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2003, Part 1

Discontinuities

Wednesday, 1 January 2003

We stayed up with some friends last night to celebrate the discontinuous nature of our culture's timekeeping, like most of you probably did. Those of you observing the Gregorian calendar, anyway. Then I got up at 5:45am to do my radio show and cover the show after mine, since its programmer is out of town. She covered my Christmas show last week, so it was a fair trade—but boy, are my cells tired right now.

So we kick off another year. I'm not going to do a "best of the year" thing here, or point to anyone else's. Ever forward, and all that.

I do have one small observation, however. If you're going to legally change your name to Jack Ass, I'm not sure how you can possibly bring a defamation-of-character suit against anyone, with the bare possible exception of yourself. Even if you did have some kind of noble reason for making said change, you're on really, really shaky ground when you claim someone else injured your reputation.

Head Banging

Friday, 3 January 2003

Earlier this afternoon, I was seriously thinking about smashing my forehead through the monitor of my Windows machine. Why? I was trying to do some standards-based scripting for IE5.5. You'd think I'd know better by now, but no. It's a very simple little routine, and yet IE5.5 just silently fails at one point for no good reason (and, I'm told, so does IE6). I have script debugging turned on and it still doesn't tell me anything. It just stops the routine.

In another area of the page, I have a block-level element set to 100% the width of its parent element, which is also 100% the width of its parent, with none of them having any margins or padding. The expected result is that the "innermost" element will be as wide as its parent, and that element as wide as its parent. Does IE5.5 do this? Of course not—that would be too easy. Instead it leaves a roughly-one-em gap to the left. Oh, and the links in about half the lists simply fail to respond to user interaction of any kind. The link text becomes plain old ordinary text for no apparent reason.

I'm really beginning to loathe IE/Win. Sure, sure, NN4.x is worse, but I've stopped worrying about how it renders pages (by dint of hiding most styles from it) and I don't even try to script for it. Thus IE/Win now occupies the "most unforgivably broken browser" slot in my life.

I should learn not to talk about music until I've had a chance to listen to it a few times. My opinion of Gravity has sharply improved in the past week. I really started to like it when I told iTunes to always skip track 9. Gravity still hasn't grabbed me the way Spiritual Machines did this time last year, but it's still darned good.

The Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan in your life is likely to find the Buffy Sex Chart amusing on some level. I found myself remembering the relationship charts that were drawn up in an attempt to map the emotional landscape of Twin Peaks—which was, let's admit, only possible if you extended the chart into several more dimensions than the usual three. I was also reminded of an analysis of the show's vampire population ecology I spotted recently. It's a population-dynamics paper with equations and graphs and everything, although it's written specifically to be understandable even if you don't follow the math. Now that's über-geekitude for you. I love it.

Speaking of television, last night Kat and I saw a commercial for Domino's Dots™. These are, it would seem, fried dough balls with cinnamon-sugar coating and a white icing. They sound like donut holes to me, and they seem like a half-step from the Cinna Stix®, which are themselves a half-step from breadsticks. So here's my theory: Domino's is very slowly evolving into a national-chain version of the typical local neighborhood Italian bakery.

It's so crazy, it just might work.

Getting Mixed In/Up

Saturday, 4 January 2003

Remember the redesign competition I mentioned (along with a lot of other people) a while back? They've announced the prizes up for grabs, and I was very pleasantly surprised to find that the Grand Prize package includes a copy of Eric Meyer on CSS. I do have to wonder how much use it will be to someone who can successfully restyle another person's site with CSS... but hey, no complaints here! Good luck to all the entrants.

Contrary to what Zeldman has to say, I generally don't wish I were not writing a book. When I'm writing a book, I enjoy it because it's something I like to do and because I wouldn't have agreed to do it if I weren't excited about the project. When I'm not writing a book, I enjoy the time off, but usually get back to the authorial keyboard within six months or so.

