Tag Archives: internet

Gomix

A few weeks ago, I started learning basic code for websites.

Which is weird, because coding doesn’t really fit into my conception of the things that I like and the things that I’m good at. Despite my father’s protestations that understanding computers *might* be important one day, I gave up high school computer science as early as I could.

What is even stranger is that I’m actually kind of enjoying the coding. It is satisfyingly creative. So far, it’s mainly formatting, it’s just that the formatting has to be expressed in a weird language that takes some getting used to. Using the language correctly makes me feel weirdly powerful. I tend to giggle maniacally when I manage to make the website do the thing that I am trying to make it do through the power of my code (it’s like magic!)

I’ve been completing quite bounded and specific tasks within the online course that I’m signed up to (available via CodeAcademy). Change the font size here, create a heading called ‘Whatever’, make a numbered list, make it this colour. That’s pretty easy, so I’ve also been branching out a little and, at the end of each exercise, when the course says, ‘Hey, now play around with what you’ve learnt!’ I’ve been trying to create websites that look like they came out of the early 2000s, with all the fonts and all of them a different, garish colour on another garish background and my text organised via lists instead of paragraphs. It’s been super fun. I’ve been writing weird, stream-of-consciousness websites, which I would like to pretend I invented, but really were inspired by a New York Times article concerning the internet art of the 90s.

Anyway, to encourage me, a friend, who is an actual, professional, paid-real-money coder, sent me a link to ‘Gomix’, which is a website that allows you to use other people’s code to do… internet things. You know, things on the internet.

Look, I’m not entirely sure I understand everything that I can do with Gomix. But, it seems like it’s goal is to take a lot of the faff out of coding. And, also, let people work together on their code (if that’s a thing that you have enough skills to do). Watch the trailer here.

So, this is my very basic understanding of how I could use it. Say you’s building a new web page and you want a heading on that page and you want it to be massive and pink and in Times New Roman. If you’re formatting in Microsoft Word (which is a program I understand), you would just choose ‘Times New Roman’, the colour pink and 300pt from the drop down menus at the top of the screen and then start typing. But, if you’re building a website, those drop down menus don’t exist. You have to write them into existence. You have to tell the internet, here’s my webpage, it’s called ‘x’, I want it to have a heading, that heading should say ‘this’, it should be this colour and this size. So, a lot of coding is just the same over and over again, because each time you start a new website, you have to start it from scratch and tell the website you want a heading, it needs font, it needs a font colour etc etc etc. Gomix allows you to get the basics straight away and then tweak them, rather than starting from scratch.

My big problem with Gomix is that my coding skills are currently very limited (as the above mangled explanation of coding should indicate to you). I think the people who tend to use the site have bigger goals for the things they want to make. There was coding for games and coding for bots on Facebook Messenger and twitter. I have made a twitter bot before (it tweeted Charlotte Bronte quotes!), but it was under direct supervision and with extremely specific instructions. I barely understand what is possible with a bot, let alone understand how to change the code to create one. So, I had to find a code template on Gomix that was something I had the skills to play around with. I had to find a plain old website.

The website template I found was still pretty complex. To be honest, I ignored 3/4 of it, because I didn’t understand what those bits were or how they worked. But I committed to seeing what I could do with the other 1/4. I tried to change the colours of some fonts. That seemed like a pretty easy thing to do. It turned out to be very difficult as the bits of font I tried to change didn’t have the names I expected them to have in the code. Then I forgot what the old colours were called, so I couldn’t change things back to how they used to be. I suddenly went from trying to change very small things to changing EVERYTHING ALL AT ONCE – attacking every colour of every single piece of text I could find.

Initially, I wanted to use really specific colours (there are around 16, 000 different colours that you can indicate through a code which tells the computer how much red, blue and green to put in a colour). But, I couldn’t find the bits of texts whose colour I had changed and couldn’t figure out if that was because I wasn’t changing the right bits of code or if the colour change was too subtle. SO, then I decided to chose a super simple colour – ‘blue’ – that was very different from all the colours already used on the web page. Then I could track what changes were happening and when. It also meant I didn’t have to remember (or look up) complex colour names like rgb(66, 134, 244), every time I tried to change something. Once I started getting a handle on which bits of text were changing, I chose another super simple colour with a super simple name – ‘tomato’ – and used it to alternate and highlight certain bits of the page.

