Morula

Morula

Bassist and composer. UI developer & designer by day.

Living in Rotherhithe, UK.

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The Dark Side Of The Web Worker (Season One)

Talking over the years with people working in my same field — web design and development — I’ve recently outlined a recurrent pattern and hopefully learnt a couple of strong lessons.

SYNOPSIS

If you’re building your own business, sooner or later you’ll find yourself stuck with some dodgy clients. It’s no surprise at all. Somehow you will try to make it through, without losing too much patience, money, or in the worst cases: health. Of course, the time you’re going to waste with no tangible results for your business, will be another serious collateral damage.

Regardless of a double digits years’ experience, a proven record of quality and success, despite many public endorsements and recommendations on networks like LinkedIn or similar, you’ll be facing two kinds of situations, in which someone will try to heavily undermine your confidence in your own skills.

Pilot Episode
THE “EX” SYNDROME

The first situation is particularly stressful, and the worst in terms of damages to your company image and portfolio. The villain, this time, is not the client.

image

Scenario

A client hires your company because of your specific skills, and/or because you and your colleagues have built your business over a reputation of adopting a modern approach. Yes, sometimes you find brilliant clients that know the difference between being a dinosaur and trying to become up-to-date.

In the web field this usually translates into trying to get over obsolete technologies, old-fashioned design, or both. You can find yourself explaining what is a 2014-savvy web approach compared to a 1998-sucky one.

CLIENT IN CHAINS

The “ex” syndrome is when the client wants to join the nowadays web, but is still tied up with the previous IT supplier. Let’s call the latter “T-Rex”. The nickname is due to a couple of facts: it’s proudly on top of a 1990s-like way of thinking and working, and has an undeniable aggressive attitude towards everything new.
The concept of “new” is key here. Of course, since the client just hired your company, advertised as “modern”, you are the one to be blamed by the T-Rex. And to be indirectly attacked.

DON’T TAKE A SLICE OF MY PIE

The T-Rex is not trying to prove a point, it just defends its territory (read: money). Feeling trapped, it acts fast. Its strategy is going to put you in a corner for a long time. The “how” is very simple and somehow remarkable.

The first step is openly laughing at you, like you don’t know what to expect next. Which is true, by the way. You don’t really get the point, and you’re so naive that you still think it’s going to be fine, because it is the client that hired you, not the other way round. You were doing just well before, you simply valued the client as interesting and liked how they wanted to improve their web image using your renowned skills. It’s a good thing, isn’t it? T-Rex disagrees.

The second step is to wait. Patient, calm and silent, it waits in the dark. Meanwhile, you start to work and you’re galvanised, the client’s happy to join this new different approach, and maybe the client even likes your way. Everything’s gonna be alright.

I’VE GOT THE POWER

Then, the time to deliver your work finally comes. So the T-Rex awakes. In this scenario, clients and situations may be different but the pattern is always the same: the T-Rex usually retains the “last mile” of the job, or the technical power to do something that’s fundamental for the project to go live.

The dinosaur puts its lard arse all over that “last mile”, and starts to make up an ever growing multitude of “problems” that exists only in its own fake circus. It doesn’t attack you directly, nor your company, it choses to block the project at the very end of it. In this way it’s putting you under the blame spot.

At first it simply feels odd. Or weird. A bit irritating, but nothing that cannot be solved. Naive you. At the second round of “problems” you and your colleagues begin to realise. At the third round you get unnerved and suspicious. At the fourth it’s clear that this had been thoroughly planned before. It becomes really evident for what it is: someone’s openly boycotting you, simply because you’re taking over their previous shitty work, and above all: because you’re uncovering their ineptitude to adapt to a world that’s different and more evolute. The reality is: you’re just doing your job at the best you can. There is no power play, no game in your mind: a client hired you, you’ve done the job and that’s it. Naive, again.

MAD WORLD

Since there is still no such thing as a huge meteorite in the web design and development world, the fucking T-Rexes, with their resilient strength, will continue to flourish.

ALIVE AND KICKING

Another success key for the T-Rex is: the client, usually with insufficient technical knowledge, is in between two fighting sides and it is understandably hard to evaluate which one is right at some point. In this kind of situation, the natural risk is to fall into trusting the “good old T-Rex” (also: don’t forget their contract with Rex, which means money already invested).

I SHOT THE SHERIFF

The ultimate philosophy of the T-Rex is simple: we served well in World War One, who cares if today there are automated drones with Cruise missiles, they would fail against our rifles. Incredibly enough, in web design this complete bullshit sometimes still wins.

