Quincy M.E. and Cameron Diaz doing the La Bamba

Pun intended : you may or may not remember that I have a particular interest in memory. If you read this post you can see why my interest would be piqued by a review of a book called “Moonwalking with Einstein – the Art and Science of Memory“, as it’s a very similar story to mine; someone with an average memory (or in my case, a terrible memory) discovers amazingly effective memory techniques, then spends a year memorizing all kinds of obscure things with ease, but ultimately, realises he still can’t remember where he left his car keys, or his car! and also realises that even though these techniques are very handy for some things, it’s still far easier to write down shopping lists and stick people’s numbers in your phone. The one big difference with my story and this is that I didn’t end up entering a national memory competition.

Joshua Foer is a journalist who began writing an article about the U.S Memory Championships, and then a year later gave as good as the other memory masters. “Moonwalking with Einstein” is bookended by those two events; his attendance at the 2005 U.S Memory Championship, and his entry into the 2006 event. What you get between the book ends is a fascinating exploration of the science, art, and history of memory, mnemonics and memory techniques.

When I first heard of the book, I thought it may only be for people like me who have an interest in mnemonics but it’s selling by the truckload and getting great reviews everywhere. The title “Moonwalking with Einstein” is a reference to the kind of mental image that’s all too familiar to anyone who uses these techniques. When the missus asks me for one of my numerous pin numbers, or the WiFi code, or similar, I say something like, “let’s see that’s a bear on a bike trying to eat a cat in a shell…. that’s 94977165.” So I found reading about someone else’s experience with all this stuff a fantastic read. Though everyone else seems to be enjoying it just as much.

– – –

And from a different angle, but wholly related, about a month ago I came across a website called Memrise. I’ve been meaning to write about it for a while, rather than the usual quick tweet when I come across a site I like. Memrise is a really well thought-out site designed to help your learn, or rather, memorize the vocabulary of various languages. I’ve been on beginners Spanish for the last month. I’ve been on/off trying to learn Spanish for years.

Memrise is by far the best tool language tool I’ve ever used. There’s the usual stuff: english / spanish phrases, with audio snippets. But every phrase has a mnemonic suggestion, a mem. It’s crowd sourced too, so you can add your own mem. For example a Fortnight in Spanish is Los quince Dias. My mem for this is: “Picture a fort at night, and on top, Los lobos have Quincy M.E. and Cameron Dias dancing to La Bamba.” How much easier is that to remember than repeating the phrase over and over and hoping it sticks? I’ll never forget that image, another phrase memorised with ease. And at it’s most basic, that’s all the memory champions do, and to some degree Savants too. And Memrise utilises the technique quite well, you don’t even have to come up with your own mental images.

What other language courses fail to do is give you the tools to learn. It’s a bit like buying a wardrobe from Ikea but they don’t give you the tools to build it. Memrise supply the phrases, and the tools to memorise them. By the way, I swear I have absolutely nothing to do with the site, I’m just very impressed by it. Oh and it’s also free. Completely free, as in no ads either. It also works quite well on an iPad. It’s as good as an app, without having to install an app.

The site also uses gamification pretty well too, something else I have a passing interest in that’s growing in popularity. Memrise gamifies language learning by daily quizzing you on your phrases. You get points for every correct answer, and creep up the league table. It becomes quite addictive, like in any game, always wanting to improve your high score and go higher in the league.

They also employ the metaphor of a memory garden, which works quite well. You have to plant seeds (new words), and harvest plants (add them to the quizzes), tend to your garden (practise new words) and water your wilting plants (practice old words). I guess it’s a bit like Farmville, except, instead of annoying everyone else on Facebook, you learn a new language. I’m just so impressed by the level of thought and execution that has gone into this site, without any profit in mind.

– – –

And the thing that ties in “Moonwalking with Einstein” with Memrise is that over the course of the book, there are a few characters who coach Foer in his memory techniques, members of the K7 memory masters, whose initiation is memorizing a deck of cards in a minute, drinking two beers and kissing the knees of three women. Or variations thereof. And it is these two guys Ed Cooke, and Ben Whately who have setup memrise. So I feel like i’ve been surrounded by these guys for the last few weeks.

So there you go if you’ve any interest in memory or learning new language, there’s a 5 star book and a 5 star web site.

p.s. I was discussing this with a colleague, very recently, who happens to speak Spanish fluently, and he asked me “why don’t you just remember Los quince Dias, instead of dancing on forts and shit?” and I guess some people can, but he’s just reinforcing my idea that a lot of people make the terrible assumption that everyone else learns, and thinks, and remembers exactly like them.