The background image also seemed to be something fairly simple that I could alter. I was ostensibly designing a website for myself/about me (because I can never think of anything else to design – I am SO self-absorbed), so I decided to find a picture of a typewriter for the main image. Seems simple, right? IT WAS NOT. Every picture I chose had super bad composition. Well, that’s not fair, they were all quite nice images on their own with perfectly reasonable composition- but as soon as you used them as a background image with text on top, the images made the text impossible to read. White text over the white paper that was being inserted into the typewriter. Title text over typewriter keys with letters on them. I tried changing the colour of the text, the size, tried to realign it, but it all looked messy and/or unreadable. Eventually, I found a picture of a typewriter that had a giant expanse of blue behind it. My text went on the giant expanse of blue and it looked… acceptable.

I also changed the actual text on the website. This was much easier, as I could see exactly what I was changing. But, even so, I learnt much – the less words the better, or it looks ugly, which is (as anyone who read my blog will know) a fairly tough ask for someone with such tendencies towards over-writing.

All these (quite small and cosmetic) changes took me several hours. It was difficult. But, it was also fun and gave me an opportunity to experiment with some of the things I’d been learning on my course. It gave me a better idea of what coding might be like (instead of having a teacher over my shoulder saying, ‘see that bit of code there? Don’t worry about all the rest! Just that tiny bit that looks exactly like this? Well, change that tiny bit in this exact way using this precise piece of code that I am giving you’). I guess it’s the difference between doing language exercises like, ‘Wo bist du?’ ‘Ich bin Jenny’ in your German course with your fellow students and then actually going out into the real world and attempting to introduce yourself to an actual German human.

Also, I’m still not entirely sure how the test website I make goes out into internet-land and is found by other people. It has to have an address, yes, but, then… how to connect the address to the website? Does one use soap? Or do you sew it together? Look, I did warn you this computer stuff has never really been my cup of tea.

peterpan

Me, attempting to attach website code to web address. Image found here.

Below you can see some screenshots of the website I tried to make.

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First page of website. Sample title: WHY ARE TYPEWRITERS AND/OR CODE SO HARD?

screenshot-2016-12-27-at-18-31-18

To be honest, my favourite part of coding is creating really stupid buttons. I’d super-love it if you could download a person into your computer. Not in a weird way, just in a… yeah, ok, maybe you can’t do that in a non-weird way.

screenshot-2016-12-27-at-18-31-08

I think websites would be better if they were more honest. ‘We’ll try to do this thing for you, but, let’s be honest, things might go wrong but we do promise we’re trying as hard as we can.’

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Reading Deprivation

To fill up my spare hours and to save me from going crazy with the organisation of yet another country move (this is the 4th country move I’ve done in 6 years. Or the 6th city move in 6 years. I think I might need help), I am currently working my way through a book called ‘The Artist’s Way.’ It’s a book that’s meant to help ‘blocked creatives’ (I really, really, really have to work hard at not sneering at that phrase) get past whatever is getting in the way of them making work. There’s all sorts of activities that you do, but the most important are the ‘morning pages’ and the weekly artist’s date. The morning pages are three full pages of writing that you do in the morning time – you get out whatever crap is in your head, or stressing you out and write it down and try to work through it. It’s like a free-form, flow of consciousness diary, I guess. The artist’s date is just doing something every week that is just for you, whatever takes your fancy. So far, I have had an excursion to a falling-down 19th century sanatorium, bought silly stamps at the craft stall, painted ceramics and… this week’s has not yet happened.

I bought the book in Bandon, Ireland (5 moves ago) and started it then, but never made any headway. I think I read the first chapter. This time, I’m being really diligent. It helps that I’m not employed, I guess. Every Wednesday, I read my chapter and then I copy the weekly activities into a little exercise book that I decorated. And when I do my activity, I get a little owl stamp that says ‘Sehr Schön’ on it. I figured it would appeal to the obsessive compulsive child that I am, deep down in my heart. So far, it’s worked very well.

Anyway. The big activity for this week is called ‘Reading Deprivation’. When I first read the phrase, I thought it meant it was going to address the fact that I had been depriving myself of reading and we were going to fix it and I was going to read all the things.

read-all-the-things

ALL THE THINGS! Found here

Of course, it’s the opposite. You’re supposed to deprive yourself of reading all the things. In fact, you are banned, BANNED, from reading anything. ANYTHING.

As I read (ha!) through what I was supposed to do, a genuine feeling of dread crept up on me. How exactly was I supposed to do this? How was I supposed to get all the things done that I needed to get done without reading? The first thing I do every morning (and this is… sad, I grant you) is reach for my computer and check email and check Facebook. I’d like to blame the habit on being in a different country from my family and many friends, but, let’s be honest here. I’d probably do it if I’d never left Australia too.

