Saturday, June 26, 2010

Faded Glory: On Being an Ex-Firefighter, Part 1

Faded Glory: On Being an Ex-Firefighter, Part 1

I used to be a volunteer firefighter.

I wore a pager on my belt. I had a radio by my easy chair, programmed to scan dozens of local emergency frequencies. Every Tuesday night was drill night. Alarms frequently interrupted my weekday evenings at home and family activities on the weekend. I could imagine the location of virtually any address in my town and I often roamed the rural areas, looking for odd addresses.

I scanned the horizon often, looking for the first faint plumes of dark smoke that indicated a brush fire. I ignored the huge billows of white smoke erupting from controlled burning of wheat field stubble.

Every siren caught my attention instantly. I could distinguish between police and ambulance calls just by the sound. Police prefer the yelp...medics favor the wail.

I became anxious during hot afternoons if more than four hours passed quietly without a call. Hot weather seems to ignite the trash-burning instinct in most farmers. They love to rake together dried weeds and rotten boards, dousing the edges of the pile with a mix of diesel and gasoline, igniting it with a butane pocket lighter, watching the fire grow until it reaches a climax, and then driving away, confident that the wind would not rise, nor radiant energy cause the nearby building to join the furor, nor dried grass furtively to steal away small flames, spreading the fire to stacked bales of hay.

I loved the smell of diesel in the firehouse, blended delicately with a hint of sage smoke and sweat. We called our protective clothing, "turnouts". They were heavy, fire-retardant, thickly-insulated pants and jacket, secured with snaps, buckles, and suspenders. Our boots were calf-high, black and yellow rubber, with deeply textured soles. All of my gear smelled of smoke. We washed our turnout after most fires, especially after the dirty, all-night, soaking-wet structure fires, but soap and water could not completely eliminate the smell of smoke.

The skill of which I felt the most pride was that of donning an airpack. Entering the interior of a smoke-filled, burning-hot structure required the use of bottled air. Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus, SCBA, provided a cylinder of compressed air, wrapped with a harness and connected to the firefighter's face with a mask and breathing tube. We called the gear an "airpack". Start to finish, an airpack should be on the firefighter's back, mask in place, turnouts buttoned up, in less than 60 seconds...I usually could do it in about 25 seconds.

The only time I hated being a firefighter was after a long day of back-to-back calls. Three calls in one day was about the maximum number I could endure before I became irritated and apathetic. Hot, windy, late-summer days, with lightning strikes in the evening brought multiple fires, sometimes simultaneously. I remember feeling exhausted and angry, irritated with ditch-burning crews who failed to monitor their fires, resentful of supervisors who expected too much, too often, and regretting the time I was missing with my family.

I used to be a volunteer firefighter, but now I'm an ex-firefighter.

Next week: Faded Glory: On Being an Ex-Firefighter, Part 2

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Monday, June 21, 2010

The Start of a New Website, Part 3

The Start of a New Website, Part 3

Time to write code!

I prefer to write my own HTML and CSS code from scratch. I've tried using online generators. I've tried using MS Word and OpenOffice to convert to webpages. They work, and they work fast, but they've all got two serious drawbacks.

First, any conversion software takes control away from the designer. Everything I type or enter must be converted into an HTML equivalent, and many, many times, the equivalent is not what I was expecting. Image positioning especially is difficult to generate. Using the online editors available for Wordpress or Blogger seems very confusing if I try to slightly change the positions or sizes. I've rarely been pleased by the results.

Second, if I do want to tweak the code after a program has converted or generated a webpage, the HTML coding is incredibly confusing and complicated. Line breaks and division tags are used indiscriminately. Every instance of deleting something in the original is coded several times with overriding tags. The entire file is bloated with unnecessary, tangled-up code.

So, I write my own code. My pages are simple, but clean - and most importantly, I understand every line of code. It hasn't taken a tremendous effort to learn basic HTML and CSS. I frequently search the internet for reminders of what tag does what, and how to code a specific routine. I'm careful to use the latest DTD declarations, and I try to make my code compliant and accessible.

But the greatest reward is the sense of accomplishment. With a minimum of code I can write something that is clear and useable. The ability to change simple text to a well-designed page is enjoyable!

Plain Text Version

HTML Tags Added

Veiwed in Web Browser

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Writing a Guest Post

Writing a Guest Post

What a thrill!

Peevish Penman asked me to submit a guest post for her blog! And she's posted it!

I feel like I've been published, or that I've been chosen to represent all the struggling, lackadaisical, and aimless writers of the world!

Really, is a very encouraging, informative, and interesting blog about the art and skill of writing. My small contribution to this fount of knowledge and inspiration is about how to kickstart your creative juices when your mind is saying, "I just want to vegge out and surf the internet...I have nothing interesting to write."

