I think I’m in a Douglas Coupland novel …

JPod - Meet Generation XBox

Last night I began to wonder if I really am an autonomous, free-thinking human-being and not just the creation of a 20th/21st-century literary genius.

Yesterday, late-afternoon, a few minutes before five, I checked my email. There was one from our Acting Director informing us that today (Thursday) Registry would be running progression. This basically means that all our students will be moving on a year in our databases, awaiting matriculation (that’s ‘enrolment’ if you’re a North American reading this).

To celebrate that fact I decided that today I’d listen to only progressive rock. So I cleared my MP3 playlist and started compiling a playlist of only prog artists (both prog rock and prog metal), amongst whom were:

  • A Perfect Circle
  • Amplifier
  • Faith No More
  • Fish
  • Frost
  • Genesis
  • Iron Maiden – A Matter of Life and Death
  • Marillion
  • Meshuggah
  • Opeth
  • Pink Floyd
  • Rush
  • Tool

I saved the list, shut down my computer, switched out the lights and left the office. Which is when I then began to question my ontological status.

It came as violently and unexpectedly as a Blue Screen of Death. I stopped walking and stared vacantly in front of me, deep in thought. Tourists bustled past me.

“I must be a character in a Douglas Coupland novel!” I muttered disappointedly to myself. “Like someone in Microserfs or JPod. That’s exactly the sort of thing they’d do.”

I don’t remember reading about myself in Microserfs, but as I’ve not finished JPod yet there is still time to read about myself there. Maybe I’m part of a new novel. Maybe I’m just part of some back story, or from a discarded JPod chapter.

Maybe it’s not a Douglas Coupland story I’m in. Maybe this story is much, much bigger. Maybe I’m the creation of an evening bigger genius, whose story started way before the 20th century was even thought of.

On that philosophical note, I’m off to work now to be progressive.

Books of choice

Books on my desk at work.

One of my friends, Kenny, always teases me that no matter where I go my desk always looks the same; in other words, it is always laid out the same way. And he’s right, but there’s a good reason for that: it works for me.

One of the parts of that system-that-works-for-me is a small collection of reference books that I always have to hand. At home they are on a shelf next to me, at work they are on my enormous desk.

At the moment these are my reference books of choice:

  • TerminalFour SiteManager userguides (TerminalFour)
  • Web design style guide (Me!)
  • Cascading Style Sheets: The Definitive Guide, Meyer (O’Reilly)
  • HTML & XHTML: The Definitive Guide, Musciano & Kennedy (O’Reilly)
  • JavaScript: The Definitive Guide, Flannagan (O’Reilly)
  • PPK on JavaScript, Koch (New Riders)
  • Pro JavaScript Techniques, Resig (Apress)
  • Practical Thinking, Edward de Bono (University library book)
  • Celebrating Common Prayer, Society of St Francis
  • CSS Pocket Reference, Meyer (O’Reilly)
  • HTML & XHTML Pocket Reference, Niederst Robbins (O’Reilly)
  • JavaScript Pocket Reference, Flanagan (O’Reilly)
  • PHP Pocket Reference, Lerdorf (O’Reilly)
  • SQL Pocket Guide, Gennick (O’Reilly)

At the moment the least used of these are the SQL and PHP Pocket Reference guides, and the most used are the Definitive Guides for XHTML and CSS, and since I’m debugging code for a website launch Celebrating Common Prayer is also getting a look in once or twice!

My close-at-hand collection of books at home is completely different:

A shelf of books at home.

Mostly Scottish Episcopal Church books — Code of Canons, liturgy, and the Red Book (contacts) — a bible (NRSV) and Revised Common Lectionary, an English dictionary and thesaurus, a copy of Getting Things Done and two copies of the Visual Quickstart Guide for WordPress 2.

So now you know! What are your close-at-hand books of choice?

Roy Orbison in cling-film

A roll of cling film.

The telephone conversation began with an apology and ended with news of a new novel, about wrapping Roy Orbison in cling-film.

It was my cousin Alan and he’d called during the Powerpoint Edinburgh band rehearsal yesterday. He was meant to be visiting us in Anstruther today, but he’s has a bad cold for the last two weeks and needed instead to curl up in bed with a good book.

I understood, promised that we’d reschedule and left him to his good book.

That good book, it turned out, was Ulrich Haarburste’s Novel of Roy Orbison in Clingfilm by Ulrich Haarburste (Serapion Books, 2007) ISBN: 978-0-9554602-0-3.

If that sounds like just your cup-of-tea then you’ll be delighted to learn that there’s a website (called, predictably, Ulli’s Roy Orbison in Cling-film site) that contains a few of his early short stories, and that they made me cry with laughter. So much so that Jane had to come through to the study to make sure I was laughing and not weeping my poor heart out.

Here is an excerpt from story #1:

Roy Orbison walks inside my house and sits down on my couch. We talk urbanely of various issues of the day. Presently I say, ‘Perhaps you would like to see my cling-film?’

