creativity, Tech, Work

The Universal Instruction Manual

DIY

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

I still have a copy of a book that was once the bible for anyone who built or fixed PCs, it weighed about a kilogram and was roughly two inches thick, could break your toe if you dropped it on your foot and doubled as a doorstop when a new edition replaced it. It was one of many such books, many of which are still updated and published today, which were the go-to place for guidance when the machine or network you were fixing wasn’t cooperating. I have similar books for DIY and cookery as many people do. I also used to maintain lists and folders of useful settings and tips that I’ve either found or worked out but I find that I’m referring to these less as the smartphone is taking over.

I recently set up my new laptop and there are a couple of things I like to tweak on any new Windows setup but as it’s been a while since I last did it I couldn’t remember where the settings were – especially as one, the setting for turning the Caps Lock key off with the Shift key as on an old manual typewriter, seems to keep moving to different dialogs. Not a problem, I just picked up the phone and searched for it and the answer was provided via Google. Other search engines are available, of course.

The internet is an amazing resource for learning in this way, I developed an Access-based database ten years ago by doing the same thing, searching for how other people have achieved the action I wanted, whatever your struggling with someone will have a suggestion or a whole tutorial. At work I’ve found instructions on changing the side indicator lens on one of the vans and at home how to reset the service indicator on my old car. Naturally there are instructions for exercise, positive thinking, painting, brewing, relaxing, productivity, using tools and how to do home repairs – as we noticed from the number of people during the first Covid lockdown attempting their own glazing. The other advantage of the internet is that you not only have words and pictures but video too.

As well as the amount of crowdsourced instructions manufacturers also have their product manuals online too, which is useful if, like me, you can never find the manual for something you’ve not used for ten years – like my car battery charger I needed during the first lockdown which is an old piece of equipment yet the manual was there on the manufacturer’s website, which saved me half an hour of looking through a large box of instruction sheets.

I have another book that is called “How to do just about everything” – well, the internet on a smartphone is like having a million page illustrated book in your pocket called “Now we really mean how to do everything”.

Of course not everything in life should be attempted without professional training – gas repair and dentistry come to mind – also not all the advice and instructions are entirely accurate or advisable and as the saying goes “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”, but as with going to the pub it’s all about knowing your limits.

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Business, creativity, Design, Tech, Typography

Simplicity is Not Always Easy

Wood type

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Often an organisation or business will unveil a new logo, branding or slogan which is met by members of the public saying, like they also do when a footballer misses a goal, “I could do better than that” or “my six year old could do that with a packet of crayons.”
Such was the case with the London 2012 logo and the Scottish tourist board’s slogan of “Welcome to Scotland” which was ridiculed for its apparent simplicity – comments like “they spent hundreds of thousands on consultants and all they come up with is that, it’s bloody obvious.”

While it’s true that the end result is simple and obvious it was no doubt also the result of a long period of consultation on the wording of the message, then the design of the presentation of the message. Just because the end result seems obvious doesn’t mean it was from the start, hundreds of slogans were probably trialled on the public and expert groups and it could have been that something like “Get High on Scotland” combined with a talking Haggis could have been more memorable, made more of an impact and was now the slogan, the public would never have been aware that “Welcome to Scotland” had even been considered.

If a branding is seen as complex, showy, clever or edgy then the critical public feel that the money that was spent has been used, like it in some way involved more work, like a simple design would have been knocked out in five minutes between lunch and a few beers paid for from the budget. Was Kentucky’s slogan “Unbridled Spirit” which derived from the state’s big industries of horse racing and distilleries worth more just because it was a play on words and as such “a bit clever”?

Such armchair experts have never designed a logo. The last one I designed passed through numerous stages as it had to contend with people who really wanted to hold onto the old logo and then it evolved from two separate proposals that had elements combined into the final design. And I’m not even a professional designer.

