Living in a new world, living in the past

Microsoft are finally fully switching Hotmail over to Outlook.com. I still have a hotmail address but I haven’t been moved yet.

I do want to keep my hotmail address. I only use it as a spam repository these days, having moved all my professional functions over to Google. But I’m horribly attached to the name. I’ve had it since I was a teenager, obsessed with Queen and entirely unaware that whatever handle I chose would still be chasing me around the web 15 years later.

In those days of the internet I chose all my usernames and handles based on my inner identity rather than my external name. Fun and anonymity were encouraged and expected. It’s why in the Manics fan world I’m still known as Terminal Young Thing – a handle I picked because I was young, forgetting that one day I may be older, may be wiser. At one point I considered selected a new handle but I realised that the full lyric I’m gonna stay a terminal young thing from Methadone Pretty forbade such a change. So it stuck, and little TYT is still a large part of my online and inner identity.

But that came later. This email address predates even manicsfandom. I picked it because I wanted a Queen-based identity, but one that was female. There aren’t many. Lady Mercy would have been an obvious candidate but I didn’t like it, and anyway, I think it was taken. For a while I used brian_may39 until I realised that it was one thing to use a moniker for an ID, but another thing entirely to use someone else’s name.

In the end I picked a line from The Fairy-Feller’s Master Stroke. I didn’t like the song that much, I didn’t get any of the mythology references, or care for the art that inspired it. I just wanted a girl’s name. So I became The Nymph In Yellow. It formed the basis of my email address and several other online IDs. It was cumbersome to write and embarrassing to spell out but by the time it had outrun its cuteness, it was attached to too much of the internet to easily move.


The painting that inspired and song that inspired an online life

A couple of years ago, I gave it the slip and created an ‘grown up’ email address. Again I considered closing my antiquated hotmail name, but this I kept it for the past, and for the future. I little knew, aged 13, what a teenager and adult I would become or what my tastes would be in music, books, films and people. Which is why, when I hear the full lyric I can’t help but smile:

Fairy dandy tickling the fancy
Of his lady friend
The nymph in yellow

Fairy dandy. Bowie, Brett, Bernard, Wire, Wilde, Wodehouse, Waugh, all the other Ws on the www dot.

Seems I did know myself after all, half a life time ago.

Between desire and reality

The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed a slight change in the wallpaper. For many a happy year the top few pixels of my beloved weblog were emblazoned with the somewhat opaque Fact & Breakfast the supposed title to all the musings that lay within.

Underneath sat a P.G. Wodehouse quote: No good can come of any association with anything labelled Kathryn just so the reader was sure they’d arrived at the right place, given the only other mention of my name is in the url itself.

I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I could just show you:

But now, alas, no more.

I picked the name back in 2009 when I needed ‘proper’ website (I use the term lightly). It comes from the usual dated obscurity I thrive on: the opening title to A Bit of Fry & Laurie series four.

I’ve long admired their mix of stupidity and sarcasm. Between fact and breakfast madness lies was full of brusied language and mangled semantics and its shortened version summed up my content perfectly: the occasional ‘proper’ article mixed with all manner of nonsense I needed to get out of my head. And between the two there surely is madness.

It’s served me in good stead. It’s proved as incomprehensible as much of the content that sits beneath it. And yet… the darling site needed an overhaul because it broke several IA rules (101: let the user know where they are. 208: Use clear, understandable language., 305: don’t expect everyone to live their lives via comedy quotes from the 1990s.), it didn’t look right in IE9 and… you know what? I’m looking for a job and I didn’t want to put people off. There you go: your favourite left-wing slapstick lover is MERCENARY AT HEART. Damnit, John, we’re not in Uxbridge anymore.

So, it’s gone. But it’s still all over the site. Partly as tribute, party because I’m not going to edit out every reference to it. If anything the stupidity lives on its Tumblr sister site. But for now we’re boring old Kathryn Hegarty. Some comfort at least that if nothing else you finally know my name.

This one’s for the freaks

Version A
In an attempt to evaluate the user experience of the popular blogging platform Tumblr, I have undertaken to publish a work of my own devising, thus experimenting with its user, admin and customisation features. Because, apparently, we’re all so short of spannable attention, I’m going to publish it scene-by-scene three times a week, till the end. I will attempt to gain followers (gasp). The result of this experiment will also influence when and how I publish my novel Lo! The Flat Hills of My Homeland.

