31 July 2006

I mistyped into my dialogue box today:

I never hit return; I was afraid the monsters would get me.

31 July 2006

I recently did some consultancy for openTrust, the parent company of openDemocracy, and now that the project in question – chinadialogue – has gone live I wanted to mention it, mainly because I’m so impressed by how the final product turned out.

The best way to describe chinadialogue is as an entirely bilingual online publication about the Chinese environment, built on top of an entirely bilingual CMS.

By “entirely bilingual”, I mean that all content appears (eventually) in both English and Chinese on the site – not just links and headings, but the full text of every article, and of every comment. The site is designed so that whilst everything appears in both languages, the original source language is always highlighted. The translation between languages is performed by Mark 1 Human Beings, incidentally. I found a certain frisson to seeing English and Chinese standing side-by-side everywhere you look; it feels very subversive, given all the issues around Chinese state censorship.

My role in the project was admittedly very limited. I did some early-stages exploratory work around publishing platforms, considering whether to use a pre-existing, open source CMS/blogging tool and extend it either through plugin APIs, or a more major fork of the source code, or whether to build from scratch – and if so, in what. One of the major factors in this decision was the bilingual nature of the project: extending any existing system would require heavy use of the plugin API, but that would mean one language’s content would exist as the primary “content” for an entry, and the other would be banished to the meta-fields. Given that either could come “first” in the workflow of the site, and that both are of equal importance, I suggested that both should also be of equal importance in the database schema.

In the end, they went with the final option, and built the project from scratch in Ruby on Rails. We discussed this option at some length, as whilst there was a strong internal desire to build in Rails, the first thing that comes to mind when you say “Chinese” and “Ruby” in the same sentence is “holy Unicode support, Batman!”

But Unicode-in-Ruby can be stepped around if you know what you’re doing (and try nothing too fancy), so it’s great to see that they not only made Rails work for them – and, by all accounts, had a good time doing it – but also they managed to step around one of the more common Ruby gotchas.

Best of all, I note that they’re planning to release the CMS that runs chinadialogue as open source towards the end of the year. I’m really looking forward to seeing some of that code.

All in all, a pleasant experience, and very cheering to see the results. If you’re working on social publishing projects of any form, and want someone to throw ideas around with (for a reasonable rate) do get in touch.

“User-Generated Content” is an irreparably ugly and broken phrase. First, we’re people, not “users”. Second, people write and speak and design and compose and sing and play and build and earn and pay; machines “generate”. Third, it’s words and pictures and sound and money, not “content”.

Next media

27 July 2006

2007 and the “next” big media thing is an article of mine that’s published in this week’s New Statesman – or, rather, in the free supplement to their New Media Awards that accompanies it. Fortunately, the article is also available for free online.

In the article, I consider (given the title of the awards) that whenever you call something “new”, you imply something else to be “old”, and that lots of people get hung up on this rather than simply considering what happens “next”. You can read the article to find out where I go with it.

A lot of the impetus for this piece came out of Reboot 8, so it was good to channel that somewhere, and you may also recognise some of the other concepts “linked” to in the piece. It was also interesting in that I set out to write a piece about “online”, and ended up writing a pretty straight “media” piece – something I’ve never tried before. I also cut a section about Web 2.0, because it didn’t quite hang right – but there’s certainly something to be said about that nomenclature also creating issues where there were none. Perhaps there’s a space to write that somewhere else – it’s still hanging around my head.

Anyhow, nice to be in print again, and to be given the chance to think about ideas like these around the web, publishing, and innovation.

A quick heads-up to two brief speaking engagments I’ve got coming up on the horizon.

First, I’ll be talking about software to tell stories with at the London Techa Kucha night on 25th July that Steve and Tom are running. That’ll be a radio-edit of the talk I gave at Reboot, more or less.

Then, I’ll be talking at LRUG on August 8th, looking at how as a Rails developer you can work effectively with front-end designers and client-side developers, and how you can keep the integrity of your front-end code at the same level as the back-end.

Come along if you feel like it. And if you found out about these events through the blog, do say hi.

The Science of Sleep

21 July 2006

Wow. The trailer for the new Michel Gondry, The Science of Sleep, is now up over at the Apple trailers site.

Already, I can’t wait – looks delightful, and the stop-motion looks phenomenal. So glad Gondry seems to be finding suitable places to take his talents in Hollywood. Do watch it!