Monthly archives of “January 2015

Designing prompt cards

Prompt cards

When I was preparing to record the video on HyperCard I shot for Macworld, I created some little prompt cards, and I liked the design solution I came up with – so I thought I’d share.

On one card I outlined my rough plan for the video – bullet points, essentially, with a proposed narrative flow in place. It’s on the left, above. On the other cards I printed the tweets from Macworld readers and some other snippets that I wanted to be able to quote as Keith and I talked.

I needed to be able to find my way back to my master card at any point, so I did two things. One was make it blue so it stood out, but the more important thing was to cut the bottom corner off the other cards, as you can see above. Now, wherever in the stack my master card was, I could feel for it with my left thumb, and shuffle it to the top, even without looking at the stack. In this way, as I could sense that one segment was coming to a close, and still while chatting with and maintaining eye contact with Keith, I could get my master card ready so that I could glance down at it briefly to remind myself of where I had thought we should go next.

Bruno Maag on font piracy

Computer Arts asked me to write about font management for an upcoming issue, and I spoke not just to the companies that develop font management tools and to the agencies that use them (or don’t!) but also to type foundries to get their take on font piracy. As always, I got far more good stuff than I could fit in the feature, so much of the raw interview stuff will go up on Creative Bloq soon. But (with Computer Arts’ permission) I wanted to publish my favourite one here; this is Bruno Maag, the Swiss typographer who is chairman of Dalton Maag, and I think he says smart, pragmatic things that deserve to be heard.

(An aside before we go on: it always strikes me that the Qs in a Q&A often come across as anodyne and facile, as is indeed the case here, but – as is the case here – they can prompt thoughtful insights. The below is unedited, save for some light grammatical and typographic clean-up.)

What’s your attitude to font piracy?

The cost of pursuing commercial piracy is immense, with no guarantee of success or return, but where we know of unlicensed use of Dalton Maag fonts, we must enforce our licence terms and pursue appropriate compensation.

However, we deal with casual piracy at source, through education and explanation, by building business models which understand real-world needs, and by trying to avoid the known causes of casual piracy: geographic restrictions, differential pricing, opaque terms, uncertain suitability, inaccessible products, and so on.

Do tools such as Extensis’ Universal Type Server actually help – specifically independent foundries? Do you support initiatives such as Typekit?

I find that IT departments are always concerned about legal compliance for any software used in their organisation. Font management tools clearly simplify their task and give them control of what fonts are used in their organisation. It can be good for the font developer because it means that there is no ambiguity with corporate licences, but can lock out unapproved but legal fonts from being used.

Typekit and other fonts-as-a-service providers do open up new markets and do take our fonts to more desktops than before. It is a new model for licensing, and it is good for font developers because they will have a guaranteed revenue.

What would you say to a designer who has a deadline to hit and is tempted for speed just to copy the fonts from a colleague’s Mac?

Today there really are no excuses. Every font developer has their fonts available online where licences can be purchased in just a few minutes.

How can we reconcile the need for agencies and their designers to be experimental with fonts (in ways that might never actually get used beyond the initial brainstorming stage) with foundries’ need to ensure they get paid?

That’s exactly why Dalton Maag introduced its free trial licence this year. Designers and agencies can download fully-functional trial versions of our fonts for free for pitching and testing. It is then the agencies’ responsibility to ensure to budget for font usage should the project progress, and to purchase the correct size and type of licence, for themselves and possibly for their clients.

What’s the biggest issue facing foundries and their intellectual property today and tomorrow?

As we try to understand and cater to more needs from a wider and more international audience, the functionality of fonts and the cost of their development increases exponentially, but the risks of commercial failure remain the same.

But I do believe that the biggest threat in the industry is from the industry itself. Many typeface designers are overly protective of the fruits of their labour, even for those who possess a valid licence; there seems to be a lack of appreciation that without the honesty of the paying customer we wouldn’t have a business at all, and no real understanding that the value of our work isn’t truly realized until the fonts are used in the real world.

Add to this impenetrable licence agreements with gotcha clauses and terms which will never work in the real world, and it’s no wonder that so many users feel that font foundries aren’t on their side.

