Desert Island Art

I’ve often joked with my computer geek friends that if I was stuck on a desert island and could have only one program, it would be Microsoft Excel. Which is amusing on a number of levels: I have a long history of Microsoft bashing; Excel is not very well known for anything other than number crunching; Real Programmers™ tend to pooh-pooh VBA (the programming language in Excel).

But Excel is incredibly versatile. You can use it as a word processor, the formatting is great, the built in formula language is great, using VBA lets you turn spreadsheets into applications, and more. I even used it to design the kitchen and bathroom tiling for the Electron Workshop.

But a 70+ year old Japanese artist has taken it to an entirely new level: Using Microsoft Excel to create art.





Much more at:


Design Notes: Numbers and other user input

I’m starting a new blog section on design for the web. I’ve been using the web and creating websites for almost 20 years now (hands up those who knew it’s been around that long), and have learnt a thing or two. But it bugs me that web designers are still overlooking some pretty basic design issues. And by design, I don’t mean graphic design. I mean design in the sense of how something is constructed, with a view to how it’s used.

If you’re a programmer and don’t think you’re a web designer, think again. You are the one implementing the design and so you are essential to making things work for the user.

So, today: numbers.

Many websites that require input of numbers have all sorts of validation rules that:

1) make the page fail to work in simple cases where it should work, and/or

2) send the page back to the user to fix input “errors” that the programmer could fix themselves.

A good example that combines the two of these is handling numbers. Bank account numbers, phone numbers, etc.

I get an email with bank account numbers, they are usually written it like this:
BSB: 012 345
Account Number: 123 456 789

Leaving aside the fact that spaces make it easier to read but copying more difficult (and if you’re reading them instead of copying-and-pasting, then you have a problem), we copy them and then attempt to paste them into, say, our internet banking program, where you usually end up with this:

The designer has helpfully made the box quite large but unhelpfully set the maximum lenth at 9 characters, because hey, that’s the maximum length of an account number.

Design Error.

Why create a long field and only allow half of it to be used? That’s just teasing. And if you don’t want anything other than numbers, just filter the input to take out anything other than a number.

Another couple of examples:

Enter Amount:

Enter Phone Number:

Often these bounce back with an “error” saying “Enter the amount in the format 1234.00”, or “Please enter your phone number in the format “0312345678” without any dashes or spaces”.


Programmer, if you want the numbers in a specific format, just do it yourself. It takes one or two lines of code, and you’re not unnecessarily annoying the hundreds, thousands or even millions of people who use your website. Why aren’t you doing everything you possibly can to make it easy for your users?

Carbon Tax for Dummies

Listening to the tenor of the debate over our upcoming Carbon Tax is a bit depressing. Nobody seems to want to explain it in simple terms. Allow me.

Up until now, anyone can spew out pollution into the air we breathe at zero cost to them. Whether or not you believe climate change is real*, polluting the air is no good. Economists call this an “Externality”. This is a fancy word for a cost that a business doesn’t pay. Cost to mining company of polluting waterways and land in third-world country? Zero. Externality. Cost to cigarette companies of smoking-related disease or litter? Zero. Externality. Cost to coal-burning power station of the CO2 and other gases belched into the air? Zero. Externality. Of course all of these things will have to be paid for later, by society as a whole (and maybe our species in the end). So it’s not that these things have no cost, it’s just that the cost is pushed onto someone else.

Let’s say we have two electricity retailers: Green Energy and Dirty Power. Green Energy uses Hydro, Wind and Solar and has almost no emissions. Electricity from them costs $105. Dirty Power has a coal-fired power station and plenty of emissions. Electricity from them costs $100. So most people buy electricity from Dirty Power.

The Carbon tax comes in at $10 and now electricty from Dirty Power costs $110. Electricity from Green Energy still costs $105. With the $10 the government has collected, $5 is given back to consumers so they can now buy electricity from Green Energy, leaving the consumer no worse off. The other $5 goes to creating and improving clean energy production. So now more people will buy their energy from Green Energy because it’s cheaper, and less from Dirty Power because they’re more expensive (and polluting).

And the managers of Dirty Power will start investing in clean energy because if they want to stay in business and remain competitive, they need to lower their emissions so their product is cheaper.

* If you don’t believe climate change is real, please stop being an idiot and do some research.

Sushi Modern

I love making sushi. A few years ago for my birthday I was given the book Sushi Modern by Hideo Dekura. He describes Sushi Modern as “presenting sushi as an edible art form, exploring new ideas, and creative arrangements and combinations of modern ingredients that make sushi a truly modern food.”

In keeping with this philosophy, over the past few years I’ve experimented with various techniques and ingredients, with varying degrees of success. I won’t mention the worst failures, but the Aussie sushi (ham, cheese and tomato) was certainly memorable. On the more successful end of the scale, I like to use the savoury tuna or salmon that comes in flavours like Penang Curry or Thai Chilli (for the non-vegetarians), and sushi omelette also proves very popular. It helps a lot to have a (square) sushi omelette pan.

Recently I made gourmet pizzas and had some left-over ingredients – grilled eggplant, capsicum and artichoke hearts – and thought these might be interesting in sushi. They proved to be a major hit. I made a couple of maki-zushi (large hand rolls) with these ingredients, and they disappeared very quickly.

So I present: Antipasto Sushi.

Antipasto Sushi in the making.

(Click to enlarge)