Although I now subscribe to the 12 Week Year approach to planning , one of my overall goals for 2020 is to read more.
I’ve got the year off to a good start reading Make Time: How to focus on what matters every day by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, the team behind the popular Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days.
I have been saying to myself for too long that I need to step away from my PC more often and read more books. So, this year I decided to start by reading all of Douglas Coupland’s novels, in chronological order, in the order he wrote them; I have all his novels up to Gum Thief (2007). That’s 12, including Life after God (1994) which is a collection of short stories. I’ll see how many get through in 2017.
Generation X: tales for an accelerated culture
This is, at least, the third time that I’ve started to read Generation X by Douglas Coupland, but it’s the first time that I’ve actually finished it.
I don’t know whether it’s because I’ve grown older, or because I know myself better now, or whether my own life circumstances have changed dramatically over the last two years but I connected with the book more this read through than in the past. It resonated with me more than before.
While I connected with the book, I didn’t connect with the characters. Andy, Dag, Claire, and Tyler and Tobias. I found them too aloof, too fickle, too disconnected to begin to care about them too deeply. Despite all the conversation and the frantic activity, the novel felt like a study in loneliness. Maybe that’s the point being made about my generation.
“Time to escape. I want my real life back with all of its funny smells, pockets of loneliness, and long, clear car rides.” (p.172)
Throughout the novel, Andy, Dag and Claire tell stories: searching for meaning in their lives. Creating their own metanarratives in a post-modern world without one.
This, Coupland’s first novel, contains moments of genius. Simple sentences that capture what it means to be living now, recording the culture, portable insights into the minutiae of life towards the end of the 20th century.
In was in paragraphs like this that I was able to connect most with the novel:
“I must have been asleep for hours. When I woke it was dark out and the temperature had gone down. There was an Arapaho blanket on top of me and the glass table was covered with junk that wasn’t there before: potato chips, bags, magazines… But none of it made any sense to me. You know how sometimes after an afternoon nap you wake up with the shakes or anxiety? That’s what happened to me. I couldn’t remember who I was or where I was or what time of year it was or anything. All I knew was that I was. I felt so wide open, so vulnerable, like a great big field that’s just been harvested.” (p.183)
Or the chapter about celebrating Christmas with the family, and for a moment being transported away from the humdrum of everyday life into something mysterious and magical.
But there is a problem.
Later on life reverts to normal. The candles slowly snuff themselves out and normal morning life resumes. Mom goes to fetch a pot of coffee […]
But I get this feeling—
It is a feeling that our emotions, while wonderful, are transpiring in a vacuum, and I think it boils down to the fact that we’re middle class. (p.171)
Or moments, like in the final chapter, where the characters find meaning or insights into their own lives through their interactions with passers-by. Not deep insights, but touch-points with their own humanity, recognising their own significance, and perhaps that there is also a reality beyond that which they normally live.
Then there are a few chapters that really touched me, that left me feeling like the world was a different place afterwards.
The final chapter in part one, about being caught in a nuclear explosion. While shopping.
Chapter 22 Leave your body about “this poor little rich girl named Linda” who meditates for seven years. That chapter is one of the most beautiful of any that I’ve ever read in a novel.
When I’ve mentioned to people that I had started reading this novel again, after abandoning it twice, they invariably asked why, and said that life was too short to tackling books that I didn’t enjoy. But I’m glad that I did persevere. Because it was for those beautiful insights, those snippets of exquisitely crafted words, amidst the mundane chatter and mind-games of the central characters that I did it. I feel enriched by having read this book.
A few years ago I remember reading a book advocating that all school children should be taught to program computers. It’s a great discipline for anyone, the author argued, especially children. It teaches patience, persistence, problem-solving, the importance of planning; it can help children improve their maths and logical thinking, and it’s hugely rewarding to see something that you’ve been working on suddenly come to life and work as expected. I wish I still had that book.
A couple of stories about teaching children to write code have caught my eye over the last few weeks.
Year of code
On Newsnight, broadcast on BBC 2 on Wednesday 5 February 2014, Jeremy Paxman presented an article about the Year of Code campaign, an independent, non-profit campaign to encourage people across the country to get coding for the first time.
One of my first experiences of using a computer was in primary 7 when the headteacher brought in a Commodore VIC-20. I took computer studies in high school through to higher level, and half of my university application form was to study computer science (the other half to study divinity, which is what I ended up doing).
I loved coding as a kid. My friends and I would gather around each others home computers, whether a Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, or BBC B, and we’d design or amend games and programs together.
People are often amazed when I say that I taught myself the web skills that I use now in my day-to-day job in the web team at the University of St Andrews. Except, that’s not entirely true: I do have the experience of those seven or eight years of coding on 8-bit computers as a child and as a teenager. That was a brilliant headstart.
It seems that today ‘computer studies’ in school is more about learning how to be a consumer and user of existing software (how to use Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft PowerPoint) rather than creating your own software.
I was appalled to learn how some youngsters are being ‘taught’ to code in schools today. A couple of months ago a friend of mine phoned me asking for my help. Her daughter is studying computer studies and she is being ‘taught’ to code using… Adobe Flash!? And I say ‘taught’ because it sounds like she and her classmates were essentially shown the application, given a book and told to get on with it. It sounded like the teacher didn’t know to code either.
Compare that with my own experience in the mid-80s. I had three years of hands-on coding BASIC and machine code by someone who understood how computers worked and what the programs were being asked to do, who could tell a CPU from an ALU from a RAM. And then in my sixth year a group of six of us took ourselves off and taught ourselves Pascal in what would otherwise have been free periods for us in our timetable.
