Staying safe online

I’ve been wanting to write this for ages: my guide to staying safe online is now available in the Tutorials section. It’s a best practice guide covering lots of general advice for identifying and dealing with malicious websites and emails, and it applies to Mac and PC users equally. This was written, essentially, for my parents, parents-in-law, and rockin’ octogenarian internet-using grandmother, but even if you’re not one of that select group, you should still find it useful; if you do, please forward it to ageing relatives, reckless friends and web n00bs of every stripe. Oh, and give it a Digg, why not?

Tech-savvy colleagues and pedants are welcome to suggest corrections and additions, but only after they have carefully read the disclaimer at the bottom of the page. But really, chaps, let me know if you think if I’ve goofed or missed out some vital details.

Vignette 2.0

I am, I freely confess, addicted to the vignette effect I slap onto all* my photographs, but I don’t like the canned effect you get with CS2’s Lens Correction filter. All hail, then, Vignette 2.0, Receding Hairline’s latest tutorial! Oh, and the Digg badge here links directly to the tutorial page, not this blog entry; get Diggin’!

* I am often lazy, however, and just Lens Correction it. I suck.

Ten typographic mistakes everyone makes

Grammar nazis are so last century. Welcome, friends, to the brave new world of the typography nazi. Below are ten mistakes that everyone makes, an explanation of why each is wrong, and details on how to fix them. At least, you'll see how to fix them on the Mac; under Windows, you'll need to dig through tables of Alt characters. Have fun. (If you decide it's time to be more accurate with your type on the Mac, get PopChar.)

Such typographic faux pas are not as potentially dangerous as grammatical fuckups – there's little chance that using a period instead of an interpunct will obscure or confuse your meaning – but they are nevertheless wrong, at least for the time being. The large-type heading for each section contains an example of a typographic mistake; if you can see what's wrong in each one before reading the explanation below, give yourself a pat on the back. Then examine your life priorities.

One last disclaimer before we get started: by ‘mistakes everyone makes’, I include my lazy-assed self and exclude you if you're a professional typographer. Or just someone who care about the little things in this amoral pit of a world…

"What's wrong?"
OK, an easy one to start. Yup, those aren't proper quote marks; they should be ‘sixty-six and ninety-nine’ quotes. The mistake happens because typewriters, pushed for space, decided to have only one neutral quote on the keyboard, not dedicated opening and closing quotes, and the convention stuck.
THE FIX: alt-[ and alt-shift-[ for double quotes; alt-] and alt-shift-] for singles.

New in iWork ‘08!
Of course, now we have word processors that do smart quotes for us automatically, everything's cushty, right? Wrong. If you type the above sentence in Word or any other modern app, it will think that because you type the first ‘apostrophe’ in a sentence, you want an opening, ‘six-style’ single quote. Instead you actually want a ‘nine-style’, closing apostrophe, so you have to enter it manually – or type two and go back and delete the first – so that the sentence reads New in iWork ’08!
THE FIX: As above.

I am 5' 10" tall
So those 'straight' quotes aren't for proper quotes, but they represent feet and inches, right? Wrong. They're not actually for anything. Feet and inches should be represented by primes, which look a bit like straight quotes tilted slightly to the right. If your browser supports the characters, the above statement should read: I am 5′ 10″ tall.
THE FIX: Sorry, but this is a bugger to fix. If you're in InDesign or QuarkXPress, use the glyphs palette. Otherwise, OS X's Character Palette – check the International pane of System Preferences – is your only salvation.

10.5″ x 9.4″ x 4.5″
You fix one problem, and another one just bloody well comes along. So, hurrah for getting the primes right, but using a lowercase X for the ‘by’ character is another lazy I-can-see-it-on-the-keyboard-so-I’ll-just-type-it thing. Correctly rendered, the above measurement should be 10.5″ × 9.4″ × 4.5″, not 10.5″ x 9.4″ x 4.5″.
THE FIX: Again, a tricky one. You'll need to break out the character palettes.

14º and overcast
This is a really subtle one, but that degrees symbol you see up there isn't a degrees symbol at all. It's actually an O ordinal, used, inter al, in Italian, Portuguese and Spanish to denote masculine gender.
THE FIX: alt-0 gives you the ordinal, while alt-shift-8 is a true degrees symbol; alt-K is a ring above accent. [thanks, silverpie!]

