July 30, 20139 Comments

On the digital divide

Google Chrome Unified Search

If you work in, around and underneath websites for a living it's likely (and indeed desirable) that you'll become acclimatised to using a lot of technical terminology and acronyms. But it's easy to lose touch with how much of that people outside the industry actually understand.

Jargon has its place but I'll actively try to avoid using any terms that I think might be lost on my audience in any given situation. I've always hated it when 'techies' appear to be trying to impress people by blinding them with science, and I never want to be that guy. So when talking to clients I often find myself treading that fine line between confusing and patronising them, constantly tweaking the tech-level to ensure that they're still with me.

This of course means I have to make some assumptions: "They'll probably know what X is, but I'd better briefly explain Y". But occasionally I'm way off, as happened the other day.

I recently made a site for a work acquaintance of my wife – just a small job for a local business. I knew it was likely that this client would be near at the non-technical end of the spectrum but I wasn't prepared for one phone conversation in particular, and it took me a while to figure out what they were doing wrong.

The site has a very simple and stripped back CMS content management system that allows them to add, edit or remove products, and I'd given them printed instructions for getting into the system, which went along the lines of:

  • Sign in by going to: http://www.site.com/admin-area
  • Enter your username: XXXXXX
  • Enter your password: YYYYYY (case sensitive)
  • Click the 'Enter' button

And I'd done a face-to-face demo.

A week after handing over the instructions I received a message asking me to call urgently because they couldn't get into the admin system. Digging for a more specifics I asked them what browser they were using, though judging from the 'Umm...' response I may as well have asked them what their subnet mask was.

OK, no problem. I think I recall they have IE9 on their laptop. That should be fine.

And then they said "The admin page isn't showing up, nor is the contact page actually". That was weird. I fired up a Windows / IE9 image in VirtualBox and loaded up the site. Sure enough, 'Contact us' was there on the menu and it linked correctly to the 'Contact us' page (of course there wasn't supposed to be a public link the admin area but hey we'd get to that).

"Really? You mean you can't see the contact page at all?"

"No, it's only showing home and the about us page."

Then the penny dropped – they were going to a search engine instead of typing the address in. They were talking about which pages were showing up in the search results.

I explained that they needed to type in the link exactly as I had printed it into the address bar, but the term 'Address bar' was apparently unfamiliar technical jargon to them.

Finally, after advising that they include "...the 'http' bit. Yes, with the colon, and yes the two slashes as well", we got there and they were away.


Now I'm a big fan of the unified search and address bar that's been adopted across all the major desktop browsers. But thinking about it, it appeared first in Chrome and what Google wants is obviously more traffic to Google.com. The unified search bar surely delivers this. Increasingly people get to places via search even if they already know the URL because Google is so fast that it's still quicker than typing in the full address. That's fine, I do it myself.

But this has also dumbed down the user experience to the point that that I fear the notion of a website's address – for some – may never register on their jargon chart. "You just go to Google".

It worries me that there are people who frequently use the web yet do not know what a URL is. And that there's a real confusion around what Google (et al) actually is and what it does. Near enough all of us use it so we really ought to know – at least at some basic level – what is going on.

And – it wasn't the point of the post but as a side-note – ignorance affects the likelihood of certain Government schemes getting the green light. A recent Daily Mail front page (which must have been in the print edition-only as I can't find it online) declared in intentionally loose language words to the effect of 'Google refuses to remove child porn from the internet'. I believe that a not insignificant amount of people actually think that because you go to Google and then it shows you a list of websites, when you click on one of the results the website comes back to you in some way from or through Google. This failure to grasp even the basics is worrying and dangerous given what a powerful political and social tool the web has become.

July 3, 2013No Comments

‘Retina’ images tool

As part of a project I'm working on I made a little JavaScript utility that swaps images in an HTML page with high resolution equivalents if it detects a high-resolution 'Retina' display and a window over a certain size.

This is useful in a responsive layout because a medium-sized image will look sharp if scaled down (e.g. high res mobile display) but won't look so great when scaled up (e.g. Retina Display Macbook Pro). In my case I wanted to swap a large header image only if the window size was over 1023 (CSS) pixels wide and it was a 'Retina' display.

I thought I'd share it in the hope that it saves someone else the hour it took me to write it.