Version B
Because of reasons I am uploading Star Cross-dressed Lovers a spoof jukebox show, a Manic Street Musical, if you will. (It’s built around Manics songs. Of course it is.) It’s got James eating pies, Nicky nearly destroying the world, Sean being evil and best of all, Richey isn’t dead (much).

If Tumblr and I get on, I’ll use it to publish my completed (in the sense that I’m not bloody doing it again) typo-ridden novel which is NOT called Lo! The Flat Hills of My Homeland, but it probably should be.

You can visit the Manic Street Musical site any time you like.

Stalking tour of Camden

I do not know Stephen Ryder personally but I know where he lives. I know that he is married and has a young family. I know what he does for a living, where he likes to go at weekends and what his tastes in television are.

He didn’t tell me any of this directly; I read it in the papers and online. Stephen writes for a national newspaper, as do many of his friends and family. He’s not what you’d call famous but he is well known to the middle-aged middle classes. And me. Because I know where he lives.

Stephen, I should add, is not his real name. I’ve given him a new one to protect his privacy. Sort of. See, all that stuff about his job and his tastes he wrote himself and let it be published. His frank, open style is part of what makes his submissions entertaining. He’s written about his family, friends, holidays and working habits. But the one thing he categorically did not give out what his address. Yet I know it.

Here’s how. Stephen’s style is not only open, but detailed. He’s not shy of describing a pub as his ‘local’ or mentioning an ammenities centre ‘at the end of [his] road’. Over the weeks and months I read his contributions, I built up a pretty good mental map of his local area. More than once I’ve visited these same roads and shops, always half-excited in case I bumped into the illustrious man. How cool would that be?

Not cool at all, is the correct answer. I’m not that kind of nutjob and I don’t wish to be. Here’s the crucial thing: it’s my local area too. (Or was before I moved to Latvia.) I recognise all those shop and pub names because I walk past them each day, down the same roads that he does. The only reason I know where he lives is because I live there too. So that’s OK right?

Well, maybe. First off there’s Google Search, Maps and Street View. I don’t really want to dwell on the great privacy panic of the 2010s but it is worth noting that in previous times one would have to know an area to – like me – recognise its shop names from a newspaper article. Nowadays one can plug the names into the all-knowing fact machine up pops an address, complete with handy instructions on how to get there. You can do that from Canada, sure, but you’re unlikely to cross the Altanic to visit Stephen’s favourite pub. He’s not that famous.

The cross-referencing isn’t always deliberate though. Here’s another thing I know about Stephen: he’s related by marriage to a famous comedian. It was an accidental discovery made by reading two articles by two different people. One mentioned a circumstance but no name, and another mentioned a related circumstance and a name. Together, I could make the match. I didn’t want or need to know this, and I feel a little bit awkward that I do, as to my knowledge it’s never been mentioned publically. I know I have my heroes but I hate to intrude. Not a stalker.

I have an odd relationship with fame and the famous these days. I used to think I was ‘above’ the gossip-mongering of Now! magazine and the like, but I’ve realised recently that I’m not. I have people I hold in esteem and I quietly enjoy their twitter feeds and the FYtumblr streams dedicated to them. I get excited about their lives and like to watch them through my collection of little glass screens. Just because Victoria Coren isn’t as ubiquituous as Victoria Beckam, doesn’t mean that my interest is any more appropriate.

But it is OK as long as there’s a distance. Other people are not my property. Only, when I like things, I like them lots (cf. Manic Street Preachers, Sherlock etc). So I try to be principled: only know what’s public, only ask what’s relevant. The distance can be through space (I will not go to Newport to hunt down Nicky Wire, because it’s inconvenient. And wude.), metaphysics (Sherlock Holmes was not real so I can happily visit his fake address and buy branded pens), or time (Michael Palin’s diary were written in the 1970s so walking down the same road now is fine). So while I like what Stephen writes, while he lives just around the corner from me, now, in real life, it would not be OK to persue that.

Knowing about Stephen’s half-hidden comedy connection isn’t really bad, it’s just a bit weird. While it does make me feel uncomfortable, it’s still just a piece of information. I imagine that all the people involved know about it – of course they do – and to anyone else it’s meaningless if good gossip.

