Thursday, 19 May 2022

Summer Mornings and Productivity

Summer Mornings

I've always tended to need only about six hours of sleep and I'm a fairly broken sleeper - I wake many times in the night and turn over. I do sometimes feel the benefit of getting a good eight hours, but can quite happily get by with less.

This pattern is exacerbated in the summer months. As the days get longer and the light evenings and - particularly - mornings draw out, I find I can't sleep as long as I can in the darker months of winter. If I wake at 5am, like I did this morning, then I struggle to go back to sleep and find myself getting up and wishing to use the time productively.

Often, this finds me sitting at my desk and working on whatever coding project I'm currently thinking about - or watching YouTube!

Productivity

This month's project is to try and make a Facebook Advert Generator, following a suggestion from Richard at DW Cars. It's surprising just how much benefit can be gained from a consistent approach to any online advertising - identity and consistency are vitally important here. You need to engage your audience and then become recognisable with each new view.

What I'm trying to do with this simple app is to help with that consistency by providing a template-based framework within which adverts that are as similar as possible in look and feel can be created very quickly with minimal input or effort.

I find that, working for a couple of hours - maybe between 6 and 8 in the morning - I can get a lot of work done in that short and otherwise wasted period between sleep and going out to work. These days I'm not the sort of coder who can spend ten hours of concentrated effort on a task, so a couple of hours at the most now seems to suit me well.

I'm not going to charge for this once it is done. I'll revisit it when it is complete and include a download link to the app and the manual when it's production ready. That will be a few days away at least - I still have to implement the splash objects and photo effect options yet and then decide how to handle PDF output for exporting to other media.

Saturday, 14 May 2022

Heartstopper Reflections

The Passage of Time

When I left school at 18, I didn't want (and couldn't afford) to go to university and honestly had no idea what I wanted to do. I spent two years on the dole - along with thousands of others during the Thatcher era and was glad to get a job working for the MOD right here in Jurby. It meant I could walk to work - which was great as I didn't want to learn to drive at the time - that soon changed and I enjoy driving now very much.

I never settled in any job really, and I'm delighted that I now work for myself and can write my own agenda. I like the freedom to decide to do nothing - I know I don't take advantage of it - but the freedom to do so is still there. I like the freedom to just say YES when Fred and Elizabeth say "Are you coming to Africa for a month?" And, yes, that means I must make a positive response to the email I just received­čśÄ

I think I love that my work is so varied. I'm just the IT guy! Well, not really. Taking time last year to build a gunroom for someone made a refreshing change and reminded me that I'd helped my friends building an extension and a workshop - as well as a massive stone garden wall - when I was much younger and fitter than I am now. I now spend my time doing the usual PC repairs and support, but also many hours each week doing CAD, 3-D printing and CNC machining - something for which I have no qualifications whatsoever - just like everything else I do!

It's all computer-controlled these days and one drawing program is much like another and the ability to program apparently can be easily extended to cover everything from computers to micro-controllers and even CNC machines. I never was any good a languages at school, but then we didn't really do C, Python, HTML, JavaScript or CSS. They are all both easier and harder than French or German!

The Passage of Life

I come from a time not just of economic hardship, but one so different from now in so many different ways. I'm naturally shy and anxious by nature. I'm quick to blame myself and equally quick to bounce back - most of the time anyway. If I was pretending to be an analyst, I'm a bit of a manic depressive with fairly severe agoraphobia and a tendency to repress my feelings. I'm actually not too bad with the open spaces bit, it's the crowds, public spaces, new places and new situations that have all been known to bring on a full-scale panic attack. You learn to cope, you train yourself to get better at it and you get by!

I think it makes me tend towards a low profile. I'm not putting myself out there - I'm the one sitting at home behind the keyboard after all - and I don't want to rock the boat or even raise by head above the gunwales.

Slow to Change

So, another week later and Heartstopper is still in my thoughts. Like many people of my age, apparently, I have enjoyed such an uplifting and thought provoking show. Many of the thoughts and feelings, however, have been - to say the least - mixed. I can see so much of myself in the amalgamation of Nick and Charlie that it truly can be painful to watch at times. Such fine acting from the two young leads really makes it feel so real, but raw too.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I came of age in a time very different from today. Public perception and even the laws governing our behaviour were very different than they are now and that is one of the most profoundly uplifting things about being Manx. It may have taken far too long, but the Isle of Man appears to have embraced equality and diversity pretty well - and certainly much better than many other places.

