Tasks 2.0 where art thou

Ok. It just arrived – quickly after I sent a message via his contact form. I’ll edit the following text later.
I have been using the free-ware version of Tasks, a hierarchical, web-based personal task manager, for over a year now and despite some glitches I have been more than pleased. The developer Alex King released a far more polished multi-user version, TasksPro at a reasonable cost and later an update to the single-user version, Tasks 2.0. Having decided to purchase a Tasks 2.0 license I was looking forward to installing it over last weekend.
At this point I should be writing a glowing report about Tasks but alas despite having paid for the license last Friday I have yet to receive the download link. The form does say it may take up to 48 hrs to receive said information, why that is exactly we are not told, but after 96 hrs with nothing more than a confirmation of billing – no link. Sunday I even sent a polite e-mail to the developer asking if there was a problem. No reply from him.
There could be a logical explanation. I am using a Taiwan credit card which could cause problems due to either the ineptitude of the Taiwan bank or simply a longer than usual payment. I would assume the payment went through as no problems were mentioned on my receipt. The e-mail containing a link could have been caught as spam by the two spam filters I use but I supplied two e-mail addresses, one of which has no filter at all.
I have faith that this is just a slip-up, that this isn’t a story of lousy customer service nor yet another internet scam. The developer’s (Alex King) web site and software are excellently crafted but it’s these small details (answering e-mail and sending out paid for product on a timely basis) that can either make or break a good experience. How you handle these glitches can win or lose you a customer. It will be interesting see how this works out.

Circles and lines

In the west, we are indoctrinated to adopt the view that everything moves in straight lines – if you want to accomplish something, pick your objective, make your plan, and then set out in the direction of your objective. Stay focused on that objective – always – and don’t let anything divert you from your course. This is the best way to reach your objective.
Well, forget all that, when you come to Thailand (or – maybe all of Asia). Thailand doesn’t work in straight lines – it works in circles. The way to proceed is to pick an objective, and start out in that direction. Then, when life starts pulling you off your course, don’t fight it – go with the flow. Define the momentum that is carrying you – in a direction you didn’t even intend to go – and figure out how to harness it, and reinforce it, and derrive success from it . Eventually – incredible as this may seem – the “circle” of life will sooner or later probably deposit you smack on top of your ORIGINAL objective, but arriving there from a totally unexpected direction.

Web development mistakes

A great article at Berea Street on some of the most common mistakes that experienced web professionals tend to make. A couple on this list really hit home with me which I will echo here:
(too much) Visual thinking
Treating the web as WYSIWYG – starting off by focusing on how things look instead of thinking about structure first, and presentation later.
Lack of semantics
Non-semantic markup. Basing the choice of which HTML element to use on the way most graphical browsers render it by default, instead of on which meaning the element has.
Read: Web development mistakes: 456 Berea Street

About pages

I have always found writing an about page an extremely painful process on any personal project I have been involved in. ‘Asterisk*’ has a good article providing guidleines for developing these pages, guidelines which I should really follow on my personal and should take into consideration for my professional works.
“Many Web sites, especially content driven sites, should have some kind of about page. In this post I explain why you might need one and give some quick tips on what makes a good about page.”
Read: A Good About Page

Hot Babes

Going through a large series of photos for a project I am working on I came across what could represent the ‘companies’ calendar girls. It’s not of course but I think at the time it is about the best they could do.

Help for Team Efforts

Good article on teams.
“Vince Lombardi, the successful leader of football teams and of men in general, said this about teams: “Individual commitment to a group effort — that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.” Lombardi knew the secret to success was not “knowing” something that others did not, but, rather, in executing a plan in a way others would not or could not.”
Read: Help for Team Efforts- Darwin Magazine

Client guide to web standards

Client guide to web standards: What they are and why they are important is a client-friendly explanation of the benefits of web standards.

“Sites which use web standards are fast loading, can be used on many different devices and are found more easily by search engines. They are faster to develop, easier to maintain and don’t lock you into a single supplier. All these things add up to more visitors, a better user experience, increased flexibility and lower costs.”