What is seriously not OK what happened the other day. I was walking in the Camden area, having been for a stroll on the heath, and took the route back to my house, which happens to run along the street where Stephen lives. It’s a long road, but as I passed one of the houses, I immediately knew he lived there (or if not there then next door). Some tell-tale recent building work, also mentioned in his regular output gave me the final clue. Now I know not just where abouts he lives, but his actual address. And then, presumably, post code, phone number whatever – should I want to.

I really do not want to. I’m angry that I even know this much. Suddenly, without even trying, I’m one of those weird people that the police know about. All because I read newspaers. Screw Stephen and his compromised privacy. I feel violated.

Don’t feed the troll

Over the next few days I’m going to make a few changes to my facebook profile, apps, settings, privacy, content, likes, pokes and all the other granular and unseen ways its crept into my life. In short, there’s going to be less, a lot less.

This isn’t me trying to quit facebook in a storm of indignation. I’m all too aware that I need facebook, but I need it for a set number of things, and anything beyond that it isn’t going to happen anymore.

It’s more that I’m trying to wrestle back some control. I don’t think that I have ever enjoyed using facebook. I joined, reluctantly in 2005, back when it was a student-only website. Almost overnight I stopped getting invited to parties. When I asked why I wasn’t told about some spectacular event the response was inevitiably “but it was on facebook”. A couple of week’s protesting that people could still invite me via text or in person fell on deaf ears and so I signed up.

Gradually I got sucked in. I posted more status updates, I even uploaded a few photos. I played a lot scrabble. Once I left university it became a useful tool for keeping in touch with my friends. I could find out their phone numbers and birthdays, and organise reunions. Crucially at this point facebook was not – scrabble aside – a destination. I went there to find out something (e.g. Sarah’s phone number) then carried on doing what I was trying to do (e.g. call Sarah). In retrospect, I guess this was the sweet spot.

Because shortly after I started work, in 2007, things began to change. Firstly, the number of people using facebook increased astronomically. It was no longer just a student thing. Secondly – linked to this I’m sure – commentators starting fretting about facebook’s value, about how they were going to monetise all these people freely giving the kind of information a market research company would kill for. And that led to facebook becoming about data rather than people.

That’s what it is today, data. Personal networks, employment networks, likes, interests. If it’s not directly saleable like hobbies (Buy Manic Street Preachers tickets here!!!) then facebook will encourage you to strengthen its data pool by ‘connecting’ with others, or tagging your friends in photos. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that facebook isn’t for me anymore. I’m here for facebook, feeding the data monster, and that’s not what I signed up for.

Let me pause here for a moment and say that I’m fully aware that I saunter through life complicit in my own exploitation. It’s my belief that, say, my job, my landlord and the Manics all exploit me and I let it happen – because I think I get something in return. Even though I see my hourly charge-out rate vs. my own salary and weep, I accept that in the face of having money to rent a room (at an inflated price) and go to gigs (and buy crappy merchandise). Someone else is profiting from my behaviour but as I feel I am too, I find it hard to be indignant.

It was the same with facebook. I’ve always known that when I upload pictures to facebook, the data monster claims copyright. I think that’s ethically wrong, but I’d conceded that point because it was an easy way to share snaps with my friends. The benefit still outweighs the cost. Compare that with one of facebook’s more recent innovations: face recognition. More than once I’ve seen photos (sometimes mine, sometimes others’) in the sidebar, and the monster asks me if I know them, or will have a guess at a name and ask me to confirm.

Who does this benefit? It’s not me. If I can identify the person, maybe they’ll benefit from being tagged. But what if they don’t want to be? It’s not my business to make that link for them. Now, if the monster used this technology for good it would offer me the chance to ‘search for untagged photos of me’. Then, I get to decide. I am in control and I benefit. But with the current model the only person who benefits is the monster.

(Also, I didn’t agree to have my photos served up at random across the site, even to friends. Alright, I probably did ‘agree’, but that in itself is an issue. Facebook privacy settings are complicated, and could well be in breach of European law. Europe vs. facebook does a great job of explaining all this. On requesting his personal data from facebook, the founder of the site was sent 1000 A4 sheets’ worth.)


My interests page before and after.

