Skin My Shed

BackWallYeah it looks pretty, but you don’t have to clean it.

The back-kitchen / laundry / scullery / workroom / conservatory / toolshed at my parents’ house hadn’t really been tidied since my father died – or indeed many years before. I was not looking forward to this.

But it’s a revelation, literally. The last time this wall was fully visible it was the 1990s. Ever since it’s been obscured by “temporary” shelves – and the crap that inevitably accumulated on them. Stuff in jars and tins, mostly. Nuts, screws, washers, and bolts. So many, many different sorts of nail.

I’m slightly amazed to see the stonework properly again. Ideally I’d take this opportunity to repoint it, but there’s only so much summer and a lot of jobs to do. So many, many jobs. I’ve a range and a washstand to restore, a home Ethernet/satellite network to complete, two websites to design, a laptop to refurbish and an entire programming language (JavaScript) to learn before college starts again in little more than a month. Hmm… To finish this job alone, I’m going to have to sort out all the tools. That may not sound too fearsome, until you realise how many, many kinds of tools there are. Two entire sets of spanners and sockets (my Dad’s old imperial and my metric one – there’s a generational change), plumbing tools, wood tools, electrical tools, car tools, power tools, gardening tools, broken tools. All these have to be separated out. And where do gas fittings go? Welding rods? We don’t even have an arc welder any more.

A lot has to go. Two generations of male “But it’s useful!” thinking has its consequences. If you click on the picture to zoom in you’ll see a thing that looks like a green raygun. That’s a car timing strobe. I don’t think anyone even makes a car with mechanical timing any more. It will be a wrench though. Each bit will be a wrench. I hauled out a fridge today, one that my father once cannily converted into a chest freezer by the simple expedient of laying it on its back. It’s a strange shade of pale blue-green inside, it was made in Italy, and it’s probably the first fridge I ever saw. And I’m going to send it to a dump.

I came across a pair of metal… things. Just matching stamped pieces of steel. I do not know what they are, what they were once part of. Beyond some educated guesswork based on their shape, I don’t know what they are meant to do. But I know they’re important. The one thing I do recall about them is that at some point they were the key to a problem I wrestled with. A long-forgotten problem. How can you throw away something like that?

OK, just me then.

But the space must be made. Firstly, so that there is some chance of ever finding a thing. Because at the moment it’s organised on the principle “A place for everything, and everything in that place”. Secondly, so that there’s some space in this space. Because this is actually a great space. (Now I’m an interior designer I’m forbidden to use the word “room”.) The light is extremely good. All right, the transparent roof makes it too hot to breathe in during summer, and the gap between that roof and the top of the wall makes it icy in winter. But for… the many, many days between this could be a good place. Not just for storage and drying laundry, but to work or relax in.

Wonder can I bring the Ethernet out here.

Customised Galaxies

Screenshot_2013-08-23-02-52-42
With Sweet ROM the Note’s home screens will work in landscape mode.

Tired of Vodafone Ireland still trailing behind the curve, I decided to upgrade the Galaxy Note myself. Again. A year ago I installed Ice Cream Sandwich. Now we finally have Jelly Bean.

Only, not quite. This time I’ve eschewed not just Vodafone’s particular mix of Android, but Samsung’s too. Up until now I’ve stayed with the stock firmware so that I would be reviewing the standard user experience. This time I decided to go the whole hog and “root” the phone – which basically means giving myself administrator privileges so that I can change whatever I like. Obviously that involves some risk, but it makes your device a lot more interesting. Particularly it means you no longer have to stick to official builds, but can try out customised versions of Android.

A word of warning first though. Certain models of the Note, and several other Samsung Galaxy phones, are vulnerable to a problem known as “BrickBug”. Due to a design fault, if the memory chip it contains is erased in the wrong way it can never be written to again. Thus the device is rendered absolutely unusable and – short of an expensive mainboard replacement – irreparable. Which is depressing. So proceed with caution!

It can be worked around safely, but I won’t attempt to give comprehensive instructions here. Go straight to the horse’s mouth – the invaluable XDA-Developers forum. Actually it’s well worth looking around there before you do anything with an Android phone.

