people. Bet I don’t get a reply.

Dear KLM, I travel regularly around Europe for work and our corporate travel agency books me flights with KLM. For leisure I usually fly to Asia, and go by Emirates.

I was sent to work for 2 weeks in Jakarta and was given the choice between KLM and Emirates. I chose KLM. The flight KL810 is the worst flight I’ve taken in a long time (it reminded me of Aeroflot in the 90s).

Firstly, at my seat (39G) the light wouldn’t operate–preventing me from either reading or using my laptop to do some work. I could not watch the in-flight entertainment, as the sound was stuck at maximum volume and was therefore unintelligble and painful to listen to.

I asked the stewardess for another aisle seat (I have a medical condition which means I must get up and walk regularly) but there were none left. I asked to move to business class, but was told that was impossible.

A stewardess apologised, saying that it was an old plane and some things don’t work properly. Travelling at 500 miles per hour, 4 miles above the Bay of Bengal, this was not very reassuring.

So the only thing to for the flight was have some drinks and sleep. Unfortunately, no-one ever responded to my armrest call button (my colleague in a nearby row had the same problem) so I had to get up and search for water in the dark by myself.

Therefore, instead of a relaxing flight that allowed me to do a couple of hours work and then rest, I had 12 hours of extreme boredom, unable to read, work or watch TV and must now work when I get home to catch up with the work I hoped to do on the plane.

My future trips to Jakarta, Bangkok and the like will be by Emirates.