‘By all means.’ I cannot see his eyes through his trademark dark glasses and I have no idea if he is merely being polite or if he genuinely has an interest in cling-film.

I bring it from the kitchen, all the rolls of it. ‘I have a surprising amount of clingfilm,’ I say with a nervous laugh. Roy merely nods.

‘I estimate I must have nearly a kilometre in the kitchen alone.’

‘As much as that?’ He says in surprise. ‘So.’

‘Mind you, people do not realize how much is on each roll. I bet that with a single roll alone I could wrap you up entirely.’

Roy Orbison sits impassively like a monochrome Buddha. My palms are sweaty.

‘I will take that bet,’ says Roy. ‘If you succeed I will give you tickets to my new concert. If you fail I will take Jetta [Ulli’s terrapin], as a lesson to you not to speak boastfully.’

I nod. ‘So then. If you will please to stand.’

Roy stands. ‘Commence.’

I start at the ankles and work up. I am like a spider binding him in my gossamer web. I do it tight with several layers. Soon Roy Orbison stands before me, completely wrapped in cling-film. The pleasure is unexampled.

‘You are completely wrapped in cling-film,’ I say.

‘You win the bet,’ says Roy, muffled. ‘Now unwrap me.’

‘Not for several hours.’


I cannot wait until I get my hands on this book, and allow my eyes to wander freely between the words. You can read the author’s description of the book on his Now you may read a novel of Roy Orbison in Cling-film page. It ends with

PS. Film and video game rights are still available

And as if by good fortune PC Plus magazine this month comes with a full copy of The Games Factory on DVD. Budding game writers commence!

The End of the Question Mark

Cover for The End of the Question Mark

Still looking for that last minute Christmas present? Why not ask Any Question Answered (63336) if they know what you should get!

They might well recommend that you buy their new book called The End of the Question Mark by AQA 63336. Seemingly 3,501,423 question marks died in the making of this book.

The book is a collection of the best of the 3.5 million questions posed to AQA since it started in 2004. Questions such as:

  • would you rather be a sausage or an egg?
  • what’s the longest word in the world?
  • which language is older, english or dutch?
  • how many goals have been scored in every world cup?
  • when will i next have sex?
  • what colour is a turkey egg?
  • what is the worst smell in the world?
  • what year followed 1bc?
  • are there any weasels in ireland?
  • how many dots are in the opening screen of pacman (not including power pills)?

The book is fantastic because it answers the questions that you (the Great British — and abroadian — public) think are important. I love trivia, and I love this book.

Get it for a friend, get it for a family member, get it for yourself! I got it. Actually, I got a complementary copy from AQA — thanks Paul and Shannon! — but I’m definitely going to buy more copies to give away. This is the best book on trivia since … since … oh, I think I’m going to have to call AQA on 63336 to find out.

Learning about good design underground

Cover of Mr Beck's Underground Map

This morning I finished reading Mr Beck’s Underground Map: A History by Ken Garland. It has been sitting on my bookshelf since March when Hazel recommended it to me.

The London Underground map is truly a work of genius. It maps London’s underground railway lines and connections rather than faithfully recreating a geographically accurate map. Garland’s book explores the history of how Beck’s original design came about, within the context of this growing network of London railways, and how his design was continued by later designers — often at Beck’s disgust.

Like many stories it is not always straight forward, but Harry Beck’s passion for this project (some might say obsession) certainly shines through. For years after the responsibility for advancing the design had been passed on to others Beck continued to work on the map in his spare time, tweaking and re-tweaking aspects of the design. In many ways it’s quite a poignant story, and you get the impression that life at home mustn’t have been easy for his wife.

There were a couple of sentences in the final two chapters that I thought helpful for any designer, and something that I’ve found particularly helpful when working on website designs. They spoke about being empathetic with the end-user.

[Beck] was continually putting himself in the position of the traveller — especially one who was unfamiliar with the Underground network — and trying to see the Diagram with an innocent eye. That he was able to do this after so long an association with it was a token of his understanding of the true and proper function of the information designer.

(Mr Beck’s Underground Map, Ken Garland, p.61)


… to be effective, information design must start, not merely end, with its users, their needs, their perceptions.

(ibid, p.62)

That, for me, is one of the most important aspects of information architecture: being able to return to a problem or scenario again and again, each time with a fresh perspective. It is about being able to see the world afresh and without prejudice. It is about imagination, imagining that I am someone different each time, approaching the site for the first time — perhaps a child, or a student, or a manager, or an older person. What do I see? (Can I see? Do I have colour blindness, or cataracts, or myopia?) What are my needs? What am I coming to the website for? Is it obvious?

The London Underground Map that we see today isn’t the work of Harry Beck, but it certainly draws very heavily on his work between 1931 and the early 1960s. For me, it also highlights another important aspect of information design and that is how important the involvement of other people is to any design project. There is wisdom in crowds … but that’s another blog post for another day.