 

Sitecaddy


Sitecaddy

I recently re-designed the company website: www.sitecaddy.com, which has gone live along with a special offer; free hosting, content management and marketing tools for a year. The free offer is worth about €1500. The consultation and design isn’t free; the signing up to the special offer requires a depost of 1k, so if you know anyone looking for a website, here’s a good chance.

More details of the special offer here: http://info.sitecaddy.com/mysitecaddy/site3/offerirla.htm

Bye Blogger!

Have been meaning to move from the piece of shit Blogger over to WordPress for ages now. The only thing that was delaying me was that I wanted to re-design the whole site but could just never get around to it. So I grabbed the irrestable theme instead. It’ll sure do for now. I think most things are working but I’ll probably be tinkering with it for a while. Hope the feed is working as it was, guess we’re just about to find out…

Photoshop workflow tip for web designers

Here’s something I’ve started using a while ago that’s very handy; If you’re a web designer and do a lot of your graphics in photoshop then like me, you’ll probably use Save for the Web a hundred times more than you use Save.

The workflow for this has always been a bit clunky in Photoshop. There isn’t a shortcut for it – and actions don’t really cut it. Well there is a shortcut but try doing lots of Alt+Shift+Ctrl+S without breaking your arms. The simple solution is to swap around your shortcuts so you can just hit Ctrl+S to Save for Web.

Go to Edit > Keyboard Shortcuts > File, then scroll down to Save for Web and change it to Ctrl+S. Then you’ll need to change Save to Alt+Shift+Ctrl+S. Now to save for the web you can just press Ctrl+S and then hit enter. Now and then you’ll need to change file type or location but mostly you can just hit enter.

Another handy workflow tip using shortcuts is to get your Undos working like most programs. Open up the shortcuts again and change Step Backward to Ctrl+Z. And then change Undo/Redo to Alt+Ctrl+Z. Now you can undo like any other program, rather than that single undo. (You can change the number of undos by going to File > preferences > Performance > History & Cache).

Surviving Redundancy

ROLL THE DRUMS; So, I survived redundancy by building www.survivingredundancy.ie. BUM TISH!!

Was a bit of a dream contract actually. Forget about quotes and estimates and all that annoying stuff that usually comes with contract web design; just come in and work for me until the site is finished. Anything you need me to buy for you? Photoshop, Dreamweaver, a second monitor, 2 extra gigs of ram. Grand; done. And then I will listen very carefully to all your advice, after all, you’re the expert.

What!? No! This isn’t supposed to happen. You’re supposed to ask me for a quote, based on a vague idea. Then I underquote myself. Then you ask for 10 extra sections, a CMS and loads of redesigns while refusing to pay a penny over the quote that. And for in-house work, you’re supposed to give me some old hand-me-down office PC that’s bloated with so many previous-owner-profiles, that it takes 47 minutes just to load the desktop wallpaper. You want software!? Ha! You better get on to piratebay while you still can.

So, yes bit of a dream contract. Therefore I’d happily recommend their services. Check it out: Surviving Redundancy, lots of articles, a forum, and services like interview training and CV advice.

I pretty much finished up with that yesterday and today, having started a new job, I’m back where I feel safest; in the land of permanent employment, and after seeing how scary it is out there, I feel mighty lucky.

Macro Man!

This is a long techy post but don’t click ‘next’ just yet! it could make your working life a hell of a lot easier.

You know computers are supposed to make your working life easier not harder right? But it can be easy to forget that sometimes, and some people will downright deny it! We’ve all had moments where we wanted to drop a PC out of a high story building but in general day-to-day work, if your computer is making your life harder, there’s a good chance you’re just not using the right tools. Or you’re not using a fraction of their potential. And that potential is to make your life much easier.

For every repetitive task you do, you could probably be using a dedicated application, an automated function or a macro. Some tasks are so suitable to this, that you can click a button and just watch your computer working away for a minute, doing a task that previously took you 15 minutes by hand. 15 long minutes of grunting and swearing and banging the keyboard.

Macros

One of the greatest labour-saving devices in computing is the macro. A simple definition of a macro is the ability to record your keyboard and/or mouse actions, so you can ‘replay’ the actions rather than manually redoing them each time.

