Good Ideas come from complete Twits

twitterrific-1.jpgTwitter is a really interesting bit of software. When I first heard about it on MacBreak Weekly I thought it sounded pretty interesting although it still didn’t really make a lot of sense to me. Being naturally curious I headed over to the Twitter website and signed up for an account. After having a play with it for a while, it seemed to make even less sense so I gradually lost interest in it and moved on to other diversions.

I’ve now changed my mind about it. Twitter is a way cool tool!

How to explain it? Twitter is designed as a sort of cross-hybrid tool that merges email, SMS, instant messaging and waving your arms around trying to get attention. It is aimed at answering the very simple question – “What are you doing?” You simply type your response to that question in no more than 140 characters and send your current activity, thought, question, mood or state of mind out into the Cloud that is the Internet.

My first thought about Twitter was the same as most people’s first thoughts about blogging… “Why?” Why on earth would anyone be at all interested in what I am doing right now? Who would care? The idea of taking the time to write a short sentence stating my current activity or thoughts, and sending them to who-knows-where just seemed to be totally bizarre to me. Not only that, but it seemed so inconvenient to have to go to the Twitter website just to do this… I simply couldn’t see what the attraction was.

And then I started to piece a few things together, and it slowly started to make sense to me. First I changed my primary browser to Flock. Flock has a lot of very neat integration with Web 2.0 tools and one of its benefits is built-in support for Twitter using a plugin called TwitterBar. Instead of having to go to the Twitter website to add a “Tweet”, I could just type it into the browser’s address bar and click the send button. That made it very simple to send a message but I still couldn’t quite see why I’d want to do that.

Then I discovered that Edublogs had a sidebar widget plugin called Twitters and it was able to take the RSS feed from my own Twitter account and automatically make my own messages appear on my blog. Interesting, but still bizarre. It meant I could now easily send a short message to the web stating what I was doing at any given moment, and then have it appear on my blog without actually doing anything to put it there. Conceptually interesting, but for what purpose would I want to do this?

But I kept hearing people talk about Twitter in glowing terms. I had to be missing something surely? So after quite a while of ignoring it, I eventually revisited my Twitter account to see if I could get to the bottom of this bizarre tool. I noticed that some other people’s tweet lists had other names with an @ symbol in front of them, so I tried to find out what that meant. It appeared to be a sort of conversation taking place and the @ symbol was being used as a way of indicating who was being replied to in a much larger group conversation.

Still intrigued, I started to see who else was using Twitter that I might know. Browsing through the users list, I spotted someone whose name I recognised and a button marked Follow. I clicked it. You are now following this person. Hmm, not sure what that means but let’s keep playing. I wonder who they know? Oh,I recognise this other person that they know. Follow them too. Hey, they know this other person that I’ve heard of too. Click. Follow them as well. Eventually I started to build a biggish list of people whose names I recognised who I was now “following”. As I played, a couple of emails arrived telling me that some of these people were now following me. When I went back to my main Twitter webpage I started to see several messages in the list from the people I was following. All of a sudden, I got it. These people, who I have some respect and interest in, are telling me what they are doing right now. I was getting an insight into what was going on in their world. They were sharing ideas, insights, websites, links, suggestions, all appearing in a list on my own page. Ahhhh! I get it! This is my network of people, and I can stay in touch with them constantly, vicariously, discretely and silently.

The real magic happened when I discovered a wonderful bit of software for the Mac called Twitterific. Twitterific installs and runs in the background, popping up a small message using Growl whenever one of my Twit friends sends a message – or tweet – out. I then discovered that by sending a return tweet, and prefacing it with an @ symbol followed by their username, I could indicate to who this tweet was replying to. This is necessary because tweets are public to anyone following me so the @ convention helps keep the conversation making sense. Twitterific suddenly made the whole thing make sense since I no longer had to monitor the Twitter website for activity… the activity came to me! (PC users might like to try Twitteroo, which is kind of similar) I can also tweet directly from my mobile phone by sending an SMS message or going to Twitter Mobile.

Now I get it, I really like Twitter. You have to have a few people to follow, and a few people to follow you, before it really makes any sense. I’m currently following 63 people, and 67 people are following me. It makes perfect sense, in a kind of bizarre exhibitionist way.

What does make perfect sense is what Twitter suddenly enables. I have a network of 63 people, comprised mostly of some of the world’s most innovative educators. 63 people to bounce ideas off, share links with, get advice from. 63 people who are willing to share a little insight into how they think and what they do. 63 people all stumbling across new cool web tools and willingly sharing them. 63 people to tap into when I need to gather a crowd to try an idea, find a partner to test a technology, or simply have a whine about my day.

