On the occasion of a local sporting result

I’m told that a group of men who swear affiliation to Southampton (despite most of them having no apparent connection to the town), have successfully kicked an air-filled pigs’ bladder into a giant net (for reasons unclear to me) more often than some other group of men similarly mysteriously affiliated to some other town, and have apparently thereby all been promoted directly into saints… which seems a shame as that implies they all died, doesn’t it? I may have misrepresented some of the finer detail, as the complexities of this sport are far beyond the capabilities of my mind to comprehend. Regardless, well done gentlemen, and may you all rest in peace.

One size does not fit all

I wrote this in reply to an insightful article by Jenni Tennison giving an insider’s view of the UK government’s current project to unify all of its websites into a single one. I agree with the doubts she raises about this project, because I’ve been there, done that before…

Some years ago, I worked on a long-term project which was funded by the then Public Record Office. When that institution was rebranded as the National Archives, complete with shiny new website, they decided that our hitherto independently-styled and -managed website must be rebranded to mimic theirs in look and feel.

This was far from easy, partly because their design had a horrendously messy implementation, and partly because (of course) it had been designed without any reference to us or how our data delivery might fit into it. It was imposed on us as a fait accompli, and we had to – somehow – squeeze our square peg into their round hole.

We spent a full year smashing our clean, lightweight design into pieces and gluing it back together in order to fit their restrictive, bloated one. I didn’t much enjoy doing it (can you tell?), but I like to think we did a good job.

Possibly too good. What we found when it went live is that users got confused: our site, now a subdomain of theirs, looked and felt so similar to the main site that users expected it to work in exactly the same way, but this was ultimately impossible as ours had a fundamentally different set of functions than theirs. Those areas where we overlapped had been made to work identically, but this just led to confusion where the functionality diverged.

One size does not fit all. And the more distance there is between those responsible for the design and management of a site, and those producing the content for it, the more likely it is that some of that content will be presented poorly, or not at all.

I don’t think people really want all government websites to look the same, or to be in the same domain1. I think what they want is for information to be easy to find and easy to access. The best way to ensure that is to keep the designers and managers of the website as close as possible to the people producing the information. By all means have standards to ensure best practice, but keep them as minimal as possible, with a mechanism for those bound by them to suggest changes if they find them too restrictive.

And let different things look different, because that helps people to realise that they are different.

  1. URLs are irrelevant to many non-technical users, who nowadays routinely rely on search engines – even to find sites that they visit every day, as evidenced by the “Facebook Login” debacle 

Creativitus interruptus

Listening in the car to an old tune of mine called “Funkmuppet” (subtitled “Dance Like A Muppet”) I suddenly realised that it’s in need of a rap. I’ve never written one before, but I immediately knew precisely how the rhythm of the lyrics should play out, how my tone should undulate, what style of rapping I wanted to do. It was crystal clear.

But just as I began to consider which topical subjects of the day I might want to cover in my lyrical discourse, Afrika Bambataa started rapping over it in my head instead. “What’s this phoney ceremony, hanging around…”, lyrics that are familiar to me solely due to their use by Bassheads in their classic upfront progressive house tune “Is there anybody out there?”. It fitted perfectly.

Now my role in the piece seems to have been relegated to waiting until he sings “Just get up and dance, you got to get up and dance, y’all just get up and dance” and then shouting “LIKE A MUPPET!”.

I think perhaps it’s best if I just try to forget that any of this happened.

Another day, another WTF

Can’t find the customer’s home country in the database? That’s ok; just pick any country with a vaguely similar-sounding name, that’s good enough.

A bizarre bit of code in the e-commerce software1 I’m currently fixing up does exactly that; it uses the Soundex algorithm to look for an approximate match to where the customer lives, according to the similarity of how the countries’ names are pronounced, rather than the more conventional considerations like geography.

There are 27 countries in the database that share a Soundex value with at least one other (mostly just pairs, but the largest matching group is 4: Ghana, Guam, Guinea and Guyana). In each group, all the countries would be rewritten to whichever was first alphabetically. Addresses in Greece would appear to be in Georgia; Norway became Nauru.