Of course not all designs are successful, Nottinghamshire County Council’s “N” logo was dropped quickly due to negative public reaction, but again this was partly because the logo didn’t really symbolise the county but also because many people thought that the design’s simplicity indicated a lack of effort, that it was a waste of tax payers’ money. Combine this with the often repeated “it was just done on a computer” – by which they also mean “with no effort” (because the computer does all the work, of course) and the simpler logo will always seem worse value. I have encountered clients who insist on filling every square millimetre of an advert space with pictures and text because they think that white space is wasted space, I’ve been told that “customers want to see lots of pictures” and “the logo needs to fill the space” and so on, with my suggestions that white space helps to guide the eye around the ad and a cluttered design looks unprofessional went ignored because, well what would I know? As for distorting logotypes to fill a space so much that the end result would make the original typeface designer cry, don’t get me started.

There’s a video online that is a cartoon of a conversation between a designer and client in which the client keeps wanting to add more colour, more complexity etc, my takeaway phrase that I’ve used often was from the designer: “unbe-f***ing-lievable.”

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creativity, DIY, Gadgets, Home

Junk Shop Days

Milk Cans

Image by Kerstin Riemer from Pixabay

I like second-hand and charity shops, not only for the benefits to charity and the environment of recycling, or because I’m being fashionable but largely to get things I couldn’t afford years ago amazingly cheaply now. Of course the same is true of Ebay. I’m missing these shops at the moment, but when they reopen I’m on a mission to find garden planters.

Looking around my home much of what I own is pre-owned, or pre-loved to use the modern term. As I described in an earlier post my patchwork Sony stereo is still fantastic; my trio of Olympus DSLRs are used but still going strong, even if the power switch of one needs the occasional squirt of contact cleaner; my old Sony smartphone came pre-distressed so I wouldn’t be if I scratched it. To me even my second hand Citroen felt like a brand-new car, as I remarked at the time. Last year I even broke my usual rule of not buying second-hand shoes and got some lovely red Puma suede trainers. Unused £40 Sony headphones for £12 on Ebay without a box, lampshades, shirts and books from our many charity shops, as well as most of the vases and ornaments I own – including two blue tealight holders that I saw one evening in the window of a charity shop on the way home and had to wait four days to buy on the Saturday afterwards.  Just about every vase and ornament I have was a charity shop find and it’s a little joy to find a beautiful object that you weren’t even looking for.

Our society’s tendency of replacing something because it’s a couple of years old and there’s a new one so why not means there’s lots of stuff available with much life left in it. The phone couldn’t hold as many apps as a newer one and I have to update it manually to avoid the huge updates to built-in apps I don’t use and there are similar compromises with other older tech but if you can live with that then these things are bargains – I only replaced it when the touchscreen stopped working. The irony is that good condition old stuff can be bought cheaply, although much is becoming fashionable now and tatty old stuff can be sold in retro shops for a fortune because it’s “authentic” – I’ll return to this subject in another article. It seems that second-hand bookshops are increasing in number, whether due to the cost of new books, a backlash against ebooks or fashion – walls in trendy hipster loft apartments filled with “authentic” old books – I don’t know.

I’m writing this on my “new” desktop PC which I bought because my last desktop was finally showing signs of not being able to cope any more. No 1 was an HP Compaq “enterprise” PC, built in 2006 with a then state-of-the-art Pentium 4 processor and rescued from a skip a few years later. It languished in my apartment for a few more years until I put in a new graphics card, sound card, hard drive etc to make it capable of running flight sims and Windows 7. It’s been fine for many years but eventually it just couldn’t keep up with modern browsers, note apps and so on, finally a number of strange behaviours made me feel it was perhaps starting to fail. I looked at brand-new PCs but am out of touch with modern specs and didn’t feel that the software I use would need an absolutely new PC. I didn’t know where to start so searched Ebay for pre-owned HP pcs – why not stick to what you know. Eventually I narrowed it down to a particular model with a good spec and again it was a rock-solid Enterprise-spec machine and I could get a cleaned-up and reinstalled machine for £60, delivered next-day from a company thirty miles away. It arrived, not a spec of dust inside it. I installed the graphics card and sound card from the old machine, installed Windows 10 using the Windows 7 licence that came with it and it’s perfect, much faster, much quieter, much smaller. The way computer hardware is today older PCs can still have very much life left in them, my current laptop – another HP which originally cost over £400 but I bought second-hand for £70 – is similarly fantastic, fast, small and light, and only needed a new power adaptor shortly after I bought it, and a new battery eventually.

