Back from Brooklyn

We are back from spending a wonderful long weekend with Patrick and Teresa. Abi and I had been to New York before, but (apart from travelling to and from the airport) we had never been out of Manhattan. This time we mostly hung out in Brooklyn, but on Monday we also zipped through Queens and the Bronx. On our way back South into Manhattan along the Henry Hudson Parkway, we were both struck by features that made us think of Lyon in France.

We ate burgers at the Shake Shack in Madison Square Park; cheesecake at Junior’s on Flatbush; clam chowder at Tony’s on City Island; and yet more burgers at the Old Town Bar on East 18th St. Patrick introduced me to Negra Modelo and tacos al pastor, and we got along famously. We visited the Tor offices in the Flatiron building; watched Avatar; hung out with Scraps and Velma Saturday evening, and the Making Light/ crowd Tuesday lunchtime.

Patrick and Teresa: thank you ever so much for having us. We had a blast.

I’ve just uploaded a bunch of photos to flickr: Mostly Manhattan, Saturday 20 Feb 2010, and Brooklyn, 21 Feb 2010. Here are some of my favourites:

Shake Shack

Flag and skyscraper; fence and camera #1


Rainbow splash

I still love her

Marching ants in CSS

A couple of days ago I noticed that Goooogle uses a marching ants effect on their new mini-calendar event view. It highlights the target time frame for the event you’re editing, and it indicates a draggable and expandable area. (It’s probably been there for ages, but I’m slow like that.)

Marching ants effect in Google Calendar.

Being a colossal geek, the first thing I did was run up Firebug to see how they’re doing it, because there is no “border-style: marchingants” in CSS. It looks like Google is doing it with JavaScript. The area in question is bounded by four long but thin div elements (tall and narrow for the vertical borders, short and wide for the horizontal borders).

<div class="sc-ants sc-ants-top"></div>
<div class="sc-ants sc-ants-left"></div>
<div class="sc-ants sc-ants-right"></div>
<div class="sc-ants sc-ants-bottom"></div>

These divs sit inside a parent container with overflow:hidden, so you only see a small slice of their full extent. The border divs themselves have size, but no content. Their entire area is taken up by a 2px-wide dashed border:

.sc-ants-top  {
    border-top:2px dashed #6688EE;

Finally, there is a JavaScript timer that changes the position of these divs, moving them a pixel at a time to achieve the marching ants effect.

Even in native applications, marching ants are not all that common, and I think this is the first time I've seen them in a web application. Given that draggable/resizeable areas are also not all that common in web apps, I think it's a clever and elegant way of highlighting that there is something different an unusual about that area.

On the other hand, I'm not mad keen on keeping JavaScript timers running just to keep screen elements in their appropriate position, so I wondered if there was a way of doing this with just CSS instead. And of course there is: have a look at the demo page.

I started with a block of HTML in the standard module format, because it's a good basis for isolating areas of content. The holds the actual content to be highlighted, and the other parts of the module are used for creating the borders, as follows:

  • The outermost div is given a left-hand pseudo-border by using a background image with repeat-y only, positioned slightly to the left of the left edge, so that only the rightmost two pixels of the image are visible.
  • Likewise, the .inner container is given a top pseudo-border.
  • The .hd block makes the right-hand border. It is positioned absolutely on the right edge of the module, 2px wide and 100% tall, and has a background image with repeat-y.
  • The .ft block makes the bottom border. It is 2px tall and 100% wide, and also has a background image.

Here's how it looks inline:

Marching ants!

The actual animation is achieved with a couple of old-skool animated GIFs, ants-horizontal.gif and ants-vertical.gif. The horizontal GIF contains two checkerboard patterns, one moving to the left, and one moving to the right; the vertical GIF has the checkerboard patterns moving up and down. Each border only uses half of one of the GIFs, which is you only need two images rather than four.

If you are content with the border being a single pixel thick, and the ants flowing from one corner to the opposite, then you could get away with just one animated GIF — see the wikipedia article on marching ants for an illustration. Personally, I prefer the animation to flow round the border in a continuous pattern.

Of course, this is far from the only way you could implement the marching ants effect. You could use webkit's CSS animations instead. The demo page includes an example of how to do this as well. The basic principles are exactly the same: set up a standard module, and use GIF images to form the necessary borders. But instead of using animated GIFs, you can use just a single static checkerboard image, and use up/down/left/right animations to move around the background instead:

.marchingants {
	-webkit-animation-name: march-up;
	-webkit-animation-duration: 0.3s;
	-webkit-animation-iteration-count: infinite;
	-webkit-animation-timing-function: linear;
@-webkit-keyframes march-up {
	from {
		background-position-y: 8px;
	to {
		background-position-y: 0;

One neat thing about the CSS animation version is that you can vary the speed of the animation without having to edit the GIF file. The obvious drawback is that it (for now) only webkit browsers support CSS animations. But given how easy it is to implement this in a cross-browser compatible manner, right now I'd suggest sticking to the animated GIF version.

Second-hand 80s

Alex and Fiona were both singing Harold Faltermeyer’s Axel F in in their shower and bath this evening. The funny thing about this is that they had probably never heard the original. They picked it up from watching Monsters vs. Aliens on DVD, in which there is a scene where the President of the USA (Stephen Colbert) tries to make contact with the aliens by playing the five note message from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He doesn’t quite manage it, so he breaks into a spontaneous rendition of Axel F instead.

Although I listen to a lot of music when I’m alone, we don’t listen to much in the family spaces around the house. The kids both have stereos on their rooms, but they don’t listen to the radio on their own. Yet they are constantly exposed to musical and cultural references in the films and TV they watch, and the games they play. I always find it fun to see how they react when I connect something they’ve just heard or seen to the “original” from twenty years ago (which itself generally has roots in a still earlier era).

In this case, their interest turned into dance. While they were still getting clean and ready for bed, I burned a selection of 80s hits onto CDs for them. The playlist opens with Axel F, of course, but there’s some Michael Jackson on there, a bit of ABC, a bit of Human League, a bit of Boomtown Rats. They eagerly stuck the discs into their players, and just minutes later Alex was breakdancing to Axel F, and Fiona had put together a short ballet to the sounds of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” I was completely enchanted.

Music is so important to me that I’m always delighted whenever they take any kind of interest in it. I need to work on getting more of it into their lives.