The best supermarket own-brand single malt whisky

Best supermarket single malt whisky

I love whisky – a little too much, as my wife would tell you – so writing a roundup of supermarket single malts for Lifehacker UK was a joy. No really; you might think own-brand whiskies would be vile – indeed, a couple of them were – but there were also some gems here.

Personally, if I find myself in Tesco or Sainsbury’s I’m going to pick up their Speyside, if I find myself in Waitrose I’ll reach for the Highland, and if I find myself in Asda I’m going to turn on my heel and walk out the door because damn those things were nasty…

(If you like whisky too, or even if you just think you should and want to find out more, you could try listening to my podcast, Scotch.)


One of the first features I commissioned as editor of MacFormat was on ergonomics, and one of the pieces of advice Shelby gave in it really resonated, not least because it had simply never occurred to me. She pointed out that the numeric keypads which cling to the right hand side of most keyboards are bad ergonomics, since it forces [those of] us [who are right-handed] to stretch out to the right to use a mouse.

Since that Damascene moment over two years ago, and given that I use the numpad so infrequently I wouldn’t mourn its loss, I’ve been on the lookout for a keyboard like the one you see above. It’s taken me so long to find one because Apple only made them – bundling them by default with Early 2009 iMacs – for a short period. You can find US-layout ones comparatively easily – I wouldn’t mind ‘losing’ £, but I’d hugely miss the UK-layout Return key – and of course the Bluetooth version is still made so getting one of those would be trivial.

However, I use a KVM and also don’t especially like feeding even rechargeable batteries to a keyboard, so I both wanted and needed a wired one. I finally bought one (in essentially new condition) by the simple expedient of setting up a search for its model number – A1242 –plus ‘Apple’ and ‘UK’ in eBay and then subscribing to the results in RSS. (Did you know you can turn any eBay search results page into an RSS feed by adding &_rss=1 to the end of the URL? Here’s the URL for my search if you want one of these keyboards too.)

Although ergonomics was the motivator for getting this keyboard, however, there are other reasons I love it. There’s always something pleasing to me about using just-enough-but-no-more to do something, and this keyboard is a writer’s keyboard.

It’s also so small and light that if I pause for a moment in writing, my pinkies can stretch out easily to lightly grip the sides and, with my thumbs resting on the bottom lip, I can nudge or twist the keyboard by a few fractions of a millimetre so it’s in the perfect position for typing.

It’s a lovely little thing, and I’m delighted I’ve finally found one.

Early adopters

I often hear repeated the assertion that early adopters specifically want to be on the cutting edge, that they draw much of their delight from technology from being an early adopter in and of itself.

(I was prompted to write this after noticing it in this excellent piece on the end of trickle-down in technology adoption – which is rightly being recommended by basically everyone online – but I’m not singling it out in particular. It’s great. Read it. Like, after this.)

I wonder: how true is it? How true is it that one of the driving factors for early adopters is only and in the abstract that they want to be on the cutting edge? I’m sure it plays a part – the bragging rights, the attention it brings and the way your opinion has currency and heft because you actually have the thing that everyone’s talking and curious about – and I recognise some of that in me. I’m an early adopter, to be sure, though possibly more on the ‘visionary’ slice of the graph linked to above rather than ‘technology enthusiast’.

For me, though, having new technology early isn’t about the mere act of having it early – I buy or review because I’m excited about it and more importantly it’s because I’m curious to see for myself what this new tech is, how it fits into my life and how it might fit into the lives of others.

Perhaps, though, I’m just conflating the ‘tech enthusiasts’ and ‘visionaries’ slices of Moore’s chart into a broad ‘early adopter’; it certainly seems so if you stick closely to his definitions. In other words, I might call myself an early adopter, but I’m not the kind of hardcore early early adopter who prizes adopting early above or at least equal to the tech that’s being adopted. If true, though, I don’t know any of these ‘tech enthusiasts’ who conform to Moore’s definition, neither in meat space or cyber space. Do you?


I buy bags of ice – not being sufficiently well-off to afford a contraption that makes it, but being sufficiently fond of taking my whisky on the rocks that I can’t keep up by making it in trays – and a thought often tickles me when I reach into one.