Then there are cameras – today DSLRs are in the twenty megapixel range, why would anyone want a ten megapixel one – someone who can accept that this size of sensor can produce images big enough to have printed and certainly detailed enough for Flickr. Someone who can’t afford the latest shiny thing. Me. Buying into discontinued product ranges can work out well too.

A couple of years ago I visited our branch of Cash Converters (a UK chain of second-hand stuff shops) and browsed as usual then nearly squealed with excitement on seeing a lens for my number 2 Olympus DSLR, or more to the point the price sticker on it. Alongside examples of the 14-42 short zoom and 40-150 telephoto lenses I already own was Olympus’ monster of a zoom, the 70-300 (equivalent to a 140-600mm in 35mm terms) that I had looked for on Ebay a few years back and given up on. It currently retails new for around £450 and on Ebay second-hand for around £200. The sticker said £59.99. I thought “I’ll just double check on Ebay” then after a few milliseconds my internal voice slapped me round the face and shouted “NO, JUST BUY IT”, it also helped that at that moment a member of staff unlocked the same cabinet to put something in it, “oh, while you’re in there…” I said. I bought it and it’s amazing, even if it did require some rearranging of my camera bag to accommodate it and the shorter zoom – needless to say much thought over which lens would be most usefully attached permanently to the second DSLR, and a helpful drawing to show the overlap of the focal lengths (a visual version of my friend Jane’s famed comparison spreadsheets), helped everything to fit nicely. The long, long lens really needed an Image Stabilised DSLR and No 2 Olympus had the dodgy power switch so turning to Ebay again I bought Olympus No 3 for a very cheap price and it’s been flawless for years since. No 2 still lingers as a backup body.

Another side of this is buying things that are not of any use but you just want to own – you might only justify getting them if they’re cheap. My example of this is a camera I first saw on holiday in Guernsey in 1991, a camera I still have the brochure for, the brochure I just browsed regularly being unable to afford the camera itself. It was an Olympus OM101, one of the last of their film SLRs. After twenty-six years I bought a fully-working camera that cost hundreds new for a tenner on ebay. I could load it with film and use it but at the moment it’s taking pride of place on my bookshelf.

Back to the useful stuff though, when I moved to a house with a garden I needed a lawnmower, I looked at a few options and decided to wait a bit. Then I just happened to visit Cash Converters and saw a Bosch mower for £35, in its box. I didn’t get it immediately but went back for it later. When I opened the box I found that this mower that was £130 new in the Argos across the road from where I’d bought it was, in fact, brand new, never opened.

Earlier in Cash Converters I saw a compact camera, it had languished in the cabinet for months, I’d not really paid much attention to what it was but the price had steadily dropped, I took notice when I saw the price had dropped to £12.99. I looked more closely and noticed it was more than just a cheap compact, it had manual controls and was clearly made of metal. Turns out it was a Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3, a camera which was, when launched in 2008, a very well-reviewed, £400 piece of technology. It was described in glowing terms in magazine articles, a rare combination of compact size, solid build quality, and a lens that was unusual for a compact. It was brilliant and today, second-hand, they usually sell for over £100. Like my Olympus DSLRs the 10 megapixel sensor will still take great pictures. This particular LX3 had clearly had a hard life, it’s metal shell was dented at the bottom corner, the paint had rubbed off underneath, some of the lettering had worn off too but the screen was virtually unmarked, all the buttons were there and worked and the lens itself was spotless. You’d assume there was something wrong with it but the only reasons it was at that price were that it had no charger, it needed a new (£6, compatible) battery and it was a little worn around the edges. This camera had been ignored and unloved just because it wasn’t cutting-edge like it had been in 2008 and was tatty yet I knew that it still had the same professional features that made it stand out.
  So yes, dear readers, I bought it.
    Would have been rude not to.

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creativity, Productivity, Psychology, Society, Uncategorized

Enjoy The Silence

Sunset over the Trent (© Andy Vickers)

Sunset over the Trent (© Andy Vickers)

I’ve just spent an hour doing something magical that everyone should try – nothing. I’ve just sat in silence with a cup of tea and watched the sunset without the modern nagging, guilty feeling that I should be doing something else, and without defaulting to the usual time-filler of watching something on TV or idly clicking around on the internet. In that time I let my mind wander, I thought through something that I needed to sort out in my mind, I just didn’t try to guide my thoughts too much.

