Trip Report

After much travel chaos, I’m home safe and sound after Web Directions North.

I’ve been to a number of conferences, but I don’t remember the last one that I enjoyed as much as this. There were a lot of great sessions, like Cameron Adams‘ full-day JavaScript workshop, and Brian Fling‘s Mobile Web presentation (did you know more people have access to the web via a mobile than people who have access via a desktop?), but the huge take-away for me was Andy Clarke‘s full-day workshop, “Transcending CSS”.

I wasn’t expecting much out of the CSS workshop, honestly, because there isn’t too much about CSS that I don’t already understand — but Andy’s workshop focused on thinking differently about using CSS, and composing meaningful markup. We spent a lot of time reviewing traditional web design workflow, and why/how to move to more progressive, browser-oriented techniques, and somewhere between the two topics I realized why I’ve had such design ennui when it comes to my own projects.

When I was younger and much more prolific (in my design prime, so to speak), I didn’t know nearly as much about web design, or html/css as I do now. I didn’t really know how difficult a design would be to markup or implement, and I never stopped to consider how I was going to manage the content itself once the code was done. I’d design the site in Photoshop, and I’d start hacking together code to try to get it to look right in a browser. Along the way, I’d run into a problem getting the design to display faithfully — maybe a limitation of HTML or CSS, maybe a gap in my own knowledge, maybe a weird IE rendering bug — and I’d have to find a way around the issue, which generally involved modifications to the design or rewriting most of the code.

This would happen a lot (just how often depended on how complex the site was, but a dozen times or so per site is a safe estimate), and each time this happened, the design and code evolved further away from the original concept. In other words, problem solving had become part of the creative process, and my design was being informed not just by my own ideas, but also by the limitations of browser rendering engines.

This doesn’t happen anymore for my personal sites. When I design a site in Photoshop, I’ve got a solid understanding of what is and is not possible. When I run into implementation problems, my understanding of XHTML/CSS is such that I can almost always solve them, and I end up with a fully validated design that looks exactly like the Photoshop. And that’s a great thing, if you’re a consultant and you have client sign-off on a mockup, but I’ve realized that this has robbed my sites of the things that keep me interested in them. My creative process for personal sites ends at Photoshop, now, and doesn’t carry any further than that.

I believe design is problem solving, not art. When I design a site and there’s no creative problem-solving process involved, I end up with something that I think is very pretty, but completely lifeless and boring, and I abandon it immediately.

The trick is now to translate this new knowledge into a new creative process.

Personal epiphanies aside, it was incredible to spend a week chatting, learning, (and drinking) with so many people whose work I’ve followed (or idolized) over the years, like Dave Shea, Matt Webb, or Jeffrey Zeldman. (It was like a Maschinenfest for web geeks, in that sense.)

Twelve or thirteen years ago (half a lifetime away), when I was a Very Small Jairus, and first trying to learn learn HTML, I didn’t understand how any of it was put together. The markup part was easy (I was a fairly competent C++ programmer, writing System 7 apps), but the design element of it was frustrating and confusing. How come the page didn’t look the same on Windows as it did on MacOS? Why doesn’t this tag do the same thing on two different browsers? I didn’t get it.

There were six or seven big names on the web at the time, and I emailed them all. I told them that I was trying to learn HTML, none of it made any sense to me, and (heh) could I please rip off their websites to build my own so that I could figure out how the fuck any of it worked.

The only person who emailed me back was Jeffrey Zeldman, and he said “Of course you can — go ahead and rip the code off, that’s what it’s there for”. And I did, and I ended up making my first website based off of the code and layout of his site. And honestly, if he had never emailed me back, I don’t know if I would have kept bashing my head against the keyboard until everything started to make sense; so it was very important to me that I had the chance this week to thank him in person for this, and I did.

I’ve been posting a lot of photos from this trip to my Flickr account, but the photo I posted earlier from the top of Blackcomb is the only Whistler photo I’m going to put online. The vastness and scale of the mountains are awe-inspiring, and it’s completely impossible to capture that in film. I took dozens of photos, but on a computer screen they’re just a bunch of snow covered rocks, and not the mountains that I spent two days on.

Day 1

8 pints and 1 Alaskan Cod later, it’s time to fall asleep to Confessions Of A Knife on the $10/h hotel-room jukebox.

If I sent you any embarrassing emails, I apologize. If I haven’t yet sent you any embarrassing emails, I apologize. (I promise to get to you soon.)

See you tomorrow!

Sensory Sensitivities

I had my first EEG session yesterday. This was the baseline evaluation, so nothing terribly interesting happened. 6 electrodes are attached to my head, plus three clamps on my earlobes — two to monitor background electrical signals (which will be subtracted from the signal sent by the electrodes), plus one ground. Close your eyes for a minute. Look over here for a minute. Read this page for a minute. Move electrodes. Look this way. Listen to these words. Move electrodes. Repeat these numbers. Repeat these numbers backwards.

We talked briefly about the results of the tests from my last visit, and while the results are more nuanced than I’m describing here, there were two things that stood out very strongly in the results: Hypervigilance, and traumatic stress.

‘Traumatic stress’ is similar to its big brother, post-traumatic stress disorder, but isn’t nearly of the same magnitude and effect. As an emotional condition, however, the fundamentals are the same, and neither of us were very surprised to see this in the results.

I wasn’t familiar with hypervigilance, but it’s a fairly straightforward condition to understand; imagine you get robbed and beaten in an alley downtown at night. Now imagine how you feel the next time you’re in that alley at night. That state, where you’re overly conscious of where you are and what you’re doing (and likely to have an exaggerated reaction if a stranger started walking down the alley toward you) is hypervigilance. It’s an extended form of fight-or-flight — and is what I’ve likely been living for the last 2-3 years.

These two conditions are usually caused by extended and acute physical pain, or periods of extreme stress. In my situation, I had both. (The level of stress was so high that I actually developed a facial twitch which lasted for the greater part of a year.)

I’m in Vancouver all next week on business, so the neurofeedback proper will start Monday after next. If yesterday’s EEG results confirm the hypervigilance, we’ll likely start working on that first, as a precursor to working on the more generalized stress.