Category Archives: Technology

Layers of the Old Dock

Lord Mayors' visit to Layers of the Old Dock, Liverpool ONE

image by Gareth Jones

This is an interactive artwork I made with Tim Shaw and was one of the several pieces that resulted from the Sound Spaces project with John Bowers and Stefan Kazassoglou. Sound Spaces was an investigation, through making, of various intriguing locations across Liverpool in 2015. One of the places we visited was Liverpool’s Old Dock, which is largely unseen to passersby being underground in the foundations of the Liverpool ONE leisure and retail development. Anyone can visit The Old Dock by booking onto one of the free guided tours offered by National Museums Liverpool, but I wondered whether 360-degree spherical photographs, layered with images and sounds evoking the site’s past and present, could engage passersby above ground. I worked with Tim Shaw to create a first prototype, which attracted sponsorship from Liverpool ONE to develop and install the piece for two years. The artwork went live in April 2017, some of the first visitors being a convention of Lord Mayors!

The piece is intended to be viewed on location in Liverpool ONE. But the image below gives a flavour of it.

Screenshot from Layers of the Old Dock

(Another) Apple tablet prediction

I’m going to join the throng and make a prediction about the much-hyped forthcoming Apple tablet computer (variously the iPad, or iSlate, or iTab etc.). Not whether it will have an OLED screen, or an E-Ink screen, or a new form of gestural interface, or a virtual keyboard, or be an e-book and e-newspaper reader, or be for a family to share and for use in classrooms. Plenty of others are discussing these possibilities with eager anticipation. My prediction is a very simple one: it will be successful. We will buy it, use it and find that it answers needs we never knew we had.

But tablet computers are not a new idea, so why will this device succeed where the others failed? In short, because we’re ready for it. We’re now familiar with touch-screen interfaces and multi-touch gestures due to using devices like the iPhone and watching films like Minority Report (and engaging with many other objects and media, and the ideas expressed in them, before that). Technology isn’t primarily what determines the success of this, or any other, product. The technologies that Apple’s new device will employ, whilst innovative, aren’t enough to get any but the ardent gadget fans and early adopters to use it. People’s practices, perceptions and expectations provide the acid test for any new product. Is it something we can understand the purpose of, envisage ourselves using, and see a role for in our lives? We develop this understanding from the ways we live our everyday lives and the artefacts that we employ to do so, it reflects our culture (to put it in larger terms).

Apple will have a hit with their new device, but only because the iPhone and Tom Cruise got us ready for it.

What’s new WordPress?

Aside from this site, I’ve set up a WordPress site for my research colleagues and I to share references, events, ideas, project progress and so on. We use a combination of posts and pages with numerous comments on each. So, we generate a lot of new content that we all need to keep on top of. I’ve installed the Subscribe 2 plug-in, which enables the site to send daily emails of updates, however it does not include amends to pages and some of our team would prefer to see a summary of the recent items on the site rather than via email (already having bulging in boxes). A search for plug-ins or widgets to display “recent updates” or similar on the WordPress site was proving fruitless and I thought the task impossible without resorting to coding my own solution, until I dug a little deeper on using RSS.

WordPress produces two RSS feeds out of the box, one for entries (‘blog posts) and one for comments (on both posts and pages). However the entries feed does not include new pages and page updates. Step forward another handy plug-in RSS Includes Pages which does exactly what it says on the tin. The team could now use their favourite RSS reader to view the feeds, including web-based tools such as Google Reader*. However it’s possible to go one step further and include the feeds on their source WordPress site itself. By adding RSS Widgets to the sidebar of the site  with the URLs of the site’s own feeds. (WordPress eats itself?)

*Google reader isn’t without its limitations. In particular it cannot read feeds from password protected websites (as ours is). No problem as another useful and free web application, Free My Feed, will generate new URLs given the feed URL and password details (which aren’t stored and are encrypted in the new feed URL).