Rewriting a book, though... that's a whole other story, and one with distinctly fewer comedic overtones. I hate having to revise my own work, because my deep-seated impulse to tinker usually drives down the quality of the text. The dread spectre of endless revision is tempered by the glimmer of needed new material, but to me, it's like mixing chocolate syrup into a thick vanilla milk shake: the end result isn't as awful as it could have been, but Lord, it sure isn't good.

(It may help your understanding of the previous paragraph to know that I loathe chocolate. No sympathy is necessary, because believe me, I'm not missing out on anything. Call to mind a food that you truly despise; something that, if you accidentally got a mouthful, you would instantly spit out and then try to scrape off your tongue. That's what chocolate is like for me. Kat couldn't be happier, because I never try to steal her dessert.)

Reviewing other people's work isn't bad. I'm currently reviewing two books, and this morning I started getting severe dèjá vu. The chapters I was reviewing for both books referred to the same sites, and even had screenshots of those sites that were taken on the same day. I'm about 98% certain it was all just a big coincidence. Either that or the computers that run the Matrix are getting less creative.

Suppostulatory Arguments

Sunday, 5 January 2003

I swore I was going to continue to stay out of the whole sorry mess (after my one post, I mean), but Ian's injunction brought the following passage to mind:

"You can prove anything you want by coldly logical reason—if you pick the proper postulates. We have ours and Cutie has his."

"Then let's get at those postulates in a hurry. The storm's due tomorrow."

Powell sighed wearily. "That's where everything falls down. Postulates are based on assumptions and adhered to by faith. Nothing in the Universe can shake them. I'm going to bed."

–Isaac Asimov, Reason (1941)

Please note that absolutely no other correlations between the cited story and the situation at hand are intended, and should probably not be inferred. (Like that will stop anyone.)

Elegance and Eloquence

Monday, 6 January 2003

At least one good thing has come out of the apparently-ending-soon thread on www-style: Robin Berjon posted a link to the specification for Ook!, which I hadn't encountered before. It was so beautiful, I shed a tear of joy. Great domain name, too.

As I read How to Write Like a Wanker (thanks to Simon for the pointer), for some strange and obscure reason I found my thoughts once more turning to the aforementioned www-style thread. I really have to find something else to occupy my mind. I hear girls are a very popular mental obsession for some people; maybe I'll try that. I'm sure my wife will be just thrilled.

Carol Spears wrote in to share some CSS magnetic poetry with me, so I'm sharing it with you. There are some other interesting CSS examples on the same page, so check them out. They remind me a little of my one bout of noodling. (Suddenly I wonder if I should shift that into css/edge.)

Here's something interesting: Now Corporations Claim The "Right to Lie". I found the link at the O'Reilly Network, so you've probably already seen it, but if not I highly recommend a reading. The historical information alone was quite fascinating. For another side to the story, there's a wire piece from last November over at CNN Money that concerns me as well. I don't believe corporations should ever have a right to lie, and it appalls me that we've come to that even being a question. But is there a right to restrict what news organizations (even those owned by huge media conglomerates) can say, or what corporate members can say to the press, about politics or corporate behavior? Does the actual ruling mean that? I don't know, but the whole thing bothers me.

Beware of the Leopard

Tuesday, 7 January 2003

Apple has launched a new open-source browser called Safari. I wonder how Tim O'Reilly feels about that, given how long ago he launched his own Safari.

Unfortunately, the user agent string of Safari is Netscape 5.0 Mozilla/5.0 (Macintosh; U; PPC Mac OS X; en-us) AppleWebKit/48 (like Gecko) Safari/48. "Like Gecko?" Right. So if you're doing client sniffing, better make sure you aren't catching Safari in your "test for Gecko" code, because it's not very much like Gecko. Once again we see why client detection is a dangerously fragile and ultimately futile approach to, well, anything on the Web. If you absolutely must detect, do object detection: look for support for the things you need to make your application work. Otherwise, follow the standards and don't try to serve up customized content, styles, or scripts to anyone.

Beyond the Pale

Wednesday, 8 January 2003

First Nike claimed (so far as I can tell) a right to deceive the public under the First Amendment, and now Citrix is claiming that paying taxes violates its First Amendment rights. I find it odd and faintly troubling that I keep finding references to these cases on the O'Reilly Network, and not via more traditional news sources like CNN.