Representing Content and Data in Wireframes (ba)

“Sample data can make or break a wireframe, whose purpose is typically to illustrate architecture and interaction. Poorly selected sample data can end up clouding the wireframe or distracting stakeholders from its purpose. By codifying the types of sample content they employ in their deliverables, information architects can create a coherent narrative to illustrate a website’s functionality.”

Read: Representing Content and Data in Wireframes. Found viaxBlog.

Radio City Patpong

This obscure image is a photo taken from my mobile phone at a bar in Bangkok called ‘Radio City’. I think I have somewhat of a dud of mobile phone camera as no matter what the effort the pictures all suck. I suppose though it could be me(likely), since the venerable Heather Champ seems to enjoy success with hers.
Radio City is located in the entertainment area, or more accurately a small soi, in Bangkok called Patpong. An enormously famous area known and visited by just about every visitor to Bangkok – or so I assume judging by the crowds of people wading through the famous market. The area has the good fortune to be labelled an entertainment zone as part of the local governments off and on again policy of policing morality. Unless you are the ultraconservative type who is sensitive to the selling of overpriced artefacts, illegal dvds, and the selling of various views of strange sex shows, it is an experience one should have once. More than once the experience becomes a bore and walking through the night market is really an experience best not repeated. It’s hot, very crowded, and the constant touting of ‘dvd sex’ tends to wear you down.
I’m not sure if this makes me a miscreant or not but despite the obvious reputation the area has and the fact that I dislike the experience of prodding through the masses of people and touts, I find myself continuously coming back to Radio City. The appeal has nothing to do with the young ladies sitting at the bar waiting for a ‘date’, it has nothing to do with the smiles of the bar staff who by now know me, and it really has nothing to do with the inevitable thong throwing by drunken maidens. It’s all about getting my fix of live Tom Jones and Elvis impersonators. Radio City has featured the live performance of the classics of Tom Jones and Elvis for as long as I can remember (which I guess really isn’t that long). The band is not so good. The impersonation not even close. The singing passable. But it usually proves to be a pretty good time. If nothing else it’s worthy to drop by have a couple beers and see an interesting mix of people singing and swaying to the likes of ‘My Delilah’ and ‘Sexbomb’.
The bar brings me back to the days I used to help pay the rent by touring all over Northern Ontario in a horn section that was backing up an old time Elvis impersonator. It wasn’t a gig I wanted to tell my high brow orchestral brethren about but it instilled in me a little respect for that old time groove. Of course we didn’t have beautiful young Thai. women moving to the music but the old gray haired type reliving their youth. There were the Elvis fanatics as well. A weird bunch who worship the church Elvis and followed this particular impersonator all across Ontario. I much prefer the young Thai. girls. Maybe it’s time to stop being a spectator, dust off my horn and relive the experience for myself. Imagine what my high brow friends back home would think then when they asked what I was doing to make a living and I told them I was playing back up to a Thai Tom Jones impersonator amongst the flurry of ping pong shows and short time hotels. Might be worth it to just see the look on their face.
I’ll be back to Bangkok soon and I’ll likely take the time to drop in again.

It seems I never learn.