Here on GitHub: https://github.com/aderowbotham/resina.js

It's called 'resina.js' because there's already a retina.js, which works differently.

June 26, 20131 Comment

Elon Musk on the Future of Energy and Transport

Interesting lecture and Q&A from ‘21st century Brunel’ Elon Musk. Predictably he covers SolarCity, Tesla and SpaceX, though the Q&A is more interesting, covering energy storage, rocket airframe construction, reusability and manned flights to Mars. He also briefly mentions his tantalising Hyperloop concept.

June 17, 20131 Comment

New sort-of-site


Having left my big important position of responsibility in London I still need to take stock of all the work that I'm proud of from the past few years and put it together as a new portfolio. However, I've been pretty much flat out since the day I left Pirata, and I'm currently juggling three projects among other things, so it's going to be a little while yet. It’s a truism that your own website can be the hardest thing to get round to when paid work is vying for your time.

I bought a new laptop the other day and it has one of those ultra-high-resolution displays. It's a lovely bit of kit but (as is well documented) old software and old websites now look terrible on it, the graphics being either pixellated or blurred as they're scaled up. The newest of my personal sites was created in 2007, and looked particularly outdated on the new laptop so I decided that – at the very least – aderowbotham.com needed a quick and dirty makeover.

The old site was just the front and back of my business card from 2007:

The new site doesn't contain a whole lot more, but here are some of its key features:

  • Pretentious introductory ‘mission statement’ (in lieu of having some actual work to show)
  • Works on mobile (obv.)
  • Big silly tooltips
  • Shows off a few of my best photographs in high resolution
  • Some technical stuff that means it’s quick

Anyway, not much to see really. This post is mostly for myself, Google and of course The NSA. My website is at https://aderowbotham.com.

Next-up: a new CV.

May 4, 2013No Comments

Purging in Varnish 3

I wrote some notes on using 'ban' in Varnish 3. Read at GitHub for better legibility.

April 7, 2013No Comments

Feats of Engineering

How Differential Steering Works (1937), and Diesel Engine Governors (1942): Two brilliant videos explaining these triumphs of mechanical engineering, which we today take for granted.

The pneumatic speed governor system is akin to a realtime monitoring and feedback computer program, only constructed with steel and oil instead of digital code - and all the more impressive for it.

Thanks to @jedrichards on Twitter for bringing these to my attention.

March 28, 20135 Comments

Farewell Pirata

Pirata logo

After four years at Pirata I have very recently departed in order to pursue some personal ventures and to spend more time with my family. It's been an incredible four years during which we created a bounty of outstanding and beautiful work, took on some brave challenges and had a lot of fun together.

For me as Technical Partner the biggest satisfactions came from putting together a great team of talented and creative developers, and from overseeing the evolution of our capabilities as we went from building Flash microsites for ad campaigns to creating high profile high capacity dot-com sites in the contemporary world of HTML5, mobile and 'The Cloud'.

Much credit must of course also go to the design team which contains some remarkably talented individuals; Pirata's design prowess has always been second to none under the creative direction of Eduardo, Stuart and David. And I'll get in trouble now if I don't also include a nod to the producers. Of course nothing would have ever launched without you.

The key to great digital design is Agile integration with the development process – something we achieved more consistently than anywhere I've worked before, particularly so in the last year. We've always ensured that designers and developers sit and work together, and the quality of the work really shows for it.

Among the work I'm most proud of is the that which we've been doing for Team GB, not least teamgb.com itself which was a roaring success during London 2012. And more recently Pirata has re-designed and re-built the McLaren Formula 1 team's website from the ground up for the 2013 season. It still has McLaren Live during every Grand Prix, but it works better than ever before and looks fantastic.

I'd like to thank everyone past and present at Pirata for making it a brilliant four years, I'm going to miss everyone greatly and I wish you all the very best of luck! And likewise to all the splendid clients I've been fortunate enough to work with.

What now? Well I'm interested in talking to anyone about projets that lie anywhere around the cross section of technology and creativity. I have a lot of experience to bring to the table and would love to work with small teams of talented people to create tools, apps and games.

And in the short term I'd better get on because I have some websites to make. I still love doing that too.

March 10, 2013No Comments

Moved this blog

Click away now if you're not interested in web servers.