You know, I'm a big fan of capitalism. It's the one form of economics I've ever seen that best fits with basic human nature. It allows capital to move around freely, which is the key to a healthy economy. It's based on currency, which is a very useful way to abstractly (and yet tangibly) represent the effort one expends in doing a task, and the worth of that effort. It's one step up from the barter system, but it's an unimaginably powerful step. It makes possible everything we take for granted in Western society.

Nonetheless, I do not and will not ever accept that capitalist actors—companies as well as individuals—should be totally unfettered and untaxed by government entities. The government provides very useful services, ones I wouldn't want to live without and that I can't reasonably perform myself. Like the people who inspect food to make sure it's not going to kill me, for example. They're sort of important. They aren't perfect, but without them around I suspect food poisoning deaths would be a great deal more common in America. After all, cleanliness is expensive. Similarly, I think the EPA is useful, or would be if allowed to do its job. In any case, taxes support those services. Not to mention the military, which I've been given to understand is a popular institution with the American people these days. No taxes? No military.

I can hardly believe that any company has the gall to claim that they have First Amendment rights to not pay taxes. Maybe, just maybe, the cumulative effect of these cases will be to have the Supreme Court definitively rule that corporations do not have rights, but are instead accorded privileges. Am I dreaming? Yeah, probably.

Meanwhile, I've heard credible rumors that Apple, while it was working on Safari, filed Bugzilla evangelism bugs so that the Standards Evangelists at Netscape (of which I'm one) would get the sites to fix their code to work with Gecko and other standards-compliant browsers. This would then, they apparently hoped, get the sites working in Safari as well. If this turns out to be true, I'm going to be furious; just the idea that it could be true makes me angry. I don't mind helping out Apple. I'm a Macintosh guy and have been for more than a decade now. I do mind being tricked into doing their work for them. Hey, guys, what's wrong with saying, "We're both working on standards-based browsers, so let's work together to get sites to support standards?" You know, being honest? How about that? Anyone think of that?

The more I learn about corporate behavior these days, the more I think about becoming a hermit. A high school friend of mine always said he could easily see me being a backwoods hermit philosopher, muttering about the Deep Mysteries to a bunch of squirrels and throwing a waist-length beard over my shoulder while munching wild strawberries. Maybe he was just being prescient.

Lookin' Up

Thursday, 9 January 2003

In response to my rantings yesterday, David Hyatt has stated unequivocally that the Safari team did not, in fact, co-opt Netscape evangelism efforts during development. I'm really very glad to hear that's the case, and if I hadn't had such a bad day Tuesday, I probably wouldn't have mentioned the rumor in the first place. Then again, the end result of my ranting is a negative rumor laid to rest, so perhaps it was all for the best. That's what I'll tell myself to feel better about the whole situation, anyway.

To make it formal: I apologize for casting any unwarranted aspersions on the Safari team, Apple, etc. With any luck this will help stamp out the rumors that were reaching me.

On to more trivial matters! This is quite possibly the coolest review I've yet received:

Last year, I watched "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and I was amazed at the swordsmanship on display. Swords were no longer weapons, but extensions of arms - as if they were new appendages grown especially for the task. Eric Meyer can wield CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) in just the same way as those actors could wield swords.
–Amazon reader review for Eric Meyer on CSS

Being a big fan of the movie, I can't help but be deeply flattered. I'm just wondering if said reader pictures me as Li Mu Bai, Yu Shu Lien, or Jen Yu.

Green Destiny

Sunday, 12 January 2003

Simon Jessey has confessed he wrote the Amazon review I mentioned on Thursday, and furthermore says he pictures me mostly as Li Mu Bai with a little Jen Yu thrown in. Hmmmm... that's definitely an interesting image. Anyway, I've created a new presentation option for the site to celebrate being called "The Li Mu Bai of Cascading Style Sheets": please enjoy wo hu cang long. Note that this new theme has a layout bug in IE5/Mac which appears to be related to the alternate-style switch, and not the CSS itself. There isn't much I can do about it, as the bug doesn't happen in static test documents.