Decades ago it was said that automation would give people more leisure time and they’d be able to relax more and be happier. Now though even at home we feel we must be doing something; if it’s not cleaning or cooking it’s watching the latest must-watch TV series, or catching up with Facebook or Twitter, or blogging (ahem), even holidays or days out have to be awesome experiences.  When you’re not working you should be socializing or partying or at least telling everyone who you’re not with what you’re doing via social media – if TV ads are to be believed.

Creativity and relaxation are enhanced by not having distractions so taking some time out has many benefits. Time is precious and sometimes doing nothing isn’t wasting time, doing something, anything, for the sake of it however, is.

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creativity, Gadgets, Psychology, Tech, Uncategorized, Work

Pushing The Right Buttons

Keyboard (courtesy of Serif)

Keyboard (courtesy of Serif)

It may sound slightly obsessive but my search for the ideal keyboard is more drawn out than my search for the perfect pen.

The fashion today, often wrongly attributed to Apple, is for the flat, minimalist, chiclet keyboards which were originally applied to cheaper home computers in the 70s and 80s but made popular more recently by Sony’s Vaio laptop range however the best keyboards I’d used were classic IBMs. The first PC I owned myself was a 486DX based IBM, a huge beige box with a battered compact keyboard, a version of the PS/2 keyboard (the model M2, or so I’ve just been informed by Google Image Search). I also own an earlier IBM too though I’ve not actually used it.

It was a great keyboard to use and since then the only keyboard that came close to it was a cheap one that cost less than a fiver from Argos (it was replaced when my new PC came without PS/2 ports – I couldn’t find an adaptor).  This was true until a few days ago when the Lenovo one I’m using now was delivered which I bought because it’s one of the descendants of those IBM PS/2s.   You can tell.

One important aspect of a keyboard is comfort and this is lacking in most modern keyboards, the Lenovo for example has good key travel, good cushioning and good return response which results in comfortable typing over long periods without numb fingertips while still retaining a pleasing clicking sound which is subtle and low-pitched, a kind of burble when you’re typing quickly which is almost a vocalisation of the words you’re pouring into the on-screen page. I also find that the tall key caps mean you hit two keys at once less often, the one you’re just touching stays put and guides your finger down with the one you were aiming for. These are the qualities I liked with the IBM keyboards and had been missing in the many others I’ve tried over the years. Modern flat keyboards are all very well but many can be less accurate, harsher or squishier, just not as satisfying to use for long periods, even if by the same token many are, to be fair, really quite good – I own one bluetooth one for the Nexus 7 which has a nice clicky feel to it but even that’s just not the same.

Of course there are the even more expensive keyboards with the same kind of mechanical keyswitches that old keyboards possessed which are beloved of gamers for their millisecond accuracy but I don’t need that level of sophistication.

Keyboards like the Lenovo aren’t pretty or cool and minimalist but they work, and despite being low-cost they don’t sacrifice comfort and accuracy and that’s what’s important. The daft thing is that they’re so old-fashioned looking they’re at risk of becoming popular as retro tech.

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creativity, Gadgets, Meta, Productivity, Psychology, Tech, Uncategorized, Work

Too Many Ideas and Missing The Tree

Forest

Forest

I’m struggling again with productivity, I have too many proto-articles and as such when I sit down to write I get struck with something called Workload Paralysis which is basically the inability to begin because there are too many places to start. I also forget what I could write about as my notes app and notebook have too narrow a window to show me my options, I can’t see everything in one glance – I need an overview, a priority schedule – which is something that technology isn’t brilliant at.

As I can’t find space for a full size whiteboard I’ve bought a white clipboard and some fineline whiteboard pens – onto this clipboard I will write one-liners – article titles that is, not quips. This way I’m hoping to be able to get some inspiration without having to scan through pages of paper or lists of notes on a screen.

This is why I’m still a firm believer in the physical and tangible media in concert with technology rather than as a replacement across the board, just sometimes it’s easier to deal with words on paper, they’re often much quicker to access, handle or process. And in my case having the ideas list on a screen doesn’t just mean I can’t see the forest for the trees, I often can’t even see the tree.

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