I heartily commend Peevish Penman for your reading pleasure and writing encouragement.

Read my guest post here:

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Start of a New Website, Part 2

The Start of a New Website, Part 2

A good way to start thinking about the design of a new website is to challenge your mind to open up, consider colors, big ideas, and potential themes. I wrote about this in The Start of a New Website, Part 1.

Here's some examples of the process.

I met with my clients and they showed me printouts of websites, screenshots, and brochures. The discussion allowed me to choose some examples that seemed to be close to what they were envisioning.

I took all the samples home, reviewed them briefly, and then put them to one side.

Grabbing my granddaughter's crayons and some manila drawing paper, I sketched out a design.

This design roughly followed that of a related website. The name of the organization is most prominent, large space for a welcome box and news, with navigation menu on the left and photos on the right.

I included a lightly drawn background image based on a map of the organization's region.

The advantage of using crayons is that it forces me to think conceptually, helping me to avoid getting bogged down in details. I roughly suggest font style and size, emphasizing placement and colors. The thick line of the crayon requires me to use brief phrases and titles. A website must capture a visitor's interest, conveying the essential information, in less than ten seconds. Expecting a visitor to stay longer than ten seconds in an attempt to figure out what's going on is not realistic.

My next version was looser, more imaginative. Now, keep in mind that I am basically a linear, logical thinker, so this more abstract version is actually quite daring for me!

But that's what design-by-crayon is good for - it helps my left brain step back and let my right brain do what it is skilled at: colors, emotion, abstract, and feeling.

The words in clouds actually began in the center, with what I considered to be the concept most prominent in my client's organization. From there, I added supportive concepts, each in the form of a bubble or cloud.

I wanted to suggest the importance of our river systems, so I very loosely followed the regional map, exaggerating the flow, adding lighter blue above for the sky, and green below for the land.

I ran out of room for the bottom text, but printing it in red helps it stand out, along with the red arrow.

I liked the spontaneity of this design. It seems childish, of course, and perhaps that's a good thing - it depends upon the target audience of the organization. Recreating it with Gimp will make it more polished.

I was tempted to simply scan this image and use it directly as the background image for the website. But large images with detailed colors and textures is very memory-intensive. For users with slower internet connections, the load time for such large images is unacceptable. The better option is to make the design simple, using solid, internet-safe colors, creating a GIF image, rather than JPEG.

I did one more version in crayon.

This one featured catch-phrases and menu items gleaned from the brochures I grabbed from the organization's bookstand.

I considered this version a compromise, or blending of some of the elements of the first two. I started with a sketch of the organization's logo, adding a phrase that seemed to capture their mission statement. A simple map of the region and an abbreviated menu made it simpler and more direct.

And then I was done - for a bit. I put it all way to stew in my mind for a while, and then I will come back to it and actually write the HTML and CSS code for some trial website pages.

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Monday, June 7, 2010

Journalistic Integrity

Journalistic Integrity

I believe we should not be sacrificing our own personal ideals and our own internal moral compasses in a never-ending battle for position, for status, for scoops, or for access. I believe we should treat those we interact with online with respect and an adherence to high standards in the way that we would like to be treated - and I don't think we are doing enough as content consumers and producers to do a great job. (Louis Gray)

Not too long ago, a writer whom I respect mightily said that he would continue to write, even if there were none who read his work, even there were no internet to which to publish.

Finally, there is an inner impulse that I cannot explain that drives me to write. I would write if there were no possibility of publication. I have hundreds of pages that no one has ever seen but me, and it would not matter ultimately if they were destroyed. I wrote them not to be published but because there is an impulse from within. (John Piper)

His thoughts set me aback. I DO want people to read and value my work. Part of the enjoyment of a thing is the opportunity to share it. I write because I enjoy the thought that my words may create some clarity or humor, or change of perception or prejudice.

I don't think I would continue writing if I believed there were no one to read what I write - I need an audience.

Is that egocentric?

With that in mind, Louis Gray's comments add a deeper level to my desire to write...and my need for an interested audience.

The metrics by which we are all measured are driven by quantity, not quality.

Writers have an obligation to their readers to remain true to themselves, rather than placing popularity or sensation as the goal. He desribes the efforts of many Internet authors as a never-ending battle for position, for status, for scoops, or for access.

I don't have a lot of time to devote to writing. It is my passion, but life requires me right now to work at a job that does not need my creative skills. So my literary contributions are rough, lacking adequate research, written quickly.

Thus, my brief posts, my retweets, my Facebook notes, don't come near the moral integrity of which Louis writes.

What do I need to change about my writing?

Reference Links