Some - indeed most - use hyphens incorrectly
A hyphen – the kind of short dash you see above – should really only be used when linking words such as ready-made. It shouldn't even be used mathematically to represent a minus, as there's a dedicated character for that, too [thanks, Dash Nazi!]. Most other uses mandate an en dash – as here, for example – or when planning meetings from 1–2. Changing fashions mean the the long dash—this one, called an em dash—is rarely seen, but where it is, it's usual to render it without the spaces on either side or with special hairline spaces instead.
THE FIX: alt-hyphen for an en dash, alt-shift-hyphen for the em.

Only £17.99!
Again, laziness and the democratisation of typesetting mean that we've lost the use of the correct interpunct in prices. £17.99 should be correctly rendered £17·99. After decimalisation in 1971, a period was only supposed to be used if technical limitations meant that a middle dot couldn't be printed.
THE FIX: shift-alt-9 types an interpunct [thanks, Nic!]

Nobody cares...
Quite probably. But what you see above is just three periods, not a true ellipsis. Want a proper ellipsis? OK then… (In this font, three periods looks like this, much more tightly packed...)
THE FIX: alt-; types a proper ellipsis.

These (honest!) are brackets
No, those are parentheses. Brackets [like these ones] are used to add in information missing from a sentence you shouldn't change – such as a direct quote – or to add information outside the voice of the original text. And don't think you're smart using angle brackets to replace quotation marks when writing French; <en français> is horribly wrong, and you should instead use proper guillemets if you want to write «en français».
THE FIX: Just be aware of the difference, and don't call parentheses brackets! [Note that Lise makes a very good case for me being wrong in the comments, but I'm not so sure. More research is needed...]

3 1/2″ and 5 1/4″ disks are obsolete
Though complex fractions have to be created individually, most mainstream fonts have the characters for a quarter, a half and three quarters. 3½″ and 5¼″ not only look better and are more accurate than the use of the forward slash, but they're clearer too. 3 1/2 looks like ‘three and one or two’, and you obviously need the space in there otherwise it becomes 31/2. In this age of decimalisation, 3.5″ or 5.25″ are, of course, alternatives, but there are some uses where a proper fraction is more sympathetic to the source or context than a forced decimal.
THE FIX: You're going to need your character palettes again. You didn't just tidy them away after the last time, did you?

Well, how did you score? Do you have your own typographic bugbears? Or am I just an insufferable busybody who will hasten myself to an early grave, getting my panties in a bunch about stuff that doesn't matter a damn? That's what the comment box is for…

10 ways to get the most from briefings

A significant percentage of my job is taken up in attending product briefings, and over the years I've developed this system of techniques to help me get the best from them; I hope they'll help you too.

01 Research Obvious, I know, but you'd be amazed how many 'colleagues' turn up at briefings without knowing the most basic facts, and just embarrass themselves by asking needless, naive questions. Often, you'll have a pretty good idea of the subject of the briefing; you may even be given some information by whoever it was that set up it up with you. If it's on a yet-to-be announced product or service, poke around the Internet – try blogsearch.google.com to see what bloggers say – and find out what the rumours are; this will help keep your questions relevant. Even if you don't know specifically what's to be discussed, familiarise yourself with the company and any existing products in its portfolio.

02 Prepare two good questions It's almost certain that some questions will arise in your mind during the briefing, but it's a good idea to think of couple of relevant queries before it starts. Everyone's familiar with the awkward silence that greets a presenter's optimistic "So, any questions?" so in some senses, you're being polite by asking the first question; others may follow your lead. Just make sure the questions you come up with aren't things you could learn by just looking at the company's website – your initial research should help this stage.

03 The basics Sorry, but: know where you're going – maps.google.co.uk or your local alternative can help – turn up on time, and know who you're meeting.

04 Take notes Good and relevant notes are the obvious outcome from a briefing. Everyone takes notes in their own way; creative types often like mind-maps, some stick to outlines, and yet others like to record the whole thing for later transcription. Me, I like to use the notebook view in Word for Mac. It allows me to record the whole meeting while taking notes in outline view, and as new topics are added, chapter markers are inserted into the audio which means I can easily jump to what was being said as I was writing a particular note. In particular, note down any questions that occur to you; nothing is more frustrating than knowing there was something you were going to ask, but forgetting what it was by the time the Q&A session rolls round.

05 Press packs It's worth taking notes even if some kind of information pack is available, but always check to see if one is; you'll usually find neat summaries of information such as product matrices and pricing, and a press release with quotes from some suitably big cheese in the relevant company.

06 Make yourself known Briefings are often a valuable opportunity to network with senior personnel from the companies you deal with. As well as some of the tips below, one of the best ways of making yourself known is to engage with speakers as they're presenting. Many journalists stare at their pad or look around the room, or worse, chat amongst themselves. You should keep 'offering' to make eye contact with the speaker. Even more effective than this is nodding subtly as the speaker makes points; they'll often actually use questioning intonation (called HRT) or specifically ask for affimation. Your nodding after these 'questions' serves to calm the speaker's nerves, and you'll also find that he or she will increasingly begin speaking directly to you, without ever making a conscious decision so to do. This helps you remain memorable without being too obvious or obnoxious.

