Cutting out the Middle Man – Part 1 - mjcpk web design and development

Archive for January, 2011

Cutting out the Middle Man – Part 1

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011
The Internet: Cutting out the Middleman

The Internet: Cutting out the Middleman

The benefits of the Internet seem self evident:

  • it provides easy access to a massive amount of information. Like an enormous library that is open 24 hours a day and is available where ever there is an internet connection.
  • It makes communication easy via free email. It is now cheap and simple to stay in contact with friends and family no matter where they are in the world.
  • Shopping has been revolutionised. You can choose from any number of suppliers and get the cheapest price and the goods are delivered to you. It has made supermarket food deliveries possible. Books can be bought online with ease and be delivered to you door or even supplied as an ebook.

All of these points take an existing thing and make it easier and cheaper for use to do it but what is more interesting is the ways in which society is changing due to the internet.

Wikileaks

The internet so often cuts out the middleman from tradition transactions. We have seen this most strongly recently with Wikileaks. Ten years ago an individual with sensitive information would find it very difficult to release it to the public. They would have to risk a great deal to cultivate a relationship with a journalist and hope that the journalist was willing or even allowed to print it. The media is heavily controlled from the top and publications have strong political and moral leanings that effect their content. There is also only so much of an impact that one publication in one country can make. If the news isn’t picked up by others then it is quickly forgotten about when the next thing comes along.

The internet made Wikileaks possible. It provides a platform for them to communicate. Email and a website have allowed Wikileaks to promote themselves so that people know who to send things through and also provided a platform to publish the information they have received. As we’ve seen with the attacks on the Wikileaks site that alone wasn’t enough. The international nature of the internet and its cheapness to use meant that the information could be easily distributed across many sites thus making it impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.

The internet cut out the middleman for Wikileaks. They could provide information directly to ordinary people without being stopped or censored by the mainstream media and/or governments. The media were involved and did publish stories but they we only part of a web of information. No single outlet had an exclusive and everyone was free to check their information against the data online.

Fighting oppression

Politically we’ve seen the internet remove the middleman a lot lately. From China to Iran, from Burma to Tunisia we are seeing people circumvent the controls put on the flow of information by using the internet. It has enabled ordinary people to tell their story to ordinary people in other countries. Without the involvement of government diplomacy and media sensationalism people are finding common ground with those from far away. Their plight has driven people to act or demand action from those in charge.

The general populace is now more aware of global affairs due to this free flow of raw uncensored information. Governments are now finding it hard to cover up their dirty little secrets due to the eyes of the world being upon them. Accountability like this may counter corruption in a way that no previous methods could.

As we’ve seen with the Wikileaks saga nothing is clear cut. Opinions are divided as to whether the cable releases were right or wrong and whether or not anyone was put in unnecessary danger by the revelations. What we can say, however, is that there is no going back. Society is changing as a direct result of our ready access to information. It is now in the hands of all of us and we’ll have to see what we decide to do with it.

Guest Posts

Friday, January 21st, 2011

I’ve been writing a few guest posts lately and the first one has been published over at Netchunks.com.

The link is: http://www.netchunks.com/essential-tips-to-ensure-site-visibility-for-webmasters-and-designers/

I’d like to thank Shiva Chettri for giving me the opportunity.

I’m also looking into getting a few guest writers to add a couple of blog posts here.

New Site Design

Sunday, January 16th, 2011

The site has just received a new design. The old one was looking a little dated and the blog design didn’t exactly match the main site design.

The content is still the same for the moment but over the next month the portfolio is going to be updated and some new features will be added.

This is all part of a number of big changes happening at mjcpk. So watch this space!

Essential Tools for new web designers

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

The term Web Designer is quite loose. You might be a designer who never codes, a coder who dabbles in design or, more often, someone who is a jack of all trades. Freelance Web Designers can often be a one person band. The client expects you to handle everything to do with their website: domain registration, hosting, email, design, coding, databases, seo, site submissions, promotion, visitor statistics and more.

So how do you handle all these extra jobs and keep your clients happy? The trick is to use a number of free services and applications to take the load off. Here’s 10 to get you started.

1. Dynamic Drive Favicon Generator –  http://tools.dynamicdrive.com/favicon/

It is the little details that are important in site design. Professional sites have a favicon and so should yours. This tool creates a favicon from a image that you uploadand provides the .ico file and code to use it.

2. Stripe Generator – http://www.stripegenerator.com/

A single colour background can be flat and unimpressive but making your own tiling striped background isn’t always a quick and easy process. This tool allows you to create them quickly, preview your results and even try out a number of different ideas.

3. Background tile generator – http://bgpatterns.com/

If stripes aren’t your thing how about a patterned background (with or without a texture)? Again, it is quick and easy leaving you time to worry about the bigger issues.