Indeed it was here that I came across the version of Android I chose to use: Sweet ROM. This is one guy’s personal mix that he released to the public, but I think he got the balance pretty right. And unlike many custom versions of Android it’s designed specifically for the Note and so retains all its pen abilities. Here’s the (almost) complete feature list provided by the author – which you can skip if you hate jargon:

CHANGELOG

  • LT9 Firmware
  • Kernel Philz XXLT9 v5.08.5 (thanks Phil3759)
  • Modem LT3
  • Deodexed & Zipaligned
  • Full Root
  • SuperSU (thanks Chainfire) & busybox
  • 24 Toggles including working 2G/3G toggle controlled in Settings (Silver 3D theme thanks Dr.Ketan)
  • Full Airview in Gallery, Video, Lockscreen Notifications, Email & Message. Partial in Snote & Splanner
  • Multi Window Add All Apps S4 white theme
  • SG4 Weather Widget
  • Samsung Camera Shutter Sound on off hack
  • MMS Hack – No SMS in call Log, 200 recipients & No SMS to MMS Auto Convert
  • TW Launcher rotate 270 degrees
  • Call record and no ascending ringtone & 2G/3G hack
  • Ink Effect Added to Settings/Lockscreen
  • Smart Rotation & Smart Stay
  • LockScreen Shortcuts, News Ticker & Weather all working
  • 4 Way Power Menu
  • Enabled extra widgets Negative Colors etc
  • Added Nova Launcher
  • added Flash Player
  • S4 Wallpapers (modded SecWallpaperChooser.apk)
  • Resized Popup Browser with call up app (thanks vijai2011 & kam333)
  • Transparent Status Bar with White S4 style icons & circle percentage battery
  • Added Internet Speed Meter Lite
  • Sub Symbols in stock keyboard
  • Build prop tweaks for battery & performance
  • All Mods & Hacks done myself (unless mentioned) using LT9 firmware
  • and more I can’t remember

To translate: it’s a lot of thoughtful tweaks done by an experienced user. And lovably, it cuts out most of the pre-installed (and irremovable) apps that phones come burdened with. Only real essentials are there; the rest you can choose whether to install.

It’s a great mix and I’m enjoying using it – it’s like my phone came back from a holiday to the feature. Now I have root though it’s almost trivial to switch to other customised versions, and I’ve no doubt I’ll be trying some more.

Painted Into A Corner

20120914_110718
I think I’m lost

You’re finally clearing out the shed or the cupboard under the stairs – what do you always find? One unfinished tin of every single colour paint you’ve ever used. These things build up – indeed it’s actually illegal just to throw them away. Paint is hazardous waste now. Hazardous to whom or what I am unclear, but I can sort of imagine why it shouldn’t just be poured down the drain. If nothing else, the sewers would look a mess. So what can you do with it?

If you live in Galway City, the simple answer is: Nothing. There is no way of legally disposing of a tin of paint. The city used to offer a facility, but that’s closed temporarily. Temporarily since last October. I quote from the City Council site:

In the interim people are encouraged to use up all paints, clean container thoroughly at which point the empty clean container can be placed in the household recycling bin.

So I did one gatepost in blue, the other two-thirds orange and one-third cream. Then I removed the dried paint residue from those tins with a gallon of white spirit, four hours scrubbing, and some fire. There were still quite a few tins left though and I was getting tired. Was there nowhere else?

I looked to the county, and found that all Galway has turned its recycling over to local commercial interest Barna Waste. Who of course charge for disposal – not a great advert for our new property taxes that, but at least there’s somewhere to go. According to the website, the nearest facility is in Tuam – a town about twenty miles away. But where exactly in Tuam?

I turn to Google maps, but no combination of terms like Tuam, Galway, County, Council, hazardous, waste, disposal and recycling found anything. Well, you don’t expect Google Maps to know where everything in the world is. OK you do. What drove me nuts though is that most searches returned just a single result – every one of them a commercial entity, and frequently nothing whatsoever to do with waste disposal. It was, in short, about as useful as a slap in the face. There have been a lot of changes with Google Maps recently, and I’m not sure they’re for the better.