Sometimes, you see, I drop a chunk of ice on the floor, and at that point, of course, it’s useless. I don’t want to pick it up and drop it in my glass, and it will melt into a puddle of water when I chuck it in the fridge. And the thought is: what I bought was a transient state of matter. Most times at the supermarket, you buy stuff – even if what you’re really buying is some chemical energy that you’ll process once you eat it rather than some immutable gobs of matter. But with ice, you specifically buy the state the matter is in.

This thought can appear to be lousy with resonances and heady with import when you are topping up your ice for a second glass of whisky, which coincidentally is when you’re most likely to drop some ice cubes on the floor.

Cheap, easy, tasty, healthy* aubergine pasta sauce

Melanzane main

tl;dr version: Roast two aubergines (egg plants), one red pepper and a handful of cherry tomatoes. Blend or chop to a coarse sauce. Gently fry garlic and another handful of cherry tomatoes then add sauce. Add herbs (and chili, if you like), season, serve.

I bloody love aubergines, it turns out, and I wanted to come up with some more ways to prepare them. The idea for this dish popped into my mind on my way to the supermarket – I don’t imagine it hasn’t been done before, but it’s original inasmuch as I thought of it without outside help – and I was astonished by how good and satisfying it is. I love when cooking is almost alchemical, when you put together a few simple ingredients in apparently unremarkable ways yet produce something complex and wonderful.

What’s more it’s cheap, easy, tasty and healthy*. That liar’s asterisk, as I like to call it, is because it’s only healthy by some measures. Actually, there’s a lot of olive oil, more salt than is wise, and a lot of burnt stuff in here, but on the other hand, it’s a great way of getting towards your 5-a-day, and it’s classic ‘Mediterranean diet’ stuff.

Here, basically, is the stuff you need to buy. I’m going to assume you already have oil (ideally a cheap extra virgin olive oil and a light olive oil, but no worries if not), salt, pepper, some dried herbs and some pasta – or some other staple you want to serve this alongside.

Melanzane 1

And here’s how you make it:

  1. Cover two baking trays with foil; use trays with lips, as there will be some olive oil sloshing around as you take the hot trays out of the oven. Put half the cherry tomatoes one one (put them with the dimple where the stalk was pointing down and they’ll roll around less) along with the roughly chunked red pepper. Slice the aubergine into thick slices – don’t worry about getting them all the same thickness. Arrange on the other baking tray.
  2. This is the step where we add most of the unhealthiness. Get your cheap extra virgin olive oil – I think you do need the robustness of the extra virgin’s flavour – and generously glug it over everything. Next be generous with salt – it will help pull out the moisture from these vegetables so that they roast up beautifully – and finally add plenty of pepper.
    Melanzane 2
  3. Put your trays in the oven to roast. One of the joys of this dish is that this step can take pretty much as long as you need it. You can do a long, slow roast at 150° C/300° F/gas mark 2 to really bring out the sweetness, or blast the lot at 240°/475°/9 for just a few minutes if you’re pushed for time. I tend to give it a quarter of an hour or so at 200°/400°/6 and then whack the oven to full and just keep an eye on it; you basically want to get some nice charring on everything but not end up with a carbonised mess.
    Melanzane 3
  4. Put all the roasted vegetables into a blender and blend to a coarse sauce. You might need to add a little water to stop the whole thing seizing. If you don’t have a blender, let everything cool a little so you can handle it, then chop with a knife.
  5. If you’re serving this with pasta, now’s the time to put your pan of water on to boil, and just make the pasta as usual alongside the sauce as soon as the water is boiling.
  6. In a saucepan, add some light olive oil, bring to a medium-low heat, then add the remaining cherry tomatoes and two or three (or four…) cloves of minced garlic. Pay attention; you mustn’t let the garlic burn, but it should also have a chance to fry rather than just boiling in the liquid from the cherry tomatoes. So, if the garlic looks like it’s browning, turn the heat down and maybe even smush a couple of the tomatoes down so there’s some liquid in the pan to retard the frying process, but if the tomatoes are in danger of breaking down yet the garlic has barely been in the oil, turn the heat up to give it a quick blast of frying before returning it to a medium heat.
  7. Juuust as the garlic is starting to colour, pour the sauce from the blender into the saucepan. You might next need to slosh some more water into the blender and give it another whizz to help clear the thick sauce out of it, but that’s okay because the whole sauce might need a little watering down in a moment anyway.
  8. Add some dried herbs – a generous pinch of oregano and a little less of rosemary, perhaps, but it’s up to you – as many dried chili flakes as you like (which could be ‘zero’), and more seasoning but only if it needs it. Now just cook gently till the whole cherry tomatoes you added in step five start to break down. You can add some liquid if you think the sauce is too thick; it’s packed with enough flavour that I just usually use water, but you could use wine (white, probably) or a light vegetable stock.