Because I've always kept to myself, finding any sort of romantic connection was always going to be difficult. I'm not going to do the pubs and clubs thing and I'm probably not going to start a conversation even if I am in a social situation!

I didn't kiss someone romantically until I was 38 years old - and yes, that's more than 20 years later than it should have been. That that person was a man didn't come as a complete surprise to me, but I knew right away that it was me being myself at last. It took me more than ten more years to come to terms with it and be able to admit it to other people, but better late than never. So I find I can relate to Nick's confusion and Charlie's anxiety pretty much in equal measure and it is probably that, above all, that makes a show like this resonate so deeply.

Do I regret that my journey has been such a slow one? Well, possibly. I do accept however that it has been the only journey I could have made and the pace of change is my own. I've been out for a few years now and the response from friends and customers has been the expected mix of surprise, affirmation and overall acceptance. I should have done it years ago - except I simply couldn't!

So, why the change of Facebook profile picture to include a rainbow flag? Well, why not? I guess I just need to affirm who I am to myself and there isn't any need for an explanation but you get one for free anyway. I've never felt the need to be a part of the Pride movement - I just get on with my life, but I'm comfortable and happy to say that I'm Gay and there's certainly no shame in that.

If you haven't seen it already, try and watch Heartstopper - romance is romance whatever the orientation of the couple and you'll thank me for it later!



Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Television: A reflection on lost Time

Binge-Watching - A 21st Century Phenomena

I'm too much of a YouTube addict to watch much TV anymore. TV with the family every evening used to be a ritual that the computer has broken for me. We do still watch some stuff, but mostly our few regular documentaries and my brother and I enjoy a bit of Sci-Fi (Dad doesn't!). We have Amazon Prime and I'm happy to download anything else if I see something of interest.

I've also never understood the need to binge-watch anything until recently. I know it's not a new thing, but I have always preferred to take my time and draw out the pleasure episode by episode. I first changed my mind about that when the "Wheel of Time" finally came out on Amazon over the Christmas break, watching the whole first season in just three days and finding I enjoyed it immensely because I kept in the flow of the story.

There are many detractors - mostly die-hard fans of the original books who will never accept a bit of a change to their beloved story - but I really enjoyed this first series and look forward to the second and beyond.

Profoundly Thought-Provoking

In the last two weeks, however, I found myself watching a complete series binge-style, and then having to watch it again just a few days later. When you watch four hours of TV, twice, download the soundtrack playlist and watch all the YouTube interviews of the cast and crew, then I guess that borders on obsession, but sometimes - very rarely - a show comes along that is so profoundly perfect and thought provoking in so many ways that it just resonates.

Ok, I found out about it by chance, just because Joe Locke is from the Isle of Man and it made the local news websites that I do kind of keep up-to-date with. It isn't something that would otherwise have been on my radar, as I'm not really the target audience - forty years too old! So, on a quiet weekend with no work - for a change - I decided to watch Heartstopper.

I don't want to gloss over the reviews and reception of the show - it has almost universal positive reviews and audience reaction has been perhaps the best Netflix have ever had for a show. I know many will feel that that's not saying much!

Heartstopper is absolutely the best TV show I've ever watched. Everyone - regardless of age or orientation should watch it and have their hearts warmed - and maybe stopped a few times too.

It really is so refreshing to have a light-hearted drama that is so totally warm and approachable for a change. The angst is minimal and the feel-good factor of a happy ending is just wonderful.

And, getting to the point at last, it really does make one think. What would my world and my life have been like if things were like they are now forty years ago when I was a Teen. I come from a different time - a time that now seems so different that it must be another world. A time without acceptance, without inclusion and for many, a time without hope. A time when you wouldn't even dare think that you might be LGBTQ+, let alone talk to someone about it.

Our western world is almost there. We have a dream of inclusion and an end to discrimination that is, very nearly for most people, a reality. Of course, there will always be people who simply cannot accept that others may be different, but that will always be the case anywhere.

Sadly, some of my favourite places in the world are almost polar opposites, countries where tribalism, evangelical religions (many of them) and sexuality all come into constant conflict that borders on the truly dangerous. It doesn't mean you don't feel welcome, just that you keep looking over your shoulder!

In the far-flung corners of the world, time moves more slowly than it seems to move at home. But, times do change and perhaps shows like this can help some places to move in the right direction.