I worked at home Friday to do some concentrated effort on a couple projects. I find it difficult to gain any focus in the office for tasks that actually require me to think creatively. Too many phones ringing all the time, at desk meetings, chit chat, and interruptions. Sometimes quiet and solitude are needed to which my home office these days is ideally suited especially since it has a more reliable and faster network. But working from home is definitely frowned upon because then everyone would want to do it and then who knows what might happen.
Well lately I’m swamped with work and dealing with one of those down periods that I go through periodically. It used to happen in January when I lived in Canada. In Taiwan it seems to be a constant threat. During these periods I often find it hard to get motivated, I’m listless, and certainly uninspired. The office is certainly not a place I find inspiration – not from the work lately anyway. So it’s with this I struggle and what suffers is time. Everything gets pushed back. So this weekend I am dealing with a Monday deadline, procrastinating by writing this very entry, and decided to take a drive on my scooter and drop into work to get started.
That is except that there is no power.
I have never seen a building that has the power problems that this does. I get the impression that every few months something goes awry and they have go and do a ton of work thereby shutting the place down. My house seems fine, can’t they scale this philosophy of ‘it was designed to work’. In every instance I swear it has happened when I needed to go to the office. Of course I never know when it happens. The Intranet, though pretty, is rather useless (and they stole content and photographs from a site of mine on one part of the site!). I never seem to learn. Here I was stumbling in the dark, I work in a basement pit, looking for a way down to my office. Though there was no power all I truly needed were some notes I made. I finally arrive without falling and breaking my neck, there are no working safety lights, and get to my office door and realise that the locks have been changed. I wasn’t issued new ones.
Just now checking my mail, a system that is surprisingly still working, I tried to retrieve a large file that was posted on a webftp server. Alas that system does seem to be down as I all I get is an internal server error.
And people wonder why I have become more of a pessimist. Some days things don’t go quite as planned.

The NetPlace

I found a great site that has been linking to an article I wrote. Unfortunately the article has been moved and all they would get is a 404.
“The NetPlace is dedicated to the goal of using the Internet for increased business and personal success.
Our first project has been to gather together a directory of links and webmaster resources. Much of this directory comes from the UMN Web Design References site and our personal bookmarks gathered over the years.”
Very thorough sets of links for IA, Navigation, Evaluation and Testing, and Usability articles. A valuable and impressive resource.
Visit: The NetPlace – Tools, services, articles, discussion and news for webmasters.

These web sites are identical — or are they? (phnk)

A recent survey that suggests some kind of best practices might be developing.
“This survey compares 10 web sites through elements of their layout: styles, page construction and elements… The survey seeks similarities and differences between those well known web sites… What can be observed is that those web sites agree on implicit, internalized layout and design norms (Consensus rate), and that deviance from these rules (Dissidence rate) is uncommon.”
The survey made the following conclusions, directly quoted here.

Similar layouts
Even though thousands of different layouts can be achieved using (X)HTML, web designers tend to stick, explicitly or not, to a set of layout elements. Links must be underlined, even when hovered, and the user must be able to tell which links he has already visited. web designers do not like sidebars very much when placed on the left, right sidebars are much more widespread. Every page should include a header logo and a footer; moreover, a white background is preferred. The main text font should be serif. Last, a header graphic is recommended.
Identical contents
Some elements of content are recurrent in web design: search boxes are quite common, copyright sentences including the designer’s full name are prevalent; 404 pages are quite used too. The habit of dividing web sites into sections is extremely common; such sectioning rarely goes over six sections.
Coding the same way
Although many techniques often exist for the same effect in XHTML or CSS coding, web designers favor some coding techniques, elements, or norms. XHTML is acknowledged as the markup language to use by a majority. When designers decide not to use some code, they massively reject it: access keys, XML prologs. Many cleavages still remain: UTF-8 vs ISO encoding, Strict vs Transitional, use of print style sheets…
Inheritance from print design
web designers share a common print design background and import some of its elements to their Internet creations: a comprehensive use of sidebars and their positioning, footers, graphic headers, typographical knowledge.

Read: These web sites are identical — or are they? (phnk)

Where do These People Get Their (Unoriginal) Ideas

“We all know that knowledge workers work best by getting into “flow”, also known as being “in the zone”, where they are fully concentrated on their work and fully tuned out of their environment. They lose track of time and produce great stuff through absolute concentration. This is when they get all of their productive work done. Writers, programmers, scientists, and even basketball players will tell you about being in the zone.
The trouble is, getting into “the zone” is not easy. When you try to measure it, it looks like it takes an average of 15 minutes to start working at maximum productivity. Sometimes, if you’re tired or have already done a lot of creative work that day, you just can’t get into the zone and you spend the rest of your work day fiddling around, reading the web, playing Tetris.
The other trouble is that it’s so easy to get knocked out of the zone. Noise, phone calls, going out for lunch, having to drive 5 minutes to Starbucks for coffee, and interruptions by coworkers — ESPECIALLY interruptions by coworkers — all knock you out of the zone. If you take a 1 minute interruption by a coworker asking you a question, and this knocks out your concentration enough that it takes you half an hour to get productive again, your overall productivity is in serious trouble. If you’re in a noisy bullpen environment like the type that caffinated dotcoms love to create, with marketing guys screaming on the phone next to programmers, your productivity will plunge as knowledge workers get interrupted time after time and never get into the zone.”

The Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, all about this phenomenon is a worthy read.
I can remember years ago locking myself in a studio working on music and losing track of time for hours on end. Performances were the same. It’s like waking from a dream. Any interruption would kill this level of concentration which was why there were no phones and the door was locked at all times. No windows either.
When I briefly worked a day job the phone was our enemy. We had understanding management who tried to tackle the phone problems by hiring people to deal with it. Productivity went up and so did their profits.
Fast forward to the office environment I work in today. I don’t believe anyone gets in the zone there.
Everyone is a client contact, everyone a project manager (in addition to being designers,etc), and everyone is essentially grouped together socially. The phones are always ringing, people wander around interrupting others to answer questions instead of researching the answer themselves, all manner of people can interrupt (including management) and regularly do (since there is no do not disturb sign and no door to close), people are constantly coming and going, constant chit chat around the cubicles instead of predefined social areas, and did I mention the constant phone calls? Especially the dumb bastard who has kept trying to send a fax through on my office phone for the past five years. Of course not just one try but 4 or more over the space of an hour. Five years, still no clue.
“We should be working in fortresses of solitude, isolated from all distraction, with chilled iced tea and small snacks at the ready. Instead we plop ourselves into distraction cauldrons. Our social lives benefit immeasurably (and that’s not an altogether bad thing). But focus suffers as a result.” Hat tip reinvented.
Later: (08/03) People often say that I am overly critical, a bit harsh, and seemingly negative. Wow. On reread of the above some of that seems to be true, so in the interest of providing balance I should say something nice.
Their are many positive aspects to an open and communicative environment. The constant social interaction creates lasting friendships – many in the office are like family to me. It allows you to bounce off the intensity of others. I can see that my co-workers are working hard so I respond to that social pressure by working hard too (or by pretending to work hard). I have a wealth of knowledge just a shout away and can easily see what other people are working on. I’m pretty sure when ‘the company’ created our work spaces they were primarily just following industry trends and trying to spend as little money as possible (though they tend waste a ton in other areas). Our environment is extremely flexible – all that is really cool. Unless of course you are really focussed on learning, working, and being productive.
The ‘wearing of many hats’ has many benefits as well. I have always been an advocate of allowing people to generalise. It can bring fresh insights to projects to have different people to perform different roles. The fact that I have studied and applied all kinds of knowledge that could be used in many different roles within a team has been invaluable to me. Where else could I have lead huge information architecture projects with so little experience? This kind of approach has to be managed though, because eventually people need to focus on something. People need something to call there own. You can’t invest in training someone to be an instructional designer, have them invest themselves in the role, and then turn around and say that this year you will be a web producer. That shows a lack of respect for the role, the profession, and the person. It’s costly as well.
Was that positive?
Joel on Software – Where do These People Get Their (Unoriginal) Ideas?

How to be creative (gapingvoid)

“So you want to be more creative, in art, in business, whatever. Here are some tips that have worked for me over the years.”
Not really tips on being creative but good common sense ideas. A few notable’s,
2. Creativity is its own reward.
You never really reach your goals. By the time you get near to fulfilling them your criteria has already changed. Which is why by the time the world recognizes your genius, it won’t seem very real.
5. You are responsible for your own experience.
Nobody can tell you if what you’re doing is good, meaningful or worthwhile. The more compelling the path, the more lonely it is.
7. Keep your day job.
I’m not just saying that for the usual reason i.e. because I think your idea will fail. I’m saying it because to suddenly quit one’s job in a big ol’ creative drama-queen moment will always, always, always violate what I call “The Sex & Cash Theory”.
gapingvoid: How to be creative