On the other hand, Robert Kirkpatrick wrote in to advise me that I should work to be the Cheng Pei-pei (who played the Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) of CSS. Of course, we're mixing actual people and characters here—in the movie, of course, Li Mu Bai is the more skilled, but in real life it's likely Cheng is more skilled than Chow. Either way, I'm flattered.

I'm also feeling under the weather, which is ironic given how nice a day it is today. Off to the couch for tea with lemon and maybe a movie. The Killer is always a good choice.

Agony and Ivory

Tuesday, 14 January 2003

I'm feeling better, thanks. About most things, anyway.

If you're seeing layout or other rendering bugs on this site in Safari, as some people have said they are, please use the bug icon in the browser to report the problem. I can't run Safari or else I'd report problems myself. Apparently there are some weirdnesses with the navigation links in the sidebar, if nothing else. Whatever problem you see, it's worth reporting, so please do.

Most of you probably already know that Mark Pilgrim is upset with XHTML 2.0, and many of you may be aware that Tantek and Daniel Glazman are in agreement. I'm broadly sympathetic with their frustrations, but since I was never that thrilled with XHTML in the first place, I can't get too worked up about the breaks between 1.x and 2.0. I never really got why HTML had to be reformulated as XML. Yes, I've read all the arguments about later ease of conversion and all that. I suppose there was some good in easing authors into XML authoring habits using a language they mostly recognized. That just didn't seem like enough. This site has been, and continues to be, HTML 4.01 Transitional for a reason.

I do broadly agree that XHTML 2.0 is way too unrealistic for its own good. It outright drops too many things authors find useful, like the style attribute (although I admit I'm biased there) and heading elements. For that matter, yes, Virginia, there is a difference between abbr and acronym, so dropping either one seems like a mistake. On the other hand, if this stuff was deprecated instead of eliminated, I'd have many fewer points of concern about XHTML 2.0. I'd be worried that the deprecated stuff would be dropped in the next version of XHTML, but XHTML 2.0 would bother me less.

Then again, given that you can take XML and CSS and create your own documents out of whatever markup language you can invent, and use XSLT to bridge the gap between old browsers and new ones, I find XHTML to be of minor import. If it gets too ivory, then it will be ignored, and some other XML-based language will take it place. Or, more likely, lots of markup languages. Either way it will be interesting, and the XHTML 2.0 advocates won't be able to blame anyone else for the explosion of non-interoperable languages. Which, I suppose, is the point of all the sturm und drang of late. If XHTML 2.0 were interoperable with XHTML 1.1, people wouldn't be nearly so upset.

Wow... all this concern over making things work together. Can it be that the Web is getting all growed up?

Dirty Harry!

Wednesday, 15 January 2003

Mark your calendars, Potterphiles: June 21st is when Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix is due to be released. The book will come in at a svelte 255,000 words spread out across 768 pages, using a smaller type than previous books since sticking with the same type would have put the book at about 960 pages. Even so, assuming the growth trend continues and the type doesn't get any smaller, my rough calculations show the seventh book will be a bit over 436,000 words and 1,314 pages long. It's a bold new concept in fantasy writing: you'll be able to experience the last year of Harry's schooling in real time. Just like being there! Only with you sitting in a chair reading.

How have I gone this long without encountering Clagnut? It's the kind of design that I can sort of vaguely see in my head when I sit down to do something, but when I do it, the end result is never as good as I thought it would be. Richard Rutter apparently has the ability to see things clearly from the start, and carry them through until they're done so that they look as good, or better, when finished. Although I do see some rendering differences between browsers due to box model problems, they somehow don't really detract from the site's appearance. I'm seriously thinking of modifying some of his ideas for a theme here. It's about time I put together a presentation option that significantly modifies the layout, instead of just recolors the basic one. "Wo hu cang long" was a faltering start down that path, but it's not enough.