I had lots of questions about the reading deprivation. Was I allowed to read signs? Recipes? Information on the back of drug packets? Every time I needed to look something up, did I need to get Alex to read it on my behalf and then tell me the salient points? What if he read it wrong? Could I read things that I, myself, had written? Or was I only allowed to write texts and emails and send them into the world with whatever predictive text had decided I wanted to say? Is everyone who ever sent an amusingly suggestive text with a strange predictive text word substitution all doing this reading deprivation activity?? The book did not answer these, or really any, of my questions. In fact, the book is quite vague on most of the details. The author tells us that she’s often called crazy for this particular exercise, there’s always someone who says they can’t do what she’s told them to do. And then they all end up doing it. But, but, but… HOW do they end up doing it? Not everyone is unemployed! How do teachers get away with not reading things for an entire work? Are you allowed to read things if you’re being paid to read them? Where does the ‘no reading’ ban end? What happens if I briefly glance over the toiletries in the shower and my brain accidentally comprehends the word ‘shampoo’? Did I read it? Is the exercise over then? Do I have to start again? Should I just walk through the world with my eyes closed for a week?

I’m beginning to think she left it deliberately vague so that you can make your own mind up about what really is essential reading and what you can do without. That’s my decision, anyway. So, I’ve come up with a few of my own rules. For example, the book was originally written in 1992 and the version I have was re-printed in 2002. So, well before communications were radically altered through social media and text message. So, in the end, I decided that I was allowed to continue reading basic communication texts – things that might have been, back in the day, a phone call – because otherwise life would get really difficult. I’ve also allowed myself to read things online for basic information. For example, Alex and I want to go kayaking tomorrow. I had to research where the kayak rental was. That involved reading websites and I decided that was ok.

You may have also noticed that I’m still updating Facebook. Well, I’m allowed to write. So, I figure, posting on Facebook is ok and responding to people commenting on my post is ok, but scrolling mindlessly through my News Feed is a definite no-no.

Even with these, fairly generous, rules in place, the no reading thing has been difficult and frustrating. It’s also been eye-opening. The amount of hours I spend on the computer just waiting for something to distract me, not even entertain me, just distract me, is kind of terrifying. I’ve gotten into a habit of having the computer open at all times, so that whenever I’m reading or watching something and there’s a reference I don’t get, or there’s a song that I recognise but can’t remember why, I immediately get on the computer to look it up. Sure, it doesn’t seem like that big a deal. But, stopping doing it as made me realise how easily distracted I actually am. Sitting down and really focusing on something and committing to not being distracted is actually hard work. That’s why I love reading on the UBahn, or going to the cinema – it’s easier to not be distracted from a movie or a book when I’m not at home, with easy access to the internet. Somewhere down the line, I turned into those dogs from Up and didn’t even notice and also willingly participated in the transformation.

squirrel

Squirrel found here

It’s made me think about lots of things. And not all of them are anti-internet. Like, how did I get information before the internet? I was still a kid, so a lot of the time I just asked my Dad and he knew. I looked up things in our massive Oxford English Dictionary, which was fine for words and things, but not so much for people. I looked things up in my Dad’s old high school Encyclopaedia, but as it was from the 60s, most of the time I did it for laughs and to see people still referring to Russia as the U.S.S.R. There was a reference section of our high school library, where some librarian had carefully cut out newspaper or magazine articles and arranged them alphabetically by subject in horizontal files: Peron, Eva; Peron, Juan. I wonder what happened to all those files. That I now have access to the answer to almost any question I could possibly have is pretty amazing. That I mostly use it to find out what others films a familiar looking actor was in is possibly a waste. That I look up the information and then immediately forget it is probably unsurprising. That not being able to look up the answer to every random question that goes through my brain over the past few days hasn’t resulted in my brain exploding or the end of the world is also telling.

I’ve also discovered I have SO MUCH free time. I know I am currently unemployed, which certainly helps the free time. But, seriously. I can’t think of enough things to do during the day. I’ve actually written myself a list called, ‘Things I Like Doing’ so that if I get bored, I don’t panic and decide there is nothing else to do ever, ever, I’ll be bored forever. I’ve been saying a lot over the past few months that I ‘don’t know what I like anymore’. But part of it was that I just wasn’t bothering to think of things that I liked anymore. I’d come home from work tired and instead of going to the effort of thinking of something I might like to do, I would immediately open the computer and ‘zone out’ for an hour. Hour and a half. Two hours. It was boring. It was frustrating. It was numbing. But as long as things kept changing online there was at least distraction. There was at least something to do. I didn’t have to think too hard and come up with something I might actually like to spend my time doing.