This serves four generously, and to be honest could stretch to six or even more without anyone feeling particularly hard done to. If you’re cooking for fewer, reduce the number of ingredients (though try to keep the proportions the same) or just put some sauce aside in the fridge to have the next night. It’s so good I’m happy to have it for a few meals running, but it’s a versatile sauce that you can do lots with to give repeat meals some variety. Here are some ideas:

  1. Form leftover risotto into balls with this sauce stuffed inside, coat them in panko breadcrumbs (dust the risotto balls with flour then egg then panko) and shallow-fry for some spectacular arancini.
    Melanzane 4
  2. Use it to top breaded chicken; a great way to add vegetables and flavour to, and to dress up some bland, shop-bought breaded chicken.
  3. Get some fresh lasagne sheets then roll this sauce up inside them, adding some crumbled ricotta. Pour some passata over the top, then top with béchamel and parmesan. Bake.
  4. If you are or are cooking for a committed carnivore, then adding some smoked sausage is delicious here, and still pretty cheap. Plus since you’re only heating it through, you can just chuck it in in the last step.
  5. Or just freeze it – it freezes well. When defrosting and reheating it may seem to have gone extra-thick, but it should relax as you heat it gently; you can always add yet another a splash of water.

What to do when a drive won’t mount (hint: nothing)

tl;dr version: An external disk wouldn’t mount; I panicked and tried to fix it, then I just gave up and it fixed itself – specifically, the fsck_hfs daemon fixed it for me.

Yesterday, I rebooted my the Mac mini in my office into Windows to play some games, then when I rebooted back into OS X, my Drobo wouldn’t mount.

The status lights on it were all normal, and the Drobo Dashboard (which coincidentally I think failed with ‘missing components’ necessitating reinstalling) reported it was healthy too, but while the drive showed in System Information and in the Disk Utility tree, if I tried to mount it it just reported that it couldn’t, and suggested that I should try to repair it.

I was a little nervous of doing this since a Drobo uses an unusual disk structure, but its own support documents say you should indeed try repairing the disk if it fails to mount. (It’s not actually surprising, since the Drobo’s unusual system should be entirely hidden from the Mac; so far as the Mac is concerned, it should be just like any other disk.)

Disk Utility, however, reported that the disk was unrepairable. Now, I tried connecting it using USB 2.0 (rather than FireWire 800), and connecting it to another Mac, but still, no dice. I was beginning to resign myself to buying Disk Warrior to laboriously reconstruct the directory structures, but I wasn’t quite done troubleshooting yet.

My next step was to connect it to yet another Mac, and now I got a faint glimmer of hope. This was my wife’s MacBook Air, which is still running OS X 10.9; both my Macs had been upgraded to 10.10. Clicking on iStat Menus, I saw that the fsck_hfs process was running, taking up a lot of the CPU. This is a background process that checks and repairs disks, so with nothing to lose — and knowing that a Drobo support document I read earlier said that if fsck is running, let it complete — I just left it and went to watch telly.