Oh, There'll Be Plenty

Sunday, 19 January 2003

So last night Kat and I headed down to the Cinematheque to meet up with Ferrett, Gini, and Jeff to see Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter. Wow! It was... well, it was... I mean to say, it... it's not really describable. But it was quite funny. I might pick it up on DVD if it ever comes available. As Ferrett said on the way out, "Oh, I can't wait for the commentary track for that one."

Meantime, the recent ruling on Eldred v. Ashcroft sparked a lot of debate on a computer book authors list to which I belong. I stayed out of it for a while, because I didn't have much to say, and then suddenly—as is often my wont—I realized I had something to say after all. So I said it, and I figured, what the heck, I could say it here too. So if you want to know what I think about copyright terms, feel free to read away. If not, no sweat. It's automatically copyrighted either way, as it happens, and now nobody else can say the same thing for more than a century, or something like that. How much sense does that make?

I still don't know why I think so, but this is darned cool. I'm probably just jealous I didn't think of it first.

Ask and Ye Shall Receive

Monday, 20 January 2003

Peter Janes wrote in to point out that if I'd bothered to follow the "Official site" link on IMDB.com, I would have found the Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter Web page (part of the Odessa Filmworks site) and from there found out that the Special Edition DVD streets in the United States in eight days. For $19.95. With 30 minutes of outtakes and deleted scenes. I think I need to lie down for a minute.

Shoot, having a copy of the "Star Wars Scat" sung near the end of the film is reason enough to buy the thing. Thanks to Eclectic DVD, I can.

Oh, and don't forget the free JCVH desktops!

Lest you think I'm a rabid fanboi here, bear in mind that I was chuckling as I typed out all this stuff. This film is goofy. It's obviously a labor of love, and shows many a spark of talent. The musical number was fall-down funny (in more ways than one, the end-credit outtakes reveal) and the ranting prophet in the bushes was genuinely odd. If you're uptight, this movie almost certainly will offend you, but of course that's one of the things I liked about it.

Good thing the Bible is in the public domain, though.

See Me... Hear Me...

Tuesday, 21 January 2003

For those who have interest in my physical-world activities, I've posted updates to the Speaking page. In two days I'll be presenting in Columbus, Ohio, and two weeks after that I'll be speaking here in Cleveland, so you Ohio folks get plenty of opportunities to come heckle! Details on both talks are now available, and while one of them isn't free, it's still pretty darned cheap to get in. Usually when I present, it's at some conference that costs you an arm and a leg to attend. Speaking of which, I've filled out the details on my SxSW panel, so if you're going to be there and want to know more, check it out.

Hold the Pickles

Wednesday, 22 January 2003

Just when I thought it was all going to go to smash (and of course it probably will anyway), a tiny sign of sanity has peeked its head out of the murk to give me a moment of hope. A lawsuit alleging McDonald's is responsible for two consumers' obesity has been dismissed. Oddly enough, suddenly I have a craving for a McDonald's hamburger. With fries. Mmmmm....

Of course, it's absurd to think that fast food is good for you, and I'm not trying to say that it is. I worked at a very busy McDonald's for a couple of years, so I know what goes into that stuff. It's not healthy. I don't think it's supposed to be, and in fact the offering of salads and yogurt at McDonald's still gives me moments of cognitive dissonance. The whole super-sizing trend isn't the greatest thing to hit the waistline, either, and it seems to be moving into the home. But nobody's forcing us to super-size anything. We choose to go for the Big Gulp, and Value Pack, the Combo Deal, the what-have-you outsized portion. We could as easily choose not to go for them, if it were important to us. In the meantime, people should stop blaming nebulous external forces for everything wrong in their lives. Personal responsibility may be a neglected art these days, but it's one well worth reviving.

Speaking of junk-ish food, did you know that if you leave rainbow sprinkles in a vanilla milkshake overnight (in the refrigerator, of course!), they semi-disintegrate into a sort of sandy, crusty consistency? Neither did I, until lunch today. And for those wondering why I would be drinking a milkshake in our current weather, the nightly lows are still positive Fahrenheit values, so it's not all that cold. Besides, a really good milkshake is worthwhile in any weather, and Dottie's makes really good milkshakes. Not quite as good as Tommy's, perhaps, but still really darned good.