My anxiety levels have also been through the roof over the past two years. I mean, I know, I’ve always been an anxious person. But, there’s been a steady increase over the last little while. And I think part of it has been this underlying feeling that I should always be ‘doing something.’ And, again, online, it is actually possible to always be doing ‘something’. It may or may not be worthwhile ‘something’, but it is, at least, a ‘something’. It might be watching a cat push a dog into a pool (that would be awesome, though, wouldn’t it?) or it might be an 8 page profile of Angela Merkel. But there’s always ‘something’ to do. I find myself going, ‘I’ll just read this and then I’m finished.’ ‘I’ll just watch this and then I’m finished.’ But it never ends, there’s always more clicks, there’s always more suggestions. What exactly did the cat video add to my life? It gave me a cheap laugh, I suppose and we do sometimes need cheap laughs. But if it ends in an hour long cycle of cheap laughs, it’s probably gone on too long. In the last two days, I have, twice, made myself a cup of tea, opened the doors of my balcony and stared at the sky for a good 45 minutes to an hour. I used to love doing things like that. But, I just kind of forgot about it. Because it seemed boring. Because it wasn’t ‘something’. Because it wasn’t as quickly diverting as jumping online.

The whole point of the ‘reading deprivation’ exercise is to stop filling yourself up with things that other people have written or created and start making space to write your own things. I didn’t think it would work. I didn’t think it would work that quickly. But, seriously. When you’ve suddenly got an entire empty afternoon stretching out in front of you and no ability to spend it staring at other people’s lives on Facebook, or even, getting out a new novel and devouring it hour after hour – why not write something? It doesn’t even have to be a good something. It just has to be a something. Because, no matter how relaxing it is to stare at the clouds for an hour, eventually you’re going to get bored. You’re going to get lonely. You’re going to start feeling some things and you’re going to want to deal with those things.

I do hate people who get all ‘holier than thou’, especially when it comes to the internet and mobile phones (ah, the irony of a video, telling you to look up from your mobile, packaged as clickbait), but the last few days have been a goddamn revelation. I knew I spent too much time online and I knew I hated it. But suddenly banning myself from being unproductively online has made me realise just how much time I spend there, how much I don’t enjoy it and all the things I could possibly be doing if I wasn’t on the goddamn internet. I’m not saying I want to go back to the days when I wasn’t able to find out what ‘AIDS’ was by looking in my dad’s 1960s schoolboy encyclopaedia. But, I’m also saying that I want to make sure that the things I do online are done with purpose, have an end point and are an asset to my broader life, instead of an endless cycle of sponsored clicks.

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TV-free day

Look at me posting a post on the day the thing happened. This is most exciting! Most encouraging! Most likely not to happen ever ever again!

I’m sure you can guess from the title that my ‘new thing’ today was to not watch TV. At all. I’ve been complaining and complaining in this blog about how much TV I’ve been watching (in particular, how much pointless ‘Friends’ re-runs I’m watching) and I’ve been tossing around this idea in my head for a while. What if I tried to give up TV?

Now, obviously I have had TV-free days before in my life. When I was in the USA just a week ago, for example, I spent a good  weeks not watching TV (I did watch movies on the plane, but that is different. SAME SAME BUT DIFFERENT). But, today was the first time I have deliberately not watched TV. Not at all. Ok, so my housemate was watching the Canadian Grand Prix whilst I was doing my make-up in the same room, but I only glanced at it because someone was playing classical music on a piano and that seemed so strange at a car race that I had to clarify that I had heard correctly. I had. There was a pianist set up on the race-track. I can only hope they moved him before the race started, because I stopped watching immediately afterwards.

But why would you do this, Jenny? I can hear you ask. TV can be very good! There is much critically-acclaimed drama available. There are documentaries, which you can use to educate yourself with! There is the news, so you can stay up-to-date with current events! There are heart-warming talent shows in which people are able to realise their dreams (even when those dreams are simply running onstage at ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ and throwing eggs at Simon Cowell ). TV is not inherently evil.

Well, the fact is I am beginning to believe that it is. The fact is, I am terrified that TV is sucking away my ability to be interesting. I am terrified that it is sucking away my ability to be productive. I am terrified that TV is, in fact, the cause of all evil in my life and that it is actually TV which is preventing me from becoming the person that I would like to be (ok, that may be going too far. TV PLUS social media is preventing me from becoming the person that I would like to be. But, one step at a time, people, one step at a time).