I came back a couple of hours later, and boom; the Drobo was mounted on the desktop of my wife’s Mac. Now, one detail I omitted earlier was I had noticed that when the Drobo was connected to either of my Yosemite Macs, a process called diskarbitrationd grabbed a whole chunk of the CPU. Googling it suggested it’s a process just concerned with mounting disks, so I had thought it was getting stuck because it couldn’t mount the Drobo. I can’t find information to suggest diskarbitrationd is a successor to or incorporates the repair elements of fsck, but it’s possible that had I just left the Drobo connected to the Mac mini when I first noticed the problem that it would have repaired itself there too. I’m a little annoyed that the Mac apparently had the ability to repair the disk, but loading Disk Utility and clicking Repair – the obvious troubleshooting process – failed with no hint that an invisible, background process was actually capable of doing it, not least because if you know less than I do, you’d just assume that your data was gone, and either start a lengthy restore process or start spending money on new disks.

(The data on the Drobo – mostly our iTunes Library – was backed up, online, to Livedrive, but the idea of downloading 4TB data, even on a fibre connection, wasn’t one to fill me with delight.)

I’m pretty paranoid about backup and data security, but this episode was a reminder that however you protect your data it’s never absolutely safe; all you’re doing is reducing the risk. The Drobo system allows for a single disk (or, depending on your configuration, two disks) to fail mechanically without losing any data – just pop out the duff disk and slot in a new one, something I’ve done in the past – but as I was reminded even this doesn’t ensure the data is secure, since it only protects against one particular (albeit major) source of data loss.

It’s important to point out that I believe the Drobo system itself was entirely blameless in all of this; I think the fault was one that could have affected a simple single-disk USB drive, and would have been fixed in the same way.

5 musicals you should watch (especially if you think you hate musicals)

It’s amazing how many people claim to love music but say they hate musicals. You probably hate musicals. I have no data to back that up, but I’m about to write over a thousand words on that basis, so we’re both just going to have to accept it.

So, you! The reasons you don’t like musicals, I bet, is because you think they’re frothy, camp and trivial, because they make you cringe, and because you just can’t get over that moment when the strings swell and you know with a dread certainty that a character is about to burst into song. And I get that. Even though I can enjoy those sentimental, highly-mannered musicals, I get that they can be hard to love – or at least, hard to admit to loving.

Not all musicals are like that, though, and if you dismiss all musicals as frivolous confections lacking in substance or merit, you’re going to miss some truly wonderful, valuable and rewarding films and theatre. So to ensure you don’t miss them, let me recommend to you five musicals that even people who don’t like musicals should watch.


I could just recommend this and be done. For one thing, you can marvel at its technical brilliance, at how the songs act as signposts, either pre-figuring or underlining major plot markers. And what signposts. Smart, moving, funny – and often utterly, utterly vicious. In the same way as the ugly spectre of Nazism pervades what could be a bland boy-meets-girl story, so too are even the silliest, most ludicrous musical numbers shot through with twist-the-knife despair and vileness. That very contrast – how an apparently whimsical number called If You Could See Her Through My Eyes about a man dating a gorilla turns on the very last line into an excoriating commentary on anti-semitism – is why it has such power. Sometimes the contrast is less stark, and that can be wonderful too. Witness how, with apparently nothing really changing, the pure, clear, optimistic pean to youthful promise Tomorrow Belongs to Me morphs into a chilling march, prophesying the apparently inevitable rise of the Third Reich.

And besides, despite unmistakably being a musical, its characters don’t, as a rule, do that breaking into song thing, and that’s thanks to the clever use of the Kit Kat club – the cabaret of the title – as a useful dramatic construct. The whole thing is actually supremely and terrifically meta; the closing song, Cabaret, is meta meta, and that’s delightful.

You might think you know some of the songs from Cabaret, but stripped of their context, you probably only know their superficial meaning; in context, they can become almost unbearably poignant, powerful and heavy with pathos.

It’s worth seeing in the theatre – a regional rep can do it justice as well as a West End company can – but the 1972 Bob Fosse film is nevertheless glorious. Yes, Sally Bowles should be English, and no, she shouldn’t really be able to sing, but Liza Minnelli gets the fragile femme fatale, ingénue thing so right, Michael York is just wonderful, and Joel Grey is canonical.

(Oh, and it’s anything but a bland boy-meets-girl story.)

Buy on Amazon

Flight of the Conchords

In three paragraphs’ time I’m going to recommend you watch an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, so I thought I’d better bank some street-cred by first recommending you watch something that’s about as far away from Phantom of the Opera as you can imagine.