I know it sounds bizarre, but it works, and its awesome.

Magical Bundles of Numbers

The other day, a colleague on a mailing list asked for some background info on EPS graphic files. It seems her school wanted something professionally printed and the printer asked that the artwork be provided in EPS format. Thanks to the ubiquity of the web, we are mostly only exposed to the more common web graphic formats like JPEG and GIF files these days, so some of the more exotic types like EPS are not as well understood as they could be. For what it’s worth, here is my reply…

Ah, EPS files! A thing of beauty and a joy forever!

For anyone who works with graphics Encapsulated Post Script, or EPS files, are the holy grail of image formats. They are the ideal format for storing original artwork, although they are generally pretty useless for actually applying that artwork to a final format. By that I mean that most final applications for graphics, whether it be the web or printed documents, cannot use EPS files natively. But for a way of storing the original artwork, EPS files reign supreme. Here’s why…

Imagine you have a school logo image that gets used for a variety of purposes. It gets printed on school letterheads and business cards in very small sizes, reproduced on school coffeemugs and Tshirts at slightly larger sizes, and even gets blown up to very large sizes to make a banner for outside the school on open day. To get an image that looks good at all these different sizes, the artwork needs to be at different resolutions… A small jpeg file suitable for printing on the letterhead will look awful when stretched to be a large image for a banner for example. What you need is a way of creating these images that is resolution independent, so you can have the right resolution for the right situation.

That’s where EPS files come in. In an EPS, all the shapes and lines in the image are described mathematically. A very simple example would be a circle… Imagine you had a circle in an image, all you’d really need is the formula for creating a circle and the specific information about that particular circle. Mathematically, a big circle is exactly the same as a little circle but with different values for the key factors of radius, colour, edge thickness, etc… In an EPS file, this technique of using functions to describe objects is how the shapes are defined. This is very different to a JPEG or GIF, where shapes are created by a mosaic of pixels placed next to each other, a technique known as Bitmapping. Using bitmapping, a small circle and a big circle are two totally different patterns of bitmaps, which is why small graphics look so awful when they get stretched to be larger… You cannot just create new pixels from out of thin air to fill the gaps… the original pixels need to stretch, making the image look blocky and rather awful.

So in an EPS, the basic mathematical descriptions of the shapes that make up the image (called vectors) are embedded into the file using a language called PostScript. Postscript is a language that many laser printers use to describe how an image will be printed… When you print to a postscript-enabled laser printer, your printed image (whether that be text or pictures) is bundled up as little mathematical descriptions and sent to the printer where it is decoded back into the images and then printed. EPS files are that bundle of mathematical descriptions which define the image, but instead of being decoded by a printer they are just stored as a file.

Here’s the good bit… When you open an EPS file (which is vector based) in a graphics editing program like Photoshop (which is bitmap based), it asks you what size and resolution you’d like the image to be created at. Once you tell it the desired size and resolution, the EPS is then converted to a bitmap using the exact values you specify. This is the real magic of an EPS file… EPS gives you a single vector-based, size and resolution-independent file that unpacks to a bitmap-based, size and resolution-specific file at whatever specs you like. No wonder people who work in the printing industry love ‘em! They can be all things to all people. A single EPS file can be used to convert the image into whatever size and quality is required, be it the tiny artwork for the business card or the huge artwork for banner.

Tags: , , ,

Winning the Browser Wars

Browser ShareBecause I was doing a bit of blog navel-gazing tonight writing that last post, I decided to take a quick look at the site stats just to see what’s happening there. One of the figures that really jumped out at me was the one shown in this graph.

As you can see here, the majority of browser share is now coming from Firefox! Of course this is only just the stats from my blog, and being an educational blog with a predominantly teacher audience I guess there may be a disproportionate number of users who don’t use Internet Explorer, but I was still surprised to see Firefox edging out IE. Not so long ago IE had no competition at all, then Firefox came along and started to gradually steal market share, but last stats I read still showed it with a fair way to go before it could claim to have a greater share than IE. Based on these numbers, Internet Explorer 6 and 7 combined only account for 38% of the traffic! That’s a huge drop and won’t be making Microsoft happy at all.

As a Flock user myself (which is based on the Gecko rendering engine in Firefox) I’m pleased to see the gain. By the way, I exclude my own visits to the site to try not to skew the numbers.