Focal Curve

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Last Post

Greetings, internet. I last published a post on this weblog 1,125 days ago. A hundred and twelve generations of fruit flies have flourished and expired in that time. I’m breaking the silence here only to officially announce the death of this blog. I’m mothballing this sucker and will make no further updates. The blog will remain hosted here and all the links still active, permanently archived for posterity. But I won’t be posting here again after these final words. At some point in the future I expect I’ll launch a fresh blog somewhere, but the geek subdomain is going read-only tonight. Both of you can unsubscribe your RSS readers now.

Meanwhile, if you’re really interested, there’s Twitter (frequently updated) and Tumblr (infrequently updated) and Flickr (semi-regularly, if sporadically, updated).

Cheers,
Craig

The Blinky Backstory

I signed up for Flickr a little over four years ago. While I was going through the initial setup and exploratory tinkerings, I was presented with the opportunity to change my profile avatar from the default gray block to something a little more personal. I couldn’t think of anything original offhand, but I happened to have a picture of Blinky — the three-eyed mutant fish from the Simpsons — laying around on my hard drive, so I uploaded it with every intention of eventually switching to something more my own.

After that first-time setup, my Flickr account was left unused for several months. I didn’t own a decent digital camera at the time, and had no contacts with whom to share pictures anyway. I mostly ignored Flickr, though it stayed at the back of my mind in a “one of these days I’ll have to do something with that” kind of way.

Then, in March of 2005, I went to my first SXSW Interactive conference. This became my excuse to finally buy a camera and start photographically documenting some more of my life. My very first upload was a picture of my luggage tossed casually in a chair in my hotel room on the night I arrived in Austin. I added a tag and some notes and created a photoset for my one photo. But I hadn’t gotten around to changing my avatar, and still couldn’t think of anything original. So the fish stayed.

That first SXSW was — to abuse a cliché — a life-changing experience. I met a slew of my personal heroes whom I soon came to regard as friends and colleagues. Suddenly I had contacts attached my Flickr account, and the network started to grow. I was tagging and faving and commenting on people’s photos just as they commented on mine. And all with a little picture of a three-eyed fish next to my name, because I still hadn’t gotten around to changing it.

Over the next few years I joined up with more social networking sites. I still had no personal brand to speak of, so each new profile defaulted to using Blinky as an avatar. In time, that little mutant became familiar and even recognized to the point that more than one person has failed to remember my name or my website, but remembered that “oh, you’re the guy with the fish.” And so, as they say, it stuck.

A Baggie of Blinky ButtonsNow the Blinky avatar is permanently attached to whatever semblance of an online identity I have. I use it on Flickr, Twitter, Last.fm, Dopplr, Ma.gnolia, Pownce, Upcoming, and even Facebook (though I abhor Facebook and don’t really use it). But Blinky really came into his own when I started customizing him with different looks and outfits for various occasions, beginning a new tradition that I’m now obliged to continue until it stops being funny. On a lark, I ordered a small batch of 1 inch Blinky badges for SXSW08. They proved quite popular, much to my surprise.

So the story behind the Blinky avatar is… there is no story. It was a completely random and meaningless image that, through consistency and repetition, has gradually taken on meaning. Blinky has become part of my residual self image. So if, when next you jack into the Matrix, you happen across a goofy, three-eyed cartoon fish swimming about making dweeby sci-fi references and griping about sloppy markup, it’s probably me. Feel free to say hi.

2007, Obligatory Year-in-Review

It’s been over six months since my last posting to this web log. I could offer excuses about being far too busy, and that would be true for some periods of my absence. But to be honest I haven’t blogged because I haven’t been motivated to do so. Oh, I’ve had plenty of ideas for postings, all accompanied by the missive, “I should blog about that some time.” I’ve started numerous draft posts, only to abandon them unfinished when I ran out of steam or got distracted. So I’ve just let this site languish unattended for six months while I got on with other things (and sometimes got on with nothing… laziness is its own reward).

But 2007 is over and I’m mustering the motivation to resurface for the annual recap. This concludes my first full year as a freelance web designer/developer, having left my previous job in November, 2006 (October 27, to be precise). A gutsy move, but after a full year I can say it was the best career decision I’ve ever made.