This sort of thing is nice and easy to fix (finding it is the hard part), but leaves a strange aftertaste… the insoluble mystery of just what was going on in the mind of whoever decided to write that code that made them think it would be a good idea…

  1. The software in question is an extended version of OSCommerce with lots of add-ons and customisation. I’m not sure whether the code in question originates from one of the add-ons, or is a specific customisation of this site done by their previous developer. In a way, I hope it’s the latter, so that other sites aren’t being affected… 


It bugs me a little that, once again, she took the fast car, when it might have been rather more sensible and useful for me to take it, given I’m the one now being chased by a faceless and nameless pursuer.

But only a little, because this soon turns into a celebration of my speed and ingenuity – on a bicycle. I am on a… no, I am dreaming… the dreamer is on a bicycle. He is able to stay mostly well ahead and out of range of his pursuers. They catch up periodically but I suspect it’s only as a reminder that a pursuit is on, that peril is present, when the dreamer has strayed a little too far into the sheer thrill of the ride, the air, and the novel landscapes, rural and (pleasant, well-planned, futuristic) semi-urban. In the latter, multi-lane freeways lie empty, save for occasional groups of people ambling across the road on foot; these provide the only real frustration to be found in this tale, as the dreamer must sometimes wait for the pedestrians to move out of his way in a very pedestrian way, his horn having failed to motivate them to any additional sense of urgency, before continuing his journey, his ongoing escape from this motiveless chase.

Then, on one such 12-lane superhighway, again completely devoid of any wheeled traffic except him and a few prams and buggies being pushed by the slowest-moving parents ever, one of which and its attendant family he is about to accelerate away from, he notices something which makes him pause.

It’s a sound. Very faint, just on the edge of audibility, disappearing with each gust of wind, coalescing again as the air stills, so that it takes a moment to consciously know what it is; but by that time his unconscious has already recognised that he is being called, summoned, by the insistent repetition of the most ancient and secret of his names.

Doof. Doof. Doof. Doof.

– * – * –

The sound is coming from a neo-neo-classical pavilion towards the centre of the well-tended park that runs for miles alongside this deserted highway. The building, whose architecture is almost entirely ancient in style but whose bright albedo and suspicious glinting in the sunlight suggests ultra-modern construction and materials, sits like a gatehouse (but too far from the gate) astride the park’s central boulevard – a wide, smooth-surfaced path, which begins a little to the left of the dreamer’s current position and enters and exits the pavilion by means of high archways on its way to the shore of a crystalline lake or sea just visible in the distance. The dreamer repurposes his bike toward the boulevard and begins to ride, but as he cycles onto the boulevard, somehow he feels that is not right, not the done thing. There are no signs, no laws to say he must, but he knows that the approach is to be made on foot.

I am walking beneath one of those arches now. The building, the architecture, the unnatural brightness with which it glows in the sunlight, are of no interest to me. As I neared the building, and the music declared itself more evidently, I found it by turns interesting, then exciting, then compelling, but now, as if the archway were an invisible gateway to another dimension, as I cross the threshold into the building, it immediately becomes something more: overwhelmingly, transcendentally beautiful. What before was an aural, intellectually-stimulating phenomenon, opens out into a multi-sensory, sensual and spiritual experience wrapped around my whole body and soul.

When I recover my senses a little, I realise it’s not just about the choice of music, although that matters, of course it does. It’s the speakers. There’s something very special about these ones. I go in for a closer look at them, because from a distance – and, it turns out, from close up as well – there is nothing distinctive about them visually. They couldn’t look much more bog-standard: each carpet-covered rectangular housing of maybe 8 x 5 x 3 ft has two bass drivers of 14″ or so, covered with black metal grilles, and a horn tweeter. I can see only four of these units arranged around me, but the clarity of sound from these things is an epiphany.

They have no identifying features, no maker’s name or logo, nothing memorable about their visual design. So I have to enquire of the DJ, who tells me they are ED-25s.

I am awake.

I need those speakers.

This is my second attempt to write up a dream in short-story format (after this one). In this dream there were noticeable (in retrospect) shifts between a semi-lucid state, where I understood that I was dreaming but played along, and the more common state of being so enmeshed in the story that I’m unaware that I’m dreaming. These shifts seemed significant enough that I wanted to convey them somehow, so I chose to do so by flipping between first- and third-person narrative, although within the dream I was entirely acting, as I usually do in dreams, from a first-person point-of-view. I found it challenging to implement these flips in the narrative in such a way as to make it obvious that they are intentional rather than accidental, but without excessively calling attention to themselves… I’ve not attempted anything like that before, at least not deliberately…