DON’T YOU (FORGET ABOUT ME)

Results: you’ve done a great job, potentially something that could figure great on your portfolio and make the client very happy: all vanished under a pile of fabricated bullshit, petty accusations and ridiculous attempts to put your company under a shadow of incompetence, and drag you into a useless blame game in order to convince the mutual client that “old is more secure”.

GET IT ON (BANG A GONG)

The lesson here is: stay away, if you can, from clients trying to hire you to overhaul their previous IT supplier’s work — if the IT supplier is still seizing a substantial power, in the form of a tying contract.

In the next episode: The Muppets Show.

Disclaimer.

The sources for the anecdotes used to write these fictitious stories wanted to remain anonymous. The narrative have been adapted. No (extinct) animals were harmed during the filming.

Image: Wikipedia.

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InactionIs a weapon of mass destruction#Faithless

Inaction
Is a weapon of mass destruction
#Faithless

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Just replaced my old italian edition of this book.  Total cost: £2.48, including delivery.

Just replaced my old italian edition of this book.  Total cost: £2.48, including delivery.

Comments

Get The Balance Right

TL;DR

I used to buy and read tons of paper books. I completely turned to digital ebooks. Eventually I’ve found a new balance.

When I try to work out something, I need to study, explore, exclude everything else of the same type in the meanwhile — then I can reach a conclusion. Only after that path is complete, I can get the balance (pretty much) right.

Books, in this case.

BEFORE E-BOOKS

I had been a freelance editor, working for several publishers back in the days in Milan, so I know quite well what I’m talking about. I used to fill my house with books. They were literally everywhere, and there was a time in the late 1990s when I had to use a sleeping bag on my own king-sized bed, because the other half was completely covered by books, music sheets, manuals and printed tutorials.

GOING DIGITAL

When I moved to the UK, my former home contained so many books that I had to trash or give them away. It’s likely that half of them were unread, especially the crappy translated ones. I needed a change. In London I embraced the (not so) new wave of eBooks, buying my first Kobo e-reader. I found myself completely enthused: I loved the device, its software, the flexibility, the light weight, the sharp screen and a lot more. I started buying eBooks, enjoying the cheap prices and often the free ones.

Pros of the eBooks:

  • I can carry my entire library, everywhere.
  • Digital is cheaper.
  • I can jump from one book to another one (a habit of mine) with ease.
  • I don’t accumulate stuff.
  • Books don’t get covered in dust.
  • No piling effect.
  • The house is cleaner, with a lot of free space on the shelves.
  • I save paper, therefore trees.
  • I can dig the dictionary on the fly.

With my new ideological zeal, after a year I bought a second e-reader: a Kindle Paperwhite, and a replacement for my first Kobo, the Glo version with the backlight. I could add another pro:

  • I can read in a completely dark room.

THE COGNITIVE ISSUES

Months passed, maybe a year and a half, when all the small nuisances I’ve found in the meantime finally came up.

First of all: I never fell for the Kindle. At the beginning I enjoyed it very much, probably because the software running the Kobo (a custom Linux-based OS) has been proven unreliable and unstable most of the time. The Kindle-vs-Kobo seemed to emulate the Mac-vs-Windows dichotomy. The Kindle “just worked”, so in my mind it was the Mac-like e-reader. In fact it is closed, barely customisable, shipped with a custom eBook format developed by Amazon, different from the de facto standard adopted by Kobo and many other e-readers (including Apple’s iPad). While I enjoy the closed-uncustomisable-Apple-decided Mac OS X, on an e-reader that same attitude doesn’t work for me.

My “pros list” started to turn into a “cons list”:

  • The I can carry all my library everywhere is really useful only if I have to move to a new house, since I don’t read more than 1/2 books at a time. Plus, I don’t move so often.
  • Books are cheaper – not always.
  • I can’t always find the book I want, in a digital format.
  • Jumping from a book to another one isn’t easy anymore, probably because I’m growing old and my brain is not that flexible.
  • Even if I don’t accumulate books, a vast number of eBooks are forgotten if I buy and don’t start to read them straight away.
  • It’s impossible to read a PDF on any e-reader that I tried.
  • I’ve always felt a strange and unpleasant feeling of being “lost” in the book, because of the lack of sense of “where I am”, particularly with the Kindle.
  • I hate not being able to jump easily between chapters, or some random point that I recall with my eidetic memory. Also, the eidetic memory is totally annihilated by not having any references: space, amount of pages read/left, even and odd pairs, etcetera.
  • The lack of typography diversity is unbearable, after a while: everything has the same style and presentation. Having books with the same style, no different headings or other editorial features, is dull as fuck.
  • It’s frustrating to pay for your books and being unable to borrow them to your friends (or viceversa).
  • Countless times in which I wanted to read my “entire library, everywhere” and I found the e-reader with no battery left. Or, in the case of my Kobo, in need of an hardware reset.