Having spent much of the last few years making sure clients’ websites are fast and responsive, I finally got round to sorting my own blog out. It was letting the side down, being quite sluggish and unoptimised in its shared hosing environment. So I've moved this over to my own server which is running Varnish, nginx and also PHP 5.4 with APC.

WordPress, which this blog runs on, works out of the box in Apache + PHP environments but getting it running in nginx (with PHP-FPM) was a bit of a pain in the arse. This is mostly because .htaccess files are an Apache thing so don't work in nginx. nginx has its own syntax for setting up redirects and there are tools out there for converting between the two but none of the ones I found converted my existing rules successfully.

Frustratingly, following these official instructions to the letter did not work either. Getting the main WordPress installation working was fine but the problem was WP Super cache which relies on some specific rewriting logic. Certain valid post URLs were throwing up 404 errors depending on the state of the cache and what characters were in the address. At that point it had reached 1am so I decided as an interim to put Apache on the server too. I'll return to the nginx configuration sometime soon. I have other sites running off this server through nginx, it's just that WordPress-plugin-specific problem that needs solving.

Running Varnish on the server means it's now easy to route traffic to either Apache or nginx as required based on the request hostname and of course it caches the returned documents so speeds things up even more. Ideally I'd have assets going to a CDN but given that I only get a handful of visitors each day it doesn't really seem worth the effort.

Anyway, that's it for dev-ops news. Hopefully this blog will be a bit more responsive from now on.

P.S. OK, so signing in to leave comments is currently broken. This is due to my Varnish configuration. I need to make exceptions for cookies. I'm sure you'll manage in the meantime. <-- Now fixed

February 22, 2013No Comments

Bitcasa having teething troubles?

*See update at the end of this post*


Having read several favourable reviews I signed up for a Bitcasa account yesterday. The desktop app for OS X looks good and works well. The user-experience is not entirely dissimilar to Dropbox in that you have a special folder which is then synchronised to their cloud storage. However the the Bitcasa drive is a mounted network drive, so doesn't take up space on your hard disk, whereas the Dropbox folder is local.


"Infinite storage" sounded appealing and they're running a $69.99 offer for a year, so I went for it.

However... I'm now finding it incredibly slow to upload files. Speedtest.net tells me the upload bandwidth of my internet connection is 13Mbps, or ~1.88 MB/s. Bitcasa (mirroring a folder through the app) is just about sustaining 190KB/s which means it's using only around 1/10th of my available bandwidth.

Dropbox by comparison on the same machine and connection manages around 750KB/s, which is about 4 times as fast.

I've tried to get some help from them but at the moment it's like talking to a brick wall. 24 hours on they've still failed to respond to two support tickets I raised, nor have they replied to my nudge on Twitter. And there are at least a couple of threads in their community forum filling up with comments from what sound like extremely dissatisfied customers - such as this one.

I hope it's just teething trouble and they sort this out, but the apparent stony silence from the company doesn't bode well to me. As one forum user commented (here):

"The bottom line is it came out of beta too early and we're paying the price now."

Surely the first and most important thing to do is talk to their new paying customers. When people part with their cash they want service!

Update - 23 Feb

Last night I received a reply from Bitcasa on Twitter:

Also, they've responded to my ticket and have commented (and apologised) in a number of the forum threads, such as this one:

"We definitely are inundated with tickets, and are working very hard to respond to everyone as quickly as we can, in order to best address everyone's help needs."

It sounds as though they've had a huge influx of users and that's taking its toll on both customer support and the system itself. Plus there are seemingly a few bugs in the software that need ironing out. From their explanations, due to their protocol the data transfer rate is affected by the ping time to the server. They're using Amazon Web Services so are currently restricted to US, Japan and Ireland data centres.

Being in the UK I'm getting a ~30ms ping time to eu1.api.bitcasa.com, which is pretty good, and my Bitcasa upload speed seems to have vastly improved overnight without me having changed anything. I'm now getting around 800KB/sec according to their app, which is not too bad. I hope it stays that way.

I'm sure they will get things sorted out but, as ever, customer support is key. If things are going wrong 24 hours without a response can feel like a long time for a paying customer. Even to acknowledge that there's a problem and to say "we're working on it" goes a long way in these situations.


© 2023 Ade Rowbotham Ltd