I first got into the whole macro thing when I started a job as a technical writer where we were using Word to write our documents; scripts for content developers and voice over artists. All the text had to be in very particular formats, labels, layouts and colour-codes. People spent an unbelievable amount of time on the formatting rather than the actual writing. Word Styles (which looked different on every computer were driving people crazy). They spent a fortune getting some guys to build a dedicated application but that was just as bad. An unfortunate but all too frequent case of programmers with no user interface skills building a useability nightmare. So I dug a bit into Word’s automation and customization and it ended up as the perfect solution.

People slag off Microsoft products – but the level of customization you can do in Word makes it an amazing piece of user centred software. You can record your own macros, then create keyboard shortcuts or buttons to trigger the macros and you can add whole toolbars containing the buttons, or use menus to add new commands. You can also delve a bit deeper with vbscript to add loops and if statements to your macros, almost building applications within the application.

I started off recording simple macros for myself that would make text red bold, green italic etc. Then I would map that to a keyboard shortcut. Then I started adding more complex functionality. I started sharing these with the team and soon enough I took on the role of completely redesigning all the templates, and processes used throughout the whole production team, making use of every level of automation available. I got really carried away with the macros then, using them to build whole tables of information.

The main template ended up with a whole toolbar of buttons, a customized insert menu, and lots of other functionality available through keyboard shortcuts.

Below is a brief video example: At the click of a button, a whole table is split up, formatted and populated. Common phrases are added from the insert menu. That’s just one type of table, we had about 5 different types, all added with one click. At the end of the process, another macro re-formatted the whole script to spit out xml for the developers and a vo script for the voice over artist.

This is an advanced version of the amount of work you can save yourself doing if you use Word a lot and find yourself doing any task again and again.

I didn’t intend to write this as a tutorial, more as a nudge in the right direction, but let’s have a quick go. We’ll create a copyright type sign off.

Step1. Record the macro

  1. In Word, go to Tools > Macro > Record New Macro > Type sig then hit Enter
  2. Go to Insert > Symbol > click the Copyright symbol > Click Insert then Close
  3. Type a space, then your name, then another space
  4. Go to Insert > Date and Time > Click OK > hit enter to go onto next line
  5. Click the square stop button on the macro toolbar

Step2. Make a button

  1. Go to Tools > Customize > Commands tab
  2. Scroll down on the left column and click Macros
  3. Your sig macro will be on the right, click-and-drag it to your toolbar (beside the bold button for example)
  4. Now right-click this button (don’t close the Customize dialog box) and select Default Style
  5. Then right-click it again and select Change Button Image and select the pencil icon (You can also right-click and edit these icons and make your own)
  6. Close the dialog box.

Step3: test it out

  1. Click the pencil icon
  2. Click it again!
  3. Cool hoh!?

You can record any kind of macro you want. Very detailed ones. Though beware you can’t just click all over the screen, you have to use your keyboard to highlight text and navigate around text. Find and replace type macros can be very useful too. I have a few macros that I use now to take a word document and clean it up for the web, so it replaces foreign characters and symbols with the proper Unicode / html.

When I was leaving the job where I built all the macros, I was handed a thoughtful customized gift that is one of my proudest possessions: a Macro Man superhero t-shirt! It even has the buttons on the back!

Breaking out of Word

Right so. Word Macros. Great craic altogether. Used wisely they will save you a lot of work. Invest a bit and you get a lot – but what about outside of Word? Now you need an independent macro recorder. I’ve tried a few over the years but recently found one I really like, autohotkey, a free, open source application. Downloadable from http://www.autohotkey.com/

Autohotkey, lets you record mouse clicks and keyboard actions. That simple. You can use it in a number of ways. It’s one of those programs where the more you invest in, the more you get back. I found, I really needed it a few times recently. It was a total lifesaver. If you find yourself cursing a really badly designed user interface, something like autohotkey can make all the difference.

I was working on a job recently where I was migrating from one web based resource centre to another. I had to add loads of images. Three versions of the same image every time. The UI and UX design was terrible. I had to browse through a load of folders every single time I needed to add an image, it took about 5 minutes and 50 clicks to add every image! After recording a few macros in autohotkey, I could just sit there with my arms folded and watch autohotkey do all the work. It’s great to watch!

Below is a video capture of another resource library that I used regularly, and went to the same location regularly. I often had to login and browse through lots of folders ever time, clicking those tiny plus symbols (which should be banned from all user interfaces!). The video below isn’t impressive in itself but bear in mind that I just pressed a button, sat back and watched until the folder with the images I wanted was open.