I entered the freelance arena with a plan: give it a six month trial. I had saved up a solid nest nest egg to act as a financial buffer against lean times, and if I found myself regularly dipping into savings to pay the bills I’d resign myself to failure as a freelancer and go find a real job. But the first six months went well (thanks in no small part to landing a pretty sweet contract right out of the gate) and the nest egg remained uncracked six months later. And so I extended the trial another six months. That second trial ended a month ago and things are still going well, so I aim to live like this for as long as possible; life as an ongoing series of six month trials until the work dries up or I find something better to do.

So what have I been doing all year?

Making Websites

The freelance work has been steady and rewarding, largely due to the continued friendship and support of Aaron Gustafson and Kelly McCarthy, magnanimous proprietors of Easy! Designs, LLC. They keep finding the projects and keep hiring me to work on them. I’ve carved myself a comfy niche as a subcontractor, and have thus far managed to avoid putting on the salesman hat.

It was Aaron who gave my freelance career a kickstart when he recruiting me onto a project at Adaptive Path last November (the site has since gone live so I think it’s safe to blog about it). The two of us tag-teamed on the markup and CSS for MyRide.com, an automotive research/review site run by the folks at Autobytel, Inc. Adaptive Path consulted on the information architecture and visual design, while Aaron and I were hired to take it from wireframes and comps to HTML and CSS. We delivered our static templates to an outside team for final implementation, so bear that in mind when you inspect the code. All things considered, I think we did some fine work and managed to construct a rather complex visual layout with relatively clean, semantically rich and accessible markup. Aaron also contributed some sweet scripty goodness, for which I take zero credit.

Since then, Easy! Designs has been my primary employer with no signs of slowing down. I did one quick project for another company (subcontracting again) but that site is behind a login so there’s no point in naming or linking it. My one other non-Easy! project in 2007 is still ongoing, and I’m pretty psyched about it: I’m working on the markup and CSS for a major redesign of addons.mozilla.org. Because Mozilla is an open-source foundation, the project is non-secret and documented on the public wiki so I’m free to discuss it even before it’s finished — quite a refreshing change from the norm. Hopefully my work will go live very early in 2008. I owe Steve Ganz a tip of the hat and at least a nice dinner for giving me the hookup.

For the most part, I’ve been building other peoples’ designs all year and haven’t designed many sites myself — only two in 2007: for ACME Auto Sales and the Middlesex Hospital Family Medical Residency Program, both for Easy! (I’m not counting the book site). The challenge of implementing someone else’s vision can be frustrating, but also rewarding in its own way. While I’ve always considered myself first and foremost a graphic designer, I do thoroughly enjoy digging into the fine craft of construction and assembly. I like the hands-on tangibility of actually making something. There is beauty in code, even if it’s essentially invisible to the end user. Sure, HTML and CSS are just the tools that make the thing and are not the thing itself, but using these tools to build a website is a craft, no matter what some might think. Anyone can swing a hammer, but a good craftsman knows precisely where and how hard to tap. Simple tools do great things when wielded by a skilled hand, and there’s no shame in taking pride in that.

That said, a year as a web carpenter has strongly reinforced my belief that a good visual designer needs to understand the rules and constraints of HTML and CSS in order to ensure the practical doability of his or her creations. An architect needs to know about glass and steel, a sculptor needs to know about clay and stone, and a web designer needs to know about markup and style. Which isn’t to say you have to be an ace coder to be a web designer, but you’ll be an even better designer if you know how code works. Learn to think like an engineer.

Given the chance, I still prefer to design the sites I build and to build the sites I design, and I hope to do more visual design work in the future. One thing I’m sure is holding me back is this very website; it certainly isn’t a breathtaking example of creativity in its current state. I’ve had a redesign on the back burner for far too long (over two years now) and I just keep extending my personal deadline. [Another reason I haven’t blogged… I feel like time spent writing would be better spent redesigning, and since I haven’t been redesigning I have a hard time legitimizing the writing. Vicious cycle.] I seriously need to get a new site online in 2008. I mean it this time.