Then there’s interests. My favourite music, books, films and quotes. I copied mine off Myspace when I first joined, but when I added to them I was initially disappointed that facebook didn’t automatically alphabetise them. To do so would have meant basic machine reading. Myspace did it by using commas as a separator, it never built entities and automated pages around the interests itself. That’s helpful data crunching that benefits me. The monster, by indexing my interests fully, has a different agenda.

Yeah, yeah, advertising. I can’t really object to that, I see that it has to happen. I do object to an already incomprehensible news feed being further clogged up by spam. (I’ve got that Manics album. Trust me, I have.) There could be a special defence for interests though. That’s what some of the first social networks were built on. I met fellow Manics fans on a forum, and on Livejournal, where I could enter my interests as tags, and view other users with the same tag. That makes perfect sense on a site full on strangers, but far less so given that facebook is supposed to me about people I know.

Maria likes Super Furry Animals and Black Blooks. I know. She’s my friend. She also likes lazy Saturday mornings and waving at people. So again, who does that serve, except the monster who no doubt wants me to add some more valuable interests to my profile?

The pages themselves, I suppose, have some use. But I personally don’t use facebook fan pages as a source of information. Either there is no new information (e.g. a seven year old film) or I rely on twitter, email and friends. So once again, no benefit. (Actually, I’ve kept three because I do rely on facebook for them. So they stay.)

Facebook, using the like plugin, now follows me around the internet. And if I could remember my spotify password it would be listening to my music too. The monster has escaped from the cage, as if AOL’s Walled Garden of the 1990s suddenly grew great vines of poison ivy, which drag me back wherever else I try to go.

Or to put it another way, there’s been an article floating around the internet recently about how facebook is becoming the black hole of the internet. If something like 10% of all time online is being spent feeding the monster then it’s no wonder that we say we’re ‘on’ facebook. We’re not ‘on’ the BBC. I visit the BBC, I read the Guardian. I am on facebook. I think some of that is because facebook is an extension of the self, and so works as ‘I am on the train’, but it’s also a reflection of how much time is being spent.

I think I spend 10% of my online time on Twitter (there it is again). But the difference with Twitter is that for the moment at least, I feel in control. I chose who to follow, and it’s easy to unfollow if they’re boring. When Twitter does suggest to me, it tends to be unintrusive and far less demanding than the monster. I still feel like I’m using it. Facebook is using me, but from now on I’m going to be far less helpful.

Monster, you can keep my birthday but not my year. You can have my whimsical status updates because no human can understand those, so I suspect machines can’t either. You can keep, for now, all photos I’ve tagged friends in so they can still have them, but no others unless I explicitly want them shared. Any photos of me I want to keep I’ll save and de-tag ones that I don’t like or aren’t really of me. I don’t mind new tags at all, I just may not keep them. I really like photos, but not stored forever on the data monster.

Henceforth I’ll have no interests, but I might keep the odd quote. Events, well, no one I know uses facebook for events any more because it’s so easy to be non-committal. Only clubs and societies – where it doesn’t actually matter who turns up – seem to bother. Take that, 2005.

All this without even whinging about the structure and layout of my data, as it’s presented to me, or how incredibly hard it is to delete my interests – not just in terms of process, but also having to ‘unlike’ the Manics feels wrong. Facebook is part of my identity more than I like. Facebook’s IA is terrible, though emotionally canny, but that’s a whole other post.

I know, thanks to Europe vs. Facebook, that after my deleting spree, it make not truly be gone. But my compromised self doesn’t really care. I just want to use facebook for keeping in contact with old friends and have some degree of control over what I hand out. I’ll make sure people can still find and recognise me. I’m not stupid enough to think I run away from the data monster. If anything, the internet will become more like this, not less. What I will do is ensure that what little bits of me it does eat don’t taste very nice.

New generation calling.

On the face of it, this post might seem like it’s about yet another obscure piece of fan trivia, the kind that Fact & Breakfast makes its bread and butter. But it isn’t. This post is about the internet, libraries, user generated content and how – despite what some might have you think – they are not diametrically opposed but work together for all kinds of end. (Including, admittedly, solving obscure bits of fan trivia.)