See http://singlefunction.com/15-online-background-generators/ for more background tools

4. Google Webmaster Tools – www.google.com/webmasters/tools/

For essential info about your site Webmaster Tools is a must. Register for a Google account and sign your site up for free. Highlights include: number of inbound links to your site, submit a sitemap to ensure Google finds your pages, any errors Google found while indexing your pages, what people are searching for when your site appears in the listings, keywords on your site and much more. All of this is collected for you and in one easy place. It will take a bit of time and learning to be able to make use of some of the data but it is worth the effort.

5. Google Analytics – www.google.com/analytics/

How many visitors has your site had? Which sites did they come from? How long did they stay? What were they searching for? Did they perform any specific tasks while they were there? What browser did they use? What language do they speak? Which country do they come from?

If you want to know the answers to these questions and, more importantly, be able to tell your clients then you need Google Analytics. Add a small bit of code to every page on your site and then Google does the rest and displays pretty graphs and statistics for your viewing pleasure.

6. Google Adwords + Adsense - http://adwords.google.com/ and www.google.co.uk/adsense

These tools build on the previous two. Once you have reliable data about your site you can do something with it. If the number of visitors is low then maybe you could use an Adwords campaign to bring in more traffic. If you have lots of visitors maybe you can use Adsense to generate some income. With statistics to back you up it is far easier to sell an idea to a client (or even yourself).

Like all the Google tools they save you time and money which are both precious to a freelancer. Google also provides a lot of information on how to use their tools effectively. This includes written and video tutorials and guides.

7. W3 Schools validator – http://validator.w3.org/

Ensure you have kept to the standards with this tool. It is a good way to improve the standard of your code. Don’t just validate at the end of a project though. Check repeatedly as you go and fix errors as you find them. Most importantly try and understand why something was an error and learn from the experience.

8. FireFTP – http://fireftp.mozdev.org/

FireFTP is a plugin for the Firefox browser that lets you transfer files to your website by FTP. There are lots of FTP clients out there but this one is always with me, in my browser. It is quick and simple to use and it is easy enough to transfer the FTP account details between computers if you use lots of different ones.

9. FireBug – http://getfirebug.com/

I first started using Firebug to check for errors in javascript but I quickly learned that it could do so much more. One of the handiest features is the ability to edit the CSS of a page directly and see the results in the browser. The is helpful both to learn how things work and tweak your designs without having to go back and forth to a text editor and then refresh the browser every time. It can also edit HTML in the same way.

10. Rank Checker http://tools.seobook.com/firefox/rank-checker/

Rank checker allows you to enter a number of search terms and to check where your site ranks for those terms on a number of different search engines.  I routinely check the rankings for multiple sites across 5 search engines. With about 20 keywords each, checking them would nearly be a full time job without Rank Checker.  The results can be exported as a spreadsheet for conversion into graphs and charts to show clients if you want.

So there we have it, 10 tools I wouldn’t be without. They’re all free to use and save me a massive amount of time. Not only will using these tools help you do your job but they will also teach you new things on the way. The only way to be a good Web Designer/Developer is by continuing to discover and understand new things. The web changes quickly so it is important not to be left behind.

In the eye of the beholder

Monday, January 10th, 2011

Working on computers everyday, as I do, I worry about eye strain. In fact, I only started to need glasses when I began using a computer everyday at college. To keep your eyes healthy they recommend that you take a break from the screen every 15 minutes and, ideally, look out of a window. It is important to get your eyes focusing at different distances to keep the focusing muscles in shape.

The only problem with this is that it isn’t easy to take a break every 15 minutes. When I’m in the flow I can lose hours just like that. For a while I had solved the problem by having my desk in front of a view that looked out towards the North Downs in Kent. It was a pleasant view that drew my eyes away from the screen often enough to give my eyes a work out. Unfortunately I now have to work in a room with no window. There is a rooflight window for natural light. Now that I’ve lost my view I have started to worry about my sight again.

I’ve always though it a shame that we can’t just put a photo of a nice view next to the screen to achieve the same results. Obviously that won’t work as there is no depth to a photo and your eyes only need to focus at the same distance as the screen. Then I hit on the next best thing!

psuedo-view - anit-eyestrain device

A very basic diagram of how it works.

I call my little invention the psuedo-view. I haven’t had a chance to make one and anyone is welcome to take my idea and market it if they want to. If you do could you please send me one or two of the finished product and token payments are always welcome!

The idea is that for each eye there is a tube to look into. They are separate from each other and contain three transparent plates in them. A foreground image is printed on the closest plate to the eye, a mid-ground one on the second and the furthest one has the background on it. The three images combined show a photo of a nice view. Both eyes see the same images.

Here’s the clever bit. By adjusting the positions of a pair of plates (left and right) we can make it so the eyes have to refocus to go from looking at the foreground to looking at the midground or background. Just like in real life.

I haven’t been able to test this but it seems like it should work given my meagre understanding of how the eyes work. Essentially I was envisioning a set of binoculars with adjustable images inside them. It would be more practical (and possible I think) to slim them down to a pair of glasses you could pop on and off easily for a break now and then. You could even sell executive versions that play you soothing music.

If you have and comments or suggestions I’d be happy to hear them.