07 Follow up on the day Even if you have to dash off after the briefing proper, make the time to chat to the people there representing the company whose briefing it is. Never assume they know who you are; even if you're senior yourself within your organisation, it's only polite not to put the company representatives at a disadvantage; after all, you'll almost certainly have been introduced at least to the speakers. Introduce yourself briefly, and it doesn't hurt to be a little more relaxed at this point. You're reminding the company of your existence, of what you do, and of what you mean to it.

08 Business cards Always carry business cards with you, which should at least include your name, job title, company you yourself represent, and details of a couple of methods of contact. Offer one to each of the relevant people, but remember that this is an important chance to gather contact details yourself. Don't go so far as to withhold your details if the other party won't give you theirs – that would be cutting off your nose to spite your face, never mind rude – but as you're handing yours over, ask for one in return. If getting one particular person's details would be a sufficiently useful coup, and he or she tries to fob you off without parting with their details, a little gentle prompting – "You don't have any cards? Oh, just note your email address down on the back of one of mine." – may be appropriate, but don't make yourself offensive.

09 Take your product along If you're there representing a magazine or newspaper, ensure you have a recent copy of the publication in your bag. That way, not only can you remind people why you're there and who you represent, but you can remind them what values your publication stands for, and if necessary point out specific sections or examples to illustrate these. The same point broadly applies outside the media industry; you may get into a discussion with people and wish you could show them the product you represent, and if you don't have one with you, you're missing an opportunity. It should go without saying that you should never hijack someone else's briefing, but it pays to be prepared.

10 Follow up back at the office Once you're back at your desk, drop a note of thanks to whoever arranged the meeting, thanking them for the opportunity and asking that they invite you to subsequent briefings. Email those who gave the presentation too, thanking them for their time, and asking any questions you didn't get a chance to put to them during the briefing. Ensure this email contains your full contact details in the signature, and consider attaching an electronic address card such as a vCard.

Do you have your own tips for getting the best from product briefings? Take issue with anything I've said? Please let me know in the comments.

Quick and easy design that looks good

An impromptu design lesson today, kidlets. Stop bullying the smelly kid. Listen up.

We're recording the excellent Simon Schama's Power of Art series for my better half to use in her teaching of secondary school art. I trimmed and burned a couple of episodes onto DVD today (the technology side of this deserves another post all its own, but I must focus...) but felt that a felt-tip scrawl on the case would do the content an injustice. So I knocked up a couple of quick covers for the CD-sized jewel cases, and I thought I'd take you through my thoughts so you can see the design process in action.

The key here was simplicity; I didn't want to spend hours on this – the design stage ended up taking less than a quarter of an hour – but I wanted the designs to look bold and strong. Obviously, I was lucky; I had powerful images to hand – the paintings of the artists concerned – but the same technique would work well with well-shot, simple photographs, perhaps with the saturation and contrast bumped up a litle. This meant a basic, typographic solution. The image is the most important thing – it's the most obvious change from DVD to DVD, and is therefore the thing people will 'see' the most clearly when reaching for a specific episode – so rather than box it out or frame it on a white background, I placed it full-frame on the square cover.


The typography should therefore be very bold as it has to sit on top of what could be a very busy graphic. I plumped for Rockwell Bold in this case as it has a nice mix of traditional – with those blocky slab serifs – and contemporary, but anything chunky such as Futura, or Myriad if you wanted something a little less masculine, would work well. Because it's so brawny, the text can be reversed out to white.

To create a visual hierarchy, I knocked the series title back to 60% transparency, and kept the artist's name at 100% opacity; again, it's the differentiator, so it's important it's easy to read. I tightened the leading – the space between the lines – to create a nice solid block of type. Finally, the decision on where to place the text. Bumping the text up to 36pt keeps it nice and legible, and means that the decision on placing the text is restricted to one axis, vertical. That's easy, then. Following the rule of thirds, we simply decide whether to place the text a third of the from the top or the bottom of the image. Ultimately, I just plumped for one option on gut instinct; it seemed to fit better with the images I'd be using. Here's the result:


It's not perfect – it could maybe use a little keyline round the text or a moderately sharp drop-shadow – but for less than 15 minutes' work, I'm happy with them. I hope this has helped you understand the design process behind this deceptively simple design, and that it could help you in your own projects.