Side A: Problem finding

In October 1994 Suede released their second album Dog Man Star. In October 2002 I fell in love with it. In June 2011 Suede re-released it as a ‘deluxe’ edition featuring demo and pre-edit versions of some tracks. Last week, I played these new versions for the first time and awoke some old curiousities.

So I did what I always do.

There are no results except a link to the Suede forum. Well, I guess if anyone’s going to know it’s them.

Oh.

I have come to rely on the internet to tell me things. Before I was merely curious. Now, after being told I shall never know, I am determined that I will. So, I think, maybe there’s some clues within the clip. The newly-released deluxe version is two minutes longer and has more samples. There must be a hint of something in there.

I listen. You can listen to the standard album version. The extended version is similar. The main difference in the sample is a few seconds seemingly broadcast from the Cheltenham races. But can any of it help me? As it turns out, yes. And it all hangs on the closing seconds of the song. …here at Cheltenham.

Side B: Problem solving

How? Here’s how my thought process went:
Key assumption: That the Suede forum is right and the sample was recorded directly off TV. This thesis is supported by the white noise sounds that break up the sample.
Therefore: TV has a broadcast date. Broadcast schedules are published. Determine the date > Locate schedule > Name film.

Easy. What’s the date?

We need TV schedules across three months in 1994. Range too big.


We need TV schedules for every day in April-July 1994 that there was racing at Cheltenham. Still a potentially large range.


The sample mentions that the horses will also be at Newton Abbot today. We need TV schedules for every day in April-July 1994 when there was racing a Cheltenham and subsequent racing at Newton Abbot.

Let’s compare racing schedules for Cheltenham and Newton Abbot and see where they coincide.
Cheltenham race schedule
Newton Abbot race schedule

There’s only one match: 20th April 1994. (The 27th April is also a possibility as there’s racing at Newton Abbot two days later, and I can conceive that horses might travel a day or so before a race. We’ll keep that one as a back-up).

Cool, who has TV schedules?
Not Google, it’s too long ago. But in those pre-historic days of the early 90s, they were at least published. On paper. But who’s got a copy of them now?

Enter Westminster library, who kindly give me access to UK Press Online.

A bit of boolean querying. I knew that degree in Information Science was good for something. Not that one really needs a degree to understand boolean operators.


Dear UK Press Archives. Please can you show me all pages from the 20th April 1994 with the words ‘Television’ OR ‘TV’ please? Ta.

Yes, indeed it can.

Full image

There’s the Cheltenham races on BBC2, and then at the same time:
– On ITV a studio talk show which accounts for the If you’d like to take part in fu-… bit of the sample;
– On BBC1 Hawaii Five-0 which might explain the violent punching sounds. Or that might just be Brett and Bernard finally loosing it;
– and, wonderfully on Channel 4 a film, Woman’s World, from 1954 (plummy accents) and according to Wikipedia a character called Bill.

Bing-bloody-go.

I posted my findings back on the Suede forum with the caveat that (a) I’m a complete geek and (b) I could be wrong and it’s all been a collossal waste of time.

A day later, this was posted:

Here’s the video clip – a direct result of all this wrangling.

My level of excitement was beyond embarassing:

Hidden track: Why bother?

16 years of uncertainty over in a couple of hours. But like I said, this isn’t a post about obscure fangirl things. I’ve written this screed to prove a point.

As meaningless as this discovery is, I couldn’t have made it without databases (racing and TV schedules), search engines (Google), or user-created content (forums and wikipedia). And I certainly couldn’t have made it without Westminster library telling me the press archive even existed, and then paying for me to access it. I reached it from my own PC and all I needed was my library card number.

Those TV schedules are on the net, but not Google-able. So are dozens of other databases, reference books and collections. Not only do we collectively not know they’re there, we don’t know how to work them and are unwilling to pay for them when we do. Libraries, God bless libraries, solve the last one, though I really wish they’d shout more about the first two.

But this isn’t a post about how wonderful libraries are, though I’ve been known to write them in the past. The point I want to make is that databases and early computers did not kill libraries, or render them obsolete. The internet did not do away with structured information or negate the need for books. User-generated content, when used with sound mind, enhances rather than destroys ‘proper’ sources.

I needed all of these to make this meaningless discovery. We could make things of actual value if we learned to stop polarising old and new, formal and fun, tactile and virtual, and just enjoyed the wealth of information that – with a little effort – is available at our fingertips. This rant is a little without context, but think of the number of X or Y debates there are – Mac OR PC, print OR screen, facebook OR real friends – and think of this as the same. Not or, both. BOTH.