Writing

And speaking of writing, have I mentioned before that I have a book out? Well, I have a book out. Beginning HTML with CSS and XHTML hit the street at the end of June and seems to be doing alright so far. It sold 1,660 copies in the second quarter of 2007 (its first quarter in publication), plummeting to 974 copies in Q3 for a total of 2,634 copies in the latter half of the year (plus 72 e-book sales). Hardly record-breaking, but that’s actually not too shabby for an intro-level techie book by a couple of first-time nobodies.

There is, alas, one really negative review on Amazon, which wouldn’t bother me if said review were informed, supported, and well-written. But the guy’s criticisms are weak and ludicrous, and he didn’t even notice any of the real flaws in the book, instead commenting only from his own unfounded expectations and misreadings. I don’t think he actually read the book at all, but just scanned a few bits (mostly Appendix A) to make his conclusions. I composed a lengthy, cathartic response to Mr. Scubabear, countering each of his points one by one. I decided not to post it on Amazon, lest I seem too uppity and defensive. But his review really is badly written and warrants a harsh review of its own. Maybe I’ll post it here.

Though I only wrote six of the eleven chapters, writing a book was much harder than I anticipated, and I have no immediate plans to write another one any time soon. But who knows what the future may hold.

Attending Conferences

2007 was also the Year of Web Conferences. I attended a total of six:

  1. The first Web Directions North was also my first trip to Canada, and in fact my first trip outside the United States (not counting one day in a Mexican bordertown). Had to get a passport and everything. I had a great time and will be returning to Vancouver in a few weeks for WDN08.
  2. My third South by Southwest Interactive had the potential to be my last, but I ended up enjoying it so much that I’ll give it another year. I’ll stop going when it stops being fun.
  3. The first @media conference on American soil was in San Francisco — just a short hop across the bay from my HQ — so of course I had to go.
  4. I only attended the Ajax Experience in San Francisco because I got a free pass. It wasn’t quite my cup of tea, and I felt completely out of place the whole time.
  5. Likewise the Rich Web Experience in San Jose; got in free, not my bag, felt out of place. Their tag-line is “the convergence of web development and design” so I expected at least 50% design-related content. In reality it was about 10% design and the rest was way over my head.
  6. More up my alley was An Event Apart San Francisco, my first Event Apart but hopefully not my last. They’re coming back to SF next summer.

I’ve been to enough of these things now to notice a definite split in audience types that seems to happen around the $1200 mark. The people who attend low-priced conferences are often paying their own way, taking time off work and traveling out of pocket because they’re passionate about the web. As such, they’re more likely to rub elbows and cut loose, and are generally more interesting and more talkative. When a conference ticket costs more than $1500, that steep cover charge filters out the casual attendees so the bulk of the audience is made up of people whose companies are paying their way. When you’re at a conference under corporate sponsorship, you’re a bit more obliged to knuckle down and be serious. It’s not a vacation for these people; they’re still on the clock. They also travel in packs of co-workers and are less likely to fan out and meet new people.

Of course, the people who take their own time and spend their own money to attend a web conference are also the people who have already embraced web standards, already read the books and blogs of the speakers, and are thus already part of the choir. There aren’t a lot of opportunities for web standards evangelism at these things any more, and the people we still need to reach don’t go to these conferences. Conversely, the people who are sent against their will to some far-off gathering, paid for out of their corporations’ training budget, are exactly the people who desperately need to upgrade their skillsets, but such conferences seem more focused on pimping cool new techniques and hawking new technologies rather than reexamining the fundamentals of the medium.

In my experience, the smaller and/or cheaper conferences tend to be more socially enjoyable, with more conversations and networking and general merrymaking. Pricey conferences are more sober (in all the word’s connotations) and thus a bit less fun to be around. This isn’t the rule, just a generalization. But I’ll take a cheap and fun conference over an expensive and serious one any day.

And now for the usual unordered list of random highs and lows (see previous years 2006, 2005):

  • Best Threequel: The Bourne Ultimatum.
  • Worst Threequel: Spider-Man 3.
  • Most triumphant comeback: Futurama the Movie: Bender’s Big Score.
  • Best bad movie: Planet Terror.
  • Worst good movie: Beowulf.
  • Best movie I didn’t see: Persepolis.
  • Best book (non-fiction): Making Comics, by Scott McCloud.
  • Best book (fiction): Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (a boringly predictable choice, perhaps, but I didn’t read much fiction this year).
  • Best minute: 11 July 12:39 PM

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