Much of the blame though must go to Barna Waste. They have a lovely website, with nice pictures of all the kinds of rubbish you can bring to any of their luxurious dumps across the county. Nowhere though do they actually give addresses for any of these, other than their home base. The County Council meanwhile hides the address on a Word document you have to download – and even then the sum total of information is “Athenry Rd”, a seventeen-mile route. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Google has no freaking idea where this place is. Took me half an hour of driving around to find it myself.

By which time it was closed, of course.

Addresses, people. Put addresses on your websites if you want people to visit. I know we live in the Internet age, but some things still actually need to be physically moved. Crap especially.

How Did I Get Here?

compro-s350-front

Yeah, well. When you find yourself wedged head down in a narrow, cobweb-filled space between ceiling and roof tiles, you do tend to take stock of your life.

I was laying a cable to the satellite dish; a second one, so that we could record one channel while viewing another. But the original run had been put in when the house was far from finished. All is buried now behind stud partitions and under layers of insulation. My only choice was to to squeeze into the little triangular storage space at the side of the attic room, crawl along its length until I reach a gap that slopes down to the eaves, through that to where the slates meet the top of the stone wall…

Except the sloping part is way too tight. I probably could worm my way down it, but worming back up in reverse might be a different story altogether. One with the headline “Skeleton Discovered”.

Luckily though, I see a literal way out. Light shines dimly in through a knothole in the fascia board. Thanks to a slight stiffness in the cable, from where I’m lodged I can maybe feed it through – and from there run it along the front of the house, hidden by the gutter. It’s a matter of a few feet, but in the claustrophobic location it feels as tricky as in-flight refuelling.

Why all this death-defying effort? It’s not like there’s so much good on television you need two channels of it at once. Ludicrously perhaps, it’s mostly because I came across a decent satellite card that was almost too cheap not to buy, about a quarter the price of my original one. Admittedly, that was a much nicer job. It can pick up Saorview, and comes with a fully-featured Windows remote control. The remote (and software) with the cheap card are more novel than useful, but that didn’t matter. It picks up satellite channels – even HD ones – perfectly well, and can be controlled seamlessly by Windows Media Center. (Or MythTV if you like.) The result is just an easy-to-use entertainment system, one that doesn’t intimidate parents or children. All the cleverness happens behind a pretty blue interface that anyone can use to surf, record, and pause TV.

I hope Microsoft aren’t in the process of quietly dropping Media Center. In Windows 8 it’s an extra you have to buy, and even then you can’t boot directly into its television-friendly interface but still have to go via the screen of tiles. Yes, when Microsoft has an idea nothing gets in the way. Your phone, your tablet, your desktop PC has to have a touch interface. Even your television on the other fucking side of the room has to have a touch interface. That’s vision taken to the point of obsession. But it would be a terrible shame if they gave up on Windows Media Center just because its face no longer fits. In its quiet way it’s one of the best things they’ve done, with possibly the nicest EPG of any satellite/cable/PVR device. It takes a bit of trouble and/or experience to set it up just right, but you can get all the channels you actually want into one manageable menu, and banish all the porn and religion to the outer darkness.

Perhaps the worst-designed part is arranging the order of your channels, which has to be done painstakingly with the arrow keys of the remote. Here is where a touch interface – or just drag and drop – would be a good idea. But no, this is a home entertainment or “10-foot” interface, so everything has to be done via the remote.

I think we’re zoning in on the problem here, aren’t we? It’s not bad interface design per se. Microsoft make some great interfaces, and probably research human-machine interaction more than anyone else in the world. It’s when a design orthodoxy takes over. This one is for remote controls. This one is about touch and touch only. As if letting us plug in a mouse or boot straight to the desktop would mean abject failure. It must be PURE. And so we actual users have to find ways to get around all the convenience they invented for their ideal users.

Why not have devices designed to be used from whatever distance, by whatever means, that we want to use them?