Autohotkey comes with a recorder but you usually have to edit the script a bit as well. It doesn’t record intervals between actions, so you have to add a lot of pauses, or sleeps. It’s very easy script to edit though. Here’s one example:

Send, {ALTDOWN}{ALTUP}fd

sleep, 2500

Send, {ENTER}

What this does is press ALT F D on my keyboard, waits 2½ seconds, and then hits Enter. When I’m using Photoshop, I run this script with a keyboard shortcut and it goes to ‘save the image for the web’. Something that you do a LOT, yet takes longer than it should; a good simple example of using Autohotkey.

Another example is when I’m editing PHP that has to be previewed on a live server. That’s a lot of clicking for every edit. Now I just press a button, and Autohotkey saves the file (in dreamweaver), uploads it, waits a tiny bit, then switches to Firefox and hits refresh. So much easier. And I had it set up in now time.

You can also use Autohotkey to autofinish phrases that you type a lot. For example when I type JBA, autohotkey types my name and address and when I type btw, autohotkey types by the way for me. Again you can see that investing a bit of time here, could save a huge amount of time in the future. Word has an inbuilt version of this too, called autocomplete but obviously autohotkey works throughout all applications, so you can use it for webmail, twitter, excel… whatever.

A launcher

The final part in automating your work easily is to have a dedicated launcher for your macros. You can launch Autohotkey macros as you would any other file; by adding a desktop shortcut, or adding an icon to your taskbar, or using a keyboard shortcut but the snazziest method of all is to buy a dedicated programmable keypad. This really ties everything in together nicely. After much research I got an X-keys desktop. It’s got 20 programmable keys. Setting it up couldn’t be easier, it’s got a great interface, you just click a switch on the hardware and the buttons appear onscreen, then you can drag your shortcuts onto the keys and flick the switch again. It’s also got its own Macro software that’s also really easy to use but I mostly use Autohotkey.

X-Keys comes pre-programmed with regular functions like cut, copy, paste and undo, which I’d recommend keeping. It also has shortcuts to launch applications like your browser or email but I think this is a terrible waste of hotkeys. Any application that you open and leave open for most of the day is a waste of a key.

You can save different presets with the x-keys software, so you can have a whole keypad of different shortcuts just for Photoshop, or you can load another full of html code, and another for general use. But as they keys are labelled with stickers, if you change the presets a lot, you have to remember or write down the combinations. I haven’t properly labelled them yet as I’m still changing them a lot. One idea I find useful is to have one key mapped to an autohotkey script called ‘latest’, which will launch whatever macro you’re currently using a lot.

It was very hard to find somewhere I could buy this from Ireland. I eventually got it from Keytools. You can’t use the web form to buy directly from Ireland but you can ask them to fax or email you a form.

I was also going to write about various applications for very specific jobs but this post is already big enough, but just to point you in the right direction, there are applications for everything these days. If you find yourself resizing windows to specific dimensions a lot, then google ‘windows resizer’, if you find yourself taking lots of screen grabs and emailing them to people then download an application to do it for you. Or just have a look around download.com or tucows or lifehacker for some inspiration.

So – I’ll say it again: invest a little and you will get a lot back, stop banging your head against your computer screen, give it a big hug instead!

Recruitment site fail

I often come across some really bad examples of interactive web sites. But some really stick their head above the paraphet and beg to be made an example of. If you go to recruitment.ie, you are redirected to http://www.sharewatch.com/RECRUITMENT.php. This site contains two iframes; one contains a sharewatch banner while the other loads the whole content from http://www.loadzajobs.ie.

Here’s the thing

This sharewatch page refreshes every 90 seconds. And when it refreshes, it reloads the homepage of loadzajobs. So no matter what you are doing, including filling out a form for a job or browsing the site, it goes back to the homepage every 90 seconds. Massive fail.

I made a query with loadzajobs (took two attempts to fill out the form). And just got a reply advising me to only go directly to loadzajobs.ie. So I guess it’s the other guys hijacking the site and making a major mess of implementing their hijack.

While on the subject, another recruitment site, http://www.computerjobs.ie/ occasionally have a banner ad with thunder crackling away! Bad enough that they have sound in a banner, tut tut! but cracking thunder underlining the doom and gloom while you search for a new job!? nasty!

New site: Rate my isp

I’m definitely like a bus when it comes to blogging, have been quiet for a while and then 3 posts today. All my free time in the last week or so have been spent on building a new site: www.ratemyisp.ie. Our broadband isn’t great at all, so instead of asking the most frequently asked question on the Internet (in Ireland at least) I built a site. Was very surprised to find it didn’t exist yet. I’m quite often pipped to the post on a lot of ideas I have.