See, my TV watching wasn’t in anyway directed. Or purposeful. It wasn’t, ‘Oh, let’s sit down for my favourite show at 9pm on Sunday night with my good buddies. We all can’t wait to see what happens next. We’ll all watch it together and then discuss it critically over bottles of wine for hours and afterwards our friendships and brains will be so much stronger for having done so.’ See, I used to watch TV shows for good acting, for good writing, for new ideas, to see what was happening in the world. But that is not what I have been doing recently. No, it was just sitting on the couch, with my shoes off, mouth open with an attractive trail of spittle forming in the corners of my mouth.

The thing I have noticed over my past three days of writing 2 hours daily (it is now a routine – I’ve done it in three days in a row. IT IS CLEARLY A ROUTINE), is how much more I get done. And I don’t just mean writing (though, obviously that is also true). No, I mean, I get so much more done because I don’t immediately come home for work and sit in front of the TV, just flicking through channels and finding the ‘least worst thing to watch’. Once I’ve turned on that TV (for whatever reason), it seems darn near impossible for me to switch it off. The flickering lights have me hypnotised. As if I were one of those people in the ’50s who had never seen a TV before. As if I were one of those people in Plato’s cave. If I go from work, straight to a cafe and write for two hours, I find I have no desire to then go home and sit on the couch. Instead, I get a book and sit in the park and read. Or, I continue to write, just something different. Or, I cook myself dinner (instead of ordering in). Or I go for a walk, or call a friend, or do anything but watch TV. Suddenly I seem to have other interests again.

So, I decided to have one deliberate day away from the TV and see how it worked.

And I have to say it was much more productive and easy than I had anticipated. Even with the weather being typically British and cold and grey. I was lucky in that I had many things to do today, so I was out of the house a bit, talking to my Dad for a bit, updating my website for Operation: Love Story a bit (shameless plug: here), writing for a bit, checking out transport to Edinburgh for a bit etc. I would probably have done a lot of this stuff in front of the TV usually, using the justification that this would keep me entertained whenever the internet was loading (what year exactly do I think it is? 1998?) The hardest time was when I sat down for dinner, because I almost always turn on the TV when eating. This is a terrible habit, I know. I know all the reasons why its a terrible habit, why its probably making me fat and losing me friends and ruining my relationships with my family. But, still. This is what I would do.

But, once I had convinced myself that, actually, I could probably enjoy my dinner without watching TV at the same time, everything was fine.

Now, I don’t want you thinking I’m an angel here. I certainly was on the internet a lot. I was even watching quite a bit of David Mitchell’s ‘Soapbox’, which I think *technically* might have started on TV, but I was watching it on youtube, so it totally doesn’t count. The great thing about watching these though, was they are usually about 2 – 3 mins long. So, when I had written for maybe half an hour and felt like a break, I could watch two episodes and then get back to it. It worked extremely well. I ended up writing for 3 hours. Plus the amount of time it has now taken me to write this blog post. So, not to shabby, all things considered. Social media and email was, at all times, switched off (well, ok, I signed in when I was watching the David Mitchell things, because you don’t really need to look at him, he’s just sitting there, all the funny things are in what he says, but I signed out immediately after Mitchell was finished and it was back to writing!)

I know these are small achievements, but I’m working my way towards a more productive lifestyle. I don’t know that I will be able to constantly stay away from the TV, but at the same time, there’s nothing on there that I specifically want to watch. I have no new favourite shows that I haven’t seen a hundred million times before. I don’t know when, or what channel any interesting new shows are on. I have literally just been watching Friends, Miss Marple, Poirot and whatever reality TV crap I can find in an endless cycle. I just enjoy the mindless ease of it.

I spent a lot of time talking to my friends in Michigan about creative work and my creative work in particular and the draining effect that  the internet and social media has on it. And to be good at something creative you have to work hard for it – because its competitive, but also because no-one can really tell you how to do it. Its not like learning to ride a bike, when pushing pedals are pretty much the same every time you push them, every time you sit down to do something creative you kind of have to remind yourself how to do it again. And the only way to learn how to do it is to just sit down and put the time and effort in.

Anyway, I’m beginning to think the internet is not the worst of it. At least with the internet I have the potential to be creative (I kind of consider this blog my dumping ground/practice area. The better I get writing in here, the more crap I get out of my system in this forum, the better the stuff I write in my ‘serious’ work becomes. That’s the theory, anyway). Even if that is just silly Tweets, its getting my brain working and interacting with *something*. I mean, there has to be a limit, as you could sit on there all day long if you’re not careful, but cable TV – now that is where the real empty brain calories go. No matter how much you tell yourself you’ll use it for the movies, the news and the documentaries, inevitably you find yourself going to the same channels and the same shows and the same crap over and over and over again.

And, on that note, I leave you with this wonderful song about all the things you could do if you don’t have a tv: 

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