What Could Have Been?

So, would my life have been different? Probably not much when all is said and done. I'd still be as shy and anxious either way, so I'd probably still be doing what I'm doing right now, sitting in front of a screen and dreaming of what could have been - if only things had been different.

If I've learned anything in the forty years since I was fifteen, it is that you just need to get on with life and take it as it comes. If you can't fix it, don't stress about it! Change takes TIME and Tempus Fugit!



#heartstoppertv

Saturday, 26 February 2022

Another New Website - DWCars.info

Here's another new website - this time a major update for the most popular site in the portfolio that I manage, with more than a million hits to the previous iterations of the site. Like many others at the moment, Richard at DW Cars felt that their website needed a better reach and a more mobile-friendly nature. Once again, I turned to a pre-built template as the basis for the site and then heavily modified it within the framework provided to achieve our aims.

Compared to the site constructed for Hearth, this is a much more involved and complicated undertaking, just the list of software required is a testament to that, as is the amount of time involved in the creation and testing of the combined systems necessary.

Graphics and Video: Serif Drawplus X8, Adobe Photoshop CC, Paint.NET, Adobe Premiere Pro.

Web Code: Microsoft Expression Web, Atom, Windows Notepad.

Web Tools: FileZilla, Opera Browser.

Development: Anywhere Software's B4J, Java 14, InnoSetup Compiler, DB Browser (SQlite), JavaFX SceneBuilder by Gluon.

So, the big difference here is the database application that now sits on Richard's PC and manages the content and updates of the site. All the stock is entered into the database and then the software can build all the pages quickly and cleanly. This ensures that they remain consistent and error free. As an added bonus, the same software can create a datasheet for each vehicle and make that available as a PDF file that can be emailed to a customer or printed out as a handout.

I've always been a fan of offline website management - believe-it-or-not, the coding is simpler than trying to do the same thing online and I find that any changes are quicker and easier to implement and deploy.

I use a RAD environment called B4J. It uses a BASIC language dialect and form layout files to create an application that is ultimately compiled to the JAVA language, but the code is simpler to understand and quicker to implement. This JAVA application is then packaged as a windows program and deployed to the client's computer.

The program provides a front-end to a SQLite database that provides speed and resiliency for the data and allows a single file to store the entire website - something that makes backups a breeze. Adding a new vehicle becomes a simple case of ticking a few boxes and dragging some photos into a window.

Sunday, 6 February 2022

Back to Websites

After a long period of inactivity on the website design and publishing front, I'm finally back in the production saddle, with a couple of projects being worked on at the moment.

I'm delighted to be helping www.hearth.co.com to bring their new website together. Based on a very simple and clean-looking template, the site is initially a single page that is device responsive and elegant.

Hearth Website

I'm loving working with pre-made bootstrap templates more and more as I slowly get used to the CSS that the main part of the platform uses. As always, the more you do, the easier it becomes. Using a pre-made template as a starting point dramatically reduces the time-to-complete on a project like this. In this case we took considerably less than 20 hours for the whole page, including all the graphics, text and quite a bit of troubleshooting on the hosting side.

It always surprises me when I add up just how much software goes into the creation of even something as relatively simple as this: Photoshop, DrawPlus X8, Paint.NET, Notepad, Expression Web, Atom, Opera and FileZilla all have their part to play in the construction of assets and editing of code.

I use DrawPlus X8 to create graphical assets - buttons, logos, etc. It is a bit long in the tooth now, but I'm very familiar with it and well aware of the limitations. I do have Serif's Affinity suite, but just can't quite be as productive in the newer tools yet.

Photo editing and retouching is split between Adobe Photoshop and Paint.NET. I could probably do almost all of it in the latter package - which is free - but Photoshop has the power to do some really amazing stuff very quickly.

Like some of the other software I prefer, Expression Web is a competent editor, but now very out of date and unsupported. I'm slowly switching over to Atom - a very modern, open-source code editor with some really great features. I still need to have something like notepad handy as well, for quick edits and temporary space.

Finally, My browser of choice is Opera - they are almost all Chromium-based at this point anyway. It has a nice developer console that helps with debugging javascript and css codes. Upload to the final webspace is with FileZilla, a great free FTP client that I've used for many years now.

Don't get me wrong, websites can and do sometimes cost thousands, but with a little care, you can have something that reflects positively on your business for just a few hundred pounds.