In the end I’ve found myself searching for a new method.

CHOICES

Instead of going backwards, I just found a new balance, based on the different media applied to different scenarios. Every digital media has its own feature, and the paperback books clearly lack in certain situations.

This is my current balance:

  • If I read a technical manual, or something that’s needed for my daily work, I read it in the ePUB format, or in PDF, using iBooks (free with Mac OS X 10.9) on my Mac or my iPhone. Because I have the best feature of all: the SEARCH input (and its results). It’s for work, so the odds are that I don’t need to read the whole book or study it. Search > Find > Read. End of.
    One huge advantage is that I can drag whatever book I have in those two formats into iBooks, and it takes care of syncing the library throughout all my devices using iCloud.
  • If I read a book that’s too big I keep it in my Kobo e-reader. If I read a non-fiction book (i.e. a biography) it’s likely that I keep it in my Kobo as well (it depends though: the genre, the length, etcetera).
  • If I read something related to history, or a novel, I buy the paperback. Because I need to know exactly where I am in the book, my eidetic memory get fucked by the current e-reader structure, therefore my reading suffers a lot. I’ve been annoyed by this too many times. Still, if I have to recall the timescale of the novels or history-related books I read on the Kobo/Kindle, I fail on a scale of 3 out of 5.
    I don’t want to pile books anymore, so whenever I finish something that’s not really special, I’ll sell or exchange it.
  • I’ll probably give up with the Kindle, the simple reasons being:
    1) I’m not allowed to change the typography other than the 4/5 crappy preloaded fonts. Also, books are fully justified with no hyphenation whatsoever, and the results are often hard to read.
    2) There is no decent way to know where I am in the book, there’s no reference other than the utterly nerdy reference of “Location”, a custom index developed by Amazon, useless to any human being more interested in reading the actual story rather than trying to understand a criptic system built by engineers for engineers. Of course, if you’re someone that finds normal to see “Loc 418 of 4361” instead of “Page 24 of 250”, and still happy about finding yourself at “Loc 425 of 4361” after one single page turning, well, go for it.
    3) I don’t really like being unable to read my ebooks on another device, because of the custom proprietary Amazon format.

About the perks of the eBooks compared to paperbacks: probably the most useful one is the direct link to an embedded multiple-language dictionary. And that’s why I have the Dictionary.com and Forvo apps on my iPhone, for definitions and most of all: pronounces (which I heavily search for, because I want my english to improve in both directions).

Funny thing, during my discussions about this with my wife (which has had pretty much the same approach and problems), The Guardian published an article right on topic: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/19/readers-absorb-less-kindles-paper-study-plot-ereader-digitisation – I was really surprised to find out that even the “digital natives” preferred to read on paper.

All in all, to me it’s like being at an event (gig, festival, new year’s eve, whatever) and spending most of the time taking pictures or crappy videos instead of enjoying the moment and make my memories richer. Of course, everyone is free to do that, I just don’t.


Notes

Silvia pointed this article to me, which contains more insights than the Guardian’s.

A comment to The Guardian’s article that I share the view with:

Researchers should also compare fixed-format epub digital texts with reflowable. Fixed format replicates a printed page to near perfection and always appears the same. With the latest revisions to Adobe’s InDesign, fixed layout is likely to become common on iPads and Nooks, particularly for textbooks. It won’t appear on Kindles any time soon though. There’s no inexpensive way to create fixed format for the Kindle’s proprietary KF8 format. It has to be hand-coded.

My own hunch is that a printed page, with its predictability, triggers parts of our brain designed to learn routes through a forest by remembering the appearance of this tree and that rock. Reflowable offers no such clues, so readers become less engaged. Reading reflowable is a bit like bobbing in the middle of an ocean.

This matters to me because I write, edit and publish books in print and digital, including textbooks. Now that fixed format is available, I’m thinking of adding more simple line-graphics to pages so a page will stand out in a reader’s mind as unique. That should aid in remembering.

But I’d love to see research that’d test if a fixed page format is the key to being memorable, along with what makes it memorable.

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People they rush everywhere
Each with their own secret care

So ferry ‘cross the Mersey
and always take me there
the place I love

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