Designers Are Burnt, Not Made

ScreenshotsCssCaptions

Tricky Curves – 4X Magnification

Obsessive attention to detail – that’s the thing that makes me not too bad at design. Also, the thing that makes design… maybe not so good for me. Several kinds of work will keep me up late into the night. But there are few that I will return to the moment I wake, brimming with new things to try. Web design, particularly in the final stages, is a constant stream of interesting problems.

CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), the design language of the modern Web, is a simple yet powerful tool. A style sheet is just a list of instructions about how things should look, really more like description than programming. I’d encourage anyone to try it out, no matter how non-technical you consider yourself. Sadly though, even today there are discrepancies in the way different Web browsers interpret these instructions. It’s not as bad as it was; there was a time they weren’t even trying. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Netscape’s Navigator (ancestor of Firefox) both had features actually designed not to work in the other. Today they at least seem to be aiming at the ambitious standards set out for HTML5 and CSS3. Browsers once competed with each other, now they compete with apps – nothing like a mutual threat to enhance cooperation.

Minor as they are, these discrepancies can still make the design that works beautifully on one platform look like something flung from a catapult on another. There really is no alternative except to test and test and re-test – on Windows, Mac OS, iOS, Android, Linux and so on, in all their different browser versions, at screen sizes from HD to phone. The permutations are slightly mind-blowing.

You find a bug, you think up or look up or remember a solution, you see if it works. If it works in Firefox on a PC you see if it still works in Chrome on a tablet, so on and so forth. When you’re sure you’ve solved that, you immediately go looking for another problem. For the best part of last week I did little but eat, sleep, and hunt bugs. And I was cutting corners on the sleep.

Don’t mention corners… See the one in the picture? Most of a day, that cost me. A lot more is going on than meets the eye. For a start, round corners can be a challenge. They look good, and they’re a part of the CSS3 standard, but people using Internet Explorer 8 and (God forbid) lower don’t see them. Well, you face a choice there: recreate the effect using images of round corners, or let the design gracefully fail in IE8. And really the latter is the sensible approach these days. Which is a little rough on users of XP – still my own favourite version of Windows – but frankly if you’re on XP and not using Firefox or Chrome then you (or your IT department) need a strong light shining up your nose.

Round corners at the foot of a page though are harder still. Look closely and you’ll see that the corkboard background pattern overlaps below the corner. (The random nature of the pattern helps to disguise this.) What’s happening is that this is an extra piece of the background overlying the rest of the design – with a bottom end for the page, complete with rounded corners, overlying that again. This whole unit then sticks to the foot of the page’s contents. Carefully-chosen margins meanwhile make sure that it always has precisely the same width as the rest, no matter what size the screen. Oh and those margins have a length described as a negative percentage, which is a little mindbending in itself.

Next problem is that 3D shadow, to make the page look like it’s inset into the background. CSS3 now has a very attractive way to do soft 3D borders, called “box-shadow”. Unfortunately, as the name suggests it only works for things with four sides. My footer wants a shadow on just two of its sides, and for that my only reasonable option is an ordinary border.

The tricky bit then is where they meet. While a border looks much the same in every browser, the shadow has properties of ‘blur’ and ‘spread’; these make it more realistic, but also more open to interpretation. Therefore it comes out looking wider in some browsers than others. What do you do then when the inconsistent shadow meets the consistent border?

The solution I found is a mad hack: I made the border 2.5 pixels wide. This of course is nonsense. The pixel is the base physical unit of the display screen, you can’t have half of one. What happens in practice is that different browsers interpret this nonsense instruction differently – crudely speaking, some round up and some round down – but they do so in a way that broadly matches how they interpret the box-shadow. The upshot, as the images above show, is that the borders join pretty smoothly in the four most popular browsers. It takes magnification in fact to show that there’s a join at all.

I’d like to say this was unusual, but really this is the essence of the Web design job – a strange blend of technical precision and lateral thinking. Part tweezers and microscope, part bent paperclip and sharpened spoon. It’s a voyage deep into an unusual problem-space, one that takes over both my waking and my sleeping mind.