If I had been designing for the portrait-format true DVD-style cases, here's how they'd have turned out:


I am a doughnut

Remember my little tutorial on making photos of everyday scenes look like they were actually shots of little models? Well, as well netting me over 150,000 page impressions, and a decent wodge of cash from Google AdSense, it also caught the eye of a couple of photography magazines.

A big American magazine will be publishing just a link to this site, but the German title fotoMAGAZIN actually translated my tutorial into German. The kindly folks there even sent me a copy which arrived on my desk this morning; I know how difficult it can be to remember to follow up like this, and I really appreciate it. They've even been chasing me about payment, asking how I'd like the money to come to me; it would appear that the national stereotype of efficiency is rooted in truth somewhere.

Being in German, I can only assume that the content is correct. I may send a copy down to my dad – fluent in German* – to see what he makes of it, but I suspect that the language would be too specifically technical to give him much of a chance of understanding what's going on.

Emma, if you're reading this, keep an eye out for fotoMAGAZIN in the shops in Berlin. And if the security guard asks you why you're just staring at a page, point to my by-line and tell him that you know the author...

* and Spanish and French, though he's less confident with these latter languages. My folks both teach modern languages, and at various points my brother had at worst a good conversational grasp of French, German, Italian, Spanish and Catalan. Me, I can muddle by in French, but that's it. Basically, my grammar is shot to hell, but I still have a decent accent. It's all in the shrug.

Tutorial aftermath (and another one!)

Until last week, this site got an average of 25 page impressions a day. On February 7, I got a little spike thanks to Jim Coudal linking to the bread-on-Tim's-desk picture; that day saw Receding Hairline garner 443 hits. On February 16, I submitted the site to Realmac Software's Site Showcase, as I use its software to build the site. The next ten days brought a total of 2037 page impressions, averaging at 185 a day. I was delighted; thanks, Dan! Then I put together my little tutorial on the fake tilt-shift effect, and, thinking it was right up their street, submitted it to Boing Boing. Look what happened:

Page impressions, February 2006


To be clear: on February 27, Receding Hairline was viewed 13,681 times. The next day, 22,112 page impressions; that's almost a thousand-fold increase. Things have quietened down a little now, but so far in March, I'm still seeing a page impression average of well over six thousand. In the last week, I've had almost 75,000 page impressions. I am agog. Um, hi, everyone.

And what an overwhelmingly positive experience it has been. I've had emails from people all over the world telling me how much they appreciate the tutorial, and how fun it is. The co-creator of the cult Mac game Myst, Robyn Miller, picked up on the technique, I had a few emails from Microsoft's Virtual Earth Program Manager, people are using it on stills from games, and a Flickr group on tilt-shift which had, I think, fewer than a dozen photos in it before I posted my tutorial, now has almost 900. At its height, the tutorial was the third most popular link overall on del.icio.us, and, much to my amusement, I'm still getting a lot of Swedish readers thanks to IDG.se (the Swedish website of MacUser's main competitor publishing house) posting my tutorial on its front page. Scott Kelby linked to it too; oh, the irony.

So... a huge thank you to everyone who has linked to the tutorial, and everyone who visited. In celebration and as a thank you, I've put up the second Receding Hairline tutorial. It's not as fun as the first – and in all honesty is here mostly so I can point people to it to save me explaining the same thing over and over again – but it is useful. If you have a Mac, you really should bookmark my guide to basic Mac troubleshooting.

Two final notes. Some people have asked me if there's a way to show their appreciation for the tilt-shift tutorial, so I've placed a donate via PayPal button on the tutorial page. This is fast, secure, and can handle payments from all major credit cards.

Lastly, I need to make it clear that this will remain primarily my personal site; I'll post tutorials when I have a good idea, but most of the time, Receding Hairline's primary function is as my blog. It's a place for me to tinker and to vent. You're all very welcome to stick around for that, but it's unlikely to be pretty or useful; it may, if we're all very lucky, be entertaining.

Thank you, and goodnight.

Free fake tilt-shift photography tutorial!

I'm delighted to announce that Receding Hairline's first tutorial is now online. If you were impressed by my tilt-shift photography experiments – which made photographs of ordinary scenes look like they were of miniature models – you should go and read how to do it for yourself in the new Tutorial section.

I'm also delighted and embarrassed in equal measure to have edited the CSS file for this site's template to have the text shown as left-aligned Helvetica Neue (on Macs and other computers which have the font installed) rather than justified Lucida Grande. Embarrassed because I ought to have done it ages ago – I'm a technology journalist, dammit – and delighted because I really dislike fully justified text. And embarrassed (once again) because I'm so delighted.