High horse off. Over and out. Time to listen to Still Life.

The sitemap falls apart, the breadcrumbs cannot hold

Talent borrows. Genius steals. I greatly enjoying messing with great works for comic effect.

Past works include: What have the NHS ever done for us; In a flash, Jeeves; IA the musical; Henry V in V minutes; and Star Crossed-Dressed Lovers (a Manic Street Musical). All these lie in various states of completion on my desk.

The lastest then twitter hashtag #uxpoetry (of which I have sole use, hmm), sparked by Keats as an introduction to a UX link.

This seemed like great fun, and crucially didn’t involve annotating wireframes. So for my own posterity more than anything, here’s my timeline of #uxpoetry nonsense. Very sorry.

A thing of beauty is a joy forever, its loveliness increases it will never pass into nothingness till it’s deleted to reduce costs
~ Keats, Lines from Endymion

The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro sales targets mori
~ Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum est

On the ning nang nong where the cows go bong and the monkeys all say ‘boo!’ there’s a ironic gif farm from 1995
~ Spike Milligan, On The Ning Nang Nong

I am an architect, they call me obstructrive. I am a pioneer, they call me a luxury
~ Manic Street Preachers, Faster. Not technically poetry, I know.

And the two I am most pleased with:

There’s some corner of a foreign field that is for ever Advanced Search […] In that rich earth a richer content concealed
~ Rupert Brooke, The Solider

Follow your spirit, and upon this whim, Cry ‘God for JQuery, Standards, and Saint Tim!’
Shakespeare, Henry V ‘Once more into the breach’.

And so, dear friends, the end.

Conform

Much as we try, humankind has yet to find an alternative way to gather semi-structured information from its fellows, so sticks to complicated, confusing, consequently soul-destroying forms. (And, I guess, helps keep me in a job.)

But employed or not, they’re a bugger, pure and simple.

It struck me one balmy afternoon that unlike many other interaction staples, (e.g. navigation, search, links) that there’s still not a definitive design pattern for forms. Not that those other three are always done correctly but there’s a common agreement about what good practise is. I think we’re still getting there with forms.

One obvious reason for this is that every form should be bespoke. It needs to be thought about as its own individual case. What was right previously might not be right this time. In fact, going in thought-blind is probably watch causes at lot of the problems.

But even though individual attention is needed there are a few overarching principles and patterns that I like to include. I believe they make the form easier to complete (which in turn decreases drop-off rate yadda yadda ).

Ulitmately we’re trying to assist the user and reduce the risk of errors. So:

Structure logically according to the task.

First things first, why do we need the form? If the information can be gathered any other way, don’t subject your users to it. They’ll only hate you for it.

Oh, and pre-populate fields where you can. Nothing’s more annoying than entering information unnecessarily.

Once you’ve established that form and all its content is absolutely necessary, structure it according to what it’s trying to achieve. If it’s long, break it into sections and include progress indicators. A task with an end in sight is more managable than one than a potentially infinite one.

I’m not going to witter on about the best way to do this – it really does depend on what the form’s for. But at the form field level, I think there’s a strong argument for consistent design patterns.

Tell the user what they have to do.

Each form field or field group should have a title.
Form title

Indicate whether the field is mandatory.
Mandatory fields

Add explanatory text.
Explanatory text

Offer further help e.g. rollover tool-tips or text blocks.
Tooltip off

Clicking the tool top shows the text block with help information.
Tooltip on

Hide fields the user does not need to complete.
Fields hidden

The secondary field isn’t shown until it’s been established the user needs to complete it.
Fields shown

Help the user to avoid mistakes and assist them when they do.

Using pre-submit error validation.

As the user types the system verifies their input, in this case 8 characters, alphanumeric characters and spaces only.

Success, or not, is highlighted and the user can make corrections before submission.

Using post-submit validation.
If fields cannot be verified on the fly, display the number of errors at the top of the page, and mark the individual fields that need correcting.

Clearly highlight errors and give clear instructions how to fix them.
Provide explanatory text against all error fields, whether using pre or post-submit validation.

That’ll do for starters. Play nicely now.