We need to be teaching our children to code so that they can contribute to the next generation of computer applications. Technology has never been more exciting than it is now. I remember my dad (who worked in the electronics and communications industry, who delivered the Faraday lecture on fibre optic communications) telling me in the early 80s that one day televisions would be so thin we could hang them on our walls. It seemed like a space-age dream, it is now reality.
My main concern about that Newsnight piece, however, is the interview with Lottie Dexter, the executive director of Year of Code (at 5′ 32″ on the video).
It’s not her admission that she herself cannot code—good on her for admitting that straight away, and even better that she is committing herself to learning this year, alongside those she is encouraging to take it up. No, it’s comments like,
“You can do very little in a short space of time. For example, you can actually build a website in an hour […] completely from scratch.”
Well, you know. That’s true. But it’s not going to be a particularly good one, if this is your first. Erm… practice?
Paxman then asks her, “How long does it take to teach to code?”
“Well, I think, you can pick it up in a day.”
My heart sank. I was speechless. In trying to make coding sound more accessible she immediately undervalued programmers everywhere. It really isn’t quite that simple. I’m going to be bold here and state: you simply cannot learn enough about programming in one day to be competent enough to teach it. Is it not comments like that that result in school pupils being ‘taught’ how to program using Adobe Flash?
Which is why projects such as Linda Liukas’s Hello Ruby are so exciting.
Linda, a founder of Rails Girls, wants to create a children’s book that teaches programming fundamentals through stories and child-friendly activities.
She asked for US $10,000, as I write her total is at US $336,203. (There are currently three days left to get involved.)
I think it’s a hugely exciting project. This is what Linda has to say about it:
Ruby is a small girl with a huge imagination. She stomps and stumbles around her own little world while her dad is traveling. On her adventures, Ruby makes friends with the lonely Snow Leopard, visits castles made of windows, and solves problems with the wise penguins. She bakes gingerbreads with the green robots and throws a garden party with… well, if you like to hear the rest of the story, I need your help.
Ruby’s world is an extension of the way I’ve learned to see technology. It goes far beyond the bits and bytes inside the computer. This is the story of what happens between the ones and zeros, before the arrays and the if/else statements. The book and workbook are aimed for four to seven year olds.
I believe stories are the most formative force of our childhood. Everyone has a book that made the world seem beautiful and full of possibility. My book is about little Ruby.
It’s due out in August. I’ll report back when I receive my copy, and we’ll see how Reuben, Joshua and Isaac engage with it.
Yesterday evening, at bedtime, I sat with Reuben on his bedroom floor and read him book after book. We read 5 or 6 books in all, including the book above: How will you get there, Maisy? by Lucy Cousins.
It’s an interactive book, which shows one form of transport and by way of clues invites the child to guess by which form of transport Maisy actually used. For example,
“How will Charley get to the farm…?
[There are images of a saddle, horseshoes, apples and the words “Clip Clop!”]
Transcending CSS: the fine art of web design by Andy Clarke is one of the best books about cascading style sheets (CSS) that I’ve read in a long time.
As a designer Andy Clarke has produced a book that’s far from the hundreds of other dull books on CSS which are packed full of dry code examples and pages and pages of text. This is a beautiful and colourful book, filled with hundreds of images, that takes a real-life approach to designing sites and writing accessible HTML and CSS code.
While this book isn’t aimed at beginners, it assumes that you have at least a good, working knowledge of XHTML and CSS, it is very easily read and if you’re looking to get into modern CSS layout methods then this book could be an inspirational introduction to the subject. Because of the design of the book it’s also more accessible than Jeffrey Zeldman‘s excellent Designing with Web Standards, now in its second edition.
The book is organized into four main sections:
In the first part of his book Andy Clarke introduces us to what he calls Transcendent CSS, that is code that looks to the future, building on current web standards to create accessible, cross-browser-compatible websites, rather than relying on outdated layout methods such as non-semantic tables.
One particularly useful exercise is where he takes real-life examples and shows how he would present these in XHTML, in a section entitled “translating meaning into markup”. His examples include a horse race, marathon runners, a taxi rank, books on a shelf, and a museum display of mediaeval helmets.
Having set the scene over the first 100 pages (lots of pretty pictures on the way, so don’t worry!) Clarke explores a usable process for designing with web standards. It’s quite a good introduction to certain elements of information architecture, such as wireframing/grey-boxing and usability.
Taking the example of a design for Cookr! (his made-up recipe website) he adds mark-up to the design to show you how to best mark-up and organize the XHTML and CSS code. It’s a very visual and practical approach which is strengthened by excellent explanations of what he’s doing and why.
In the third part of the book Clarke moves away from code and gives us an insight into where he finds inspiration for website designs. And it’s not just from other websites but newspapers, magazines, buildings, streets … anywhere really.
This section offers a good introduction to grid and layout theory, and his advice about keeping a scrapbook of inspiration examples is really helpful, either a real scrapbook or something online like Flickr. He finishes off the section exploring why design is more than just creating attractive visuals.
In the final section Clarke brings it all together in some practical examples of how to take particular designs and mark them up using semantic XHTML and CSS. Of particular note is his extensive and creative use of lists for marking up particular content.
This section has the best explanation of relative and absolute positioning that I’ve read in any book on CSS. It’s really worth buying it just for that.
He finishes off the section with a look ahead to what CSS3 has to offer. I’m looking forward especially to the :nth-child pseudo-class which will make creating zebra-stripes on tables easy (currently available via hand-coding and jQuery), multiple background images for elements, and multicolumn layouts (currently available in Firefox via the -moz identifier).
I found this a really inspiring book which got the balance between code theory and practical design application right. I’d certainly recommend it to anyone who’s looking to improve their CSS coding or simply wanting inspiration about how to take their CSS to the next level.