A better briefcase

A couple of months ago I took the plunge and moved back to using an Apple Mac computer at home after seven years using various machines running Microsoft Windows (notwithstanding a Sinclair ZX Spectrum in the 1980s, a funky blue PowerMac G3 was my first ‘proper’ home computer). In the main, this has been a positive experience and I’ve more often found myself grumbling about handy Mac features I miss when using Windows than the other way around. However one tool I’ve really missed is the Windows briefcase. My professional life is such that I’m sometime working at home, sometimes working at my University desk and sometimes working on the move. Windows briefcase allowed me to keep copies of all my work folders on a USB stick that then synchronised with folders on my home computer. But briefcase only works with Windows and there didn’t appear to be a viable Mac alternative, until I discovered an even better way of doing things. Continue reading

Pesky PDFs: preserving Word bookmarks

I recently uploaded my PhD thesis as a single PDF file. I wanted to make this electronic copy as accessible and usable as possible. For such a large document (250 pages plus), this meant including bookmarks so that cross-references and table of contents are ‘clickable’ – they take you directly to the referred-to section. It also means that the document can be viewed as a hierarchy of section and subsection headings in PDF viewers such as Adobe Reader. Creating basic PDFs is easy, Mac OS X has a built-in “Save as PDF” option within print menus and there is freeware such as Cute PDF available for Windows, but this only creates simple PDFs that are effectively the output to a printer and include no bookmark information. Creating navigable PDFs is possible (there are some useful guides here and here), but turned out to be a bit more of a minefield than I expected. Continue reading

Website overhaul – part 1a, link redirection

Moving to a completely WordPress-driven site has many benefits but a minor downside is that the WordPress pages that replace my previous static pages now have different URLs. For example the “About me” page used to have the URL www.simon-bowen.com/aboutme.php but now has the URL www.simon-bowen.com/?page_id=2. To prevent frustration for those literally tens of people who might’ve bookmarked or linked to my website, I needed to put redirects in place. The easiest way to do so would be to create short pages that immediately re-directed people’s web-browsers to a new address using a meta refresh tag (tutorial here). However, this isn’t an ideal solution as it creates an extra step that both slows things down and causes confusion when someone uses their browser’s back function. I.e. the process to get to the page is: click a link/bookmark > receive redirection page > go to new page, so one step back is always the redirection page that then moves you forward again to the new page (and so on ad infinitum).

A much more elegant solution is to do the redirection server-side. Continue reading

Website overhaul – part 1, WordPress-ification

The much-needed re-vamp of my website has finally made it to the top of my to do list. Although, with other demands on my time, I’m going to have to do it in stages.

First step is the background technology that runs the site. Previously this site was a hybrid of static pages together with a ‘blog powered by WordPress. ‘Back in the day’ I had time to fiddle about hand-coding PHP and HTML but my time is rather more limited now and I’m often working at disparate locations. I need a system that enables me to update the site quickly and easily from anywhere. Step forward the increasingly marvellous, extendable and customisable WordPress. Continue reading

Electricity-dependency

There’s nothing like a power cut to make you realise how dependent we are on electricity. Like many others I’ve been affected by the heavy rains in the UK and have been without power at home for three days and intermittently since. There’s the obvious things such as lights, TV, internet access you miss. But then you notice all the other tasks that need that vital bit of juice – doing the ironing, putting the washer on, taking a shower and even the gas-fired central heating needs power for its control systems. What feeble creatures we are…

What are electronic products for?

This might seem like a daft question, it’s too broad and too simplistic. A camera is for taking photographs, a toaster is for making toast etc.[1] But I guess what I’m referring to is how electronic products fit into our lives. Do they become invisible tools that enable us to concentrate on the activities and social interactions that make our lives happier, fulfilling and productive? Or are they visible participants in the activities and social interactions themselves? Do I want a toaster that just makes my toast in the morning, or a toaster that chats with me about the weather whilst it’s heating bread? Invisible enablers, visible participants, or somewhere in between? Perhaps the question is really about what’s important in life – our relationships with each other or our relationship with the things we surround ourselves with.

[1] And even those definitions are somewhat limited. A camera can also be for making people feel self-conscious, for displaying your wealth, for filtering and re-enforcing your memories and so on…