It’s still kind of in beta mode. I might completely change the homepage. And I might add a mobile broadband section. Any feedback appreciated. But I’d love if you could take a minute or two to add to the ratings and also spread the word.

Upgrade yer auld Browser!

(If you have no interest in reading lot’s of web design stuff, you could just jump straight to the why upgrade? bit.)

I’ve noticed a growing campaign among web folk to stop supporting Internet Explore 6 lately:

And that’s just from the handful of web design blogs that I regularly read. If you do a search, you can see there are many more.

Like every other web designer / developer, it would make my life much easier to stop supporting ie6. For the benefit of non web site makers: We have to put in all kinds of hacks and cheats to make web sites behave in Internet explorer 6. I don’t think it’s a realistic or constructive approach to stop supporting it. This goes for my own site and a lot of other sites I work on or manage.

The biggest mistake you can make when you own a web site, or for a company getting a web site built for them – is thinking that anyone else cares as much about your site as you do. People don’t want to invest a seconds more time on your site than they need to. A good few years ago, obviously completely ignorant of this fact, you would see a lot of disclaimers such as: “This site is best viewed on Internet Explore 6, screen size: 800 x 600, Flash version: 6, sitting 1 foot away from your computer, wearing a beige cravat and sipping a tall latte.”

Of course no one bothered changing a single thing to look at those sites. If something doesn’t work they hit the back button, and click a different link. So long sunshine. It’s up to you, not the user, to make your site work for everyone. There’s been a mass shift towards building sites that are accessible to all. Actually it’s a basic standard for any professional these days. Well here’s the thing; you can code to the best standards, and use the most semantic of markup but if you dismiss a widely used browser (regardless of how badly it renders your code), you do not make accessible web sites. I think that factor might be easy to forget. Of course the big difference is that if we’re just talking about web design related sites, most of your readers are going to have the latest browsers – so the question on whether to support or not should be a statistical choice. Like Cloudsteph recently pondered. And this blog there are more IE6 readers than anyone else. Same goes for a lot of much bigger sites I work on.

I think a much more practical campaign is to let the uninitiated know just why they should upgrade their browsers. So I’ll practice what I preach with three main points.

1. It’s easy

Upgrading to a new version of your browser or installing a new browser is very easy. They’re clever people you know, they think of everything. As part of the upgrade/install they will give you the option to import all your settings and your favourites/bookmarks. So you don’t lose anything and it’s as simple as ABC.

2. There is no learning curve

A lot of people hate upgrades and the drastic changes they can sometimes bring. But there are no major user interface difference with browsers. You’ve got your address bar, your back and forward buttons. Then you’ve got favourites or bookmarks. You’d barely noticed the switch. Maybe your home button is in a different place but there’s really nothing new to learn at all.

3. Why upgrade then?

There are many reasons why you would upgrade. You get a lot of added functionality. Websites will look and function as they should. Page load will most likely be smoother/faster. Probably most important is security. Using old browsers is not very secure. Especially in the ‘always on’ broadband era. You’re making your computer very vulnerable to all kinds of malware/viruses.

So if you’re using Internet Explorer Version 6, you should upgrade to version 7 or install Firefox. To see what browser version you have (and this is the same throughout most software) go to your Help menu and select “About Internet Explorer”. You can see which Browser version you have then. You have two options no: (1)upgrade or (2)Download and install. To upgrade Internet Explorer, go to Tools > Windows Update. This will bring you to a Microsoft Update site, which will tell you what updates you need to bring your computer up-to-date, including the latest Browser updates. Or you could just download Internet Explorer 7 and install it: http://www.microsoft.com/windows/downloads/ie/getitnow.mspx. And you’ll also notice that ie8 is on the way!

I’d recommend that you get Firefox. It is faster, more secure, more independent from Windows, and has a lot more functionality. It’s very easy to customise or install plug-ins. For example one plug-in I find very useful is sxipper which remembers all my logins/passwords for various sites. And I recently installed a script that blocks all applications on Facebook, so I no longer receive requests from anyone asking me to poke a zombie in the eye with a virtual pet. Also if you’re a bit unsure about all this but want to give it a go, you can install Firefox without effecting Internet Explorer at all, so you can go back if you need to or use both of them.

So, don’t upgrade for me, upgrade for you!