If you’ve never seen it (or technically, even if you have), Flight of the Conchords is a comedy TV series set in New York – but it’s very definitely a musical too. Despite being a comedy and despite it being a TV series, it’s actually probably more classically a musical than Cabaret; the songs, as well as moving the plot on, are sung by the primary characters, and they do, I’m afraid, do that bursting into song thing.

The songs, though, are fab; witty, superbly produced and with properly world-class melodies and hooks. It’s no wonder one of the show’s creators, Bret McKenzie, was asked to do the music for The Muppets movie – which is another belter of a musical, incidentally.

Buy on Amazon

Jesus Christ Superstar (specifically the Norman Jewison version)

It’s possible you hate Jesus Christ Superstar, thanks perhaps to its big closing number, to ham-fisted amateur productions or to unbearably camp, leadenly re-contexed productions such as 2012’s O2 stadium performance. And again, I get this.

This 1973 film, though, should change your mind. Its success comes from three factors: the staging, the actors, and the fact that it’s so fucking seventies. I love the spare, almost Brechtian staging – the cast and crew rock up in the middle of the Iranian desert in a van, and film in the ruins of Avdat. It’s beautiful, but because you’re not distracted by how well or otherwise the sets have been built and dressed, it focusses you on the story too.

Even better, the cast is giving it their all. And not in a RADA, X Factor, clenched-fists-and-eyes kinda way. You know how legend has it Carrie Fisher was so off her tits on drugs during filming of Star Wars that she really thought she was in space? I wouldn’t be surprised to learn something similar of the cast here. They are wildly talented, yes, but there’s also a rawness and immediacy to their performances that I don’t think you can fail to respond to.

Then there’s the seventiness. Squealing guitars, the slightly Instagram-ey colour grading on the film, Pan’s People-style dance numbers and awesome hair. It’s awesome – but it also has huge power and potency.

Buy on Amazon

Fiddler on the Roof

Now I’ve convinced you to watch something by Andrew Lloyd Webber, anything else should be easy. So here’s Fiddler, an absolutely classic musical, and of course I’m going to recommend the 1971 film version, also by Norman Jewison – though mostly because I’ve never seen it staged.

As you probably know, it tells the story of a community of Jews and Christians in Russia, and through the marriages made by the daughters of Tevye, the main character, we see a traditional way of life challenged, challenged and challenged again, and we see how Tevye, as a proxy for an entire people, struggles to adapt.

There are some wonderful tunes, some genuine laughs and of course some toweringly nuanced and poignant performances.

This one, I admit, might be a tough sell if you’re a musicals naysayer, just because it’s so classically musically, so don’t make it your first.

Buy on Amazon

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Tim Burton’s Christmas classic is warm, sweet and clever, and a big part of its appeal are the songs – not just the well-known This Is Halloween but also What’s This? and the terrifically well mimicked Oogie Boogie’s Song. I’ve written this at exactly the wrong time to recommend you watch it – optimally, you should watch it on the day you put the Christmas decorations up – but it’s a lovely film to watch at any time of year, and whenever you do, you might catch yourself realising that what you’re watching, indeed, what you’re enjoying, is a musical.

Buy on Amazon

If by the time you’ve watched all five you have either reluctantly accepted that musicals are not entirely lame or have wholeheartedly embraced the form, the good news is that there are many more waiting to be enjoyed – and sometimes, they are films or theatre pieces that you might already know, but have never before thought to enjoy as musicals. The Jungle Book (indeed any Disney cartoon), Chicago with Queen Latifah, Bugsy Malone, Charlie & The Chocolate Factory – especially the wonderful production at the Theatre Royal – that musical episode of Buffy, Labyrinth, the surprisingly touching story of Cole Porter’s life, De-Lovely, and a hundred others can be beautiful, funny, affecting, and filled with pathos, and can tell stories in ways that straight drama just can’t.

As for me, the next I’m going to see is Into the Woods, a 1986 Stephen Sondheim musical which a new film adaptation of has just been released. It’s supposed to be wicked-smart, look stunning and have great tunes — what’s not to love?