If you're in the central Ohio area and would like to see some fun stuff done with lightweight markup and creative CSS, remember that I'll be speaking at the Central Ohio Macromedia User Group meeting tomorrow evening at 7:00pm. We've made sure to leave time for audience questions, so come on down!

Listing Toward the Future

Thursday, 23 January 2003

Douglas Bowman ruminates over the use of list elements (i.e., <ul> and <ol>) as the basis for navigation links, tabbed interfaces, weblogs, and just stuff in general. Is it okay to use an unordered list to hold the lists that drive your site? Should a weblog just be an enormous ordered list? If you do those things, does the semantic meaning of the list change to the point that it's no longer really a list?

Well, kell co-ink-e-dink! Tonight's talk at COMMUG deals almost entirely with ways to take lists and restyle them to get panels, tabs, flowchart-like structures... pretty much everything Doug was talking about. I'd even been planning to talk a bit about the semantic joyride such approaches can mean, at least to some people.

So here's the short version of what I think: looked at a certain way, pretty much everything can be represented as a list. The U.S. Census, the Solar system, my family tree, a restaurant menu, the stuff I did yesterday, all the friends I've ever had and lost—these can all be represented as a list, or a list of lists. So the question isn't really whether we should be putting all this stuff into lists. The question (at least at this stage of the game) is whether or not the markup structure meets the job, and helps with accessibility concerns.

Now, should we have markup structures that meet the jobs more closely? Maybe. XHTML 2.0 has the <nl> (nestednavigation list) structure, which comes closer to making the markup name match the structure's intended role. I'm not convinced this is necessary; it's already possible to just take nested lists and turn them into menu systems using CSS, assuming a sufficiently capable user agent. It's still a topic worth consideration and exploration.

A List, A Year, A Look Back

Friday, 24 January 2003

Lists seem to be my topic-of-the-moment, but this is about a different kind of list. It's hard to believe this, but it was a year ago today that the mailing list css-discuss was launched. By my slightly rough count, the list carried 17,455 messages to its subscribers in calendar year 2002, and has nearly reached 19,000 messages total. Just over one thousand of those messages were sent in the first eight days alone, which sent a lot of early subscribers running away in horror, and caused me to wonder if I was going to be crushed by the flood. Due to overloading problems, we had to switch servers twice before finally migrating to the current home, graciously provided to us by evolt UK. The list averages about fifty messages per day, both at present and as a lifetime average,. Even though we moved the list to a new server and required people to actively re-join the list at that time, it has nearly 1,500 subscribed accounts.

I've worked hard to keep it a practical list with a high degree of signal, and I'd like to think those efforts have paid off. We have the occasional hiccup, and every now and again a thread gets out of hand, but overall I think the list has been a lot more worthy than not.

I'd like to extend my deepest thanks to John Allsopp of Western Civilisation, which provided the list its first home; to John Handelaar of Userfrenzy and evolt UK, who manages the server where the list now resides; and to all the members of the css-discuss community, who make it useful through their contributions, discussions, and continued respect for one another and the list itself. No community can be truly great without active support from its members, and the members of that list are very active in making it the kind of place I'd hoped it would be. My thanks to you, one and all.

Talking, Correcting, Ranting

Monday, 27 January 2003

The files I used for last Thursday's presentation are now available on the Speaking page. The presentation space that COMMUG uses is, in a word, awesome. Picture a large lounge-type setup with three wall-height projection screens, each of which can be devoted to any of the video input signals. I was able to set it up so the slides (an OperaShow document running on my Windows laptop) were in the center screen, and the examples (which came off the TiBook) were on the left and right screes. Beforehand I decided to have some fun; running three fifteen-foot-tall iTunes visualizations of "Block Rockin' Beats" is a sight to behold. I felt like a real rock star for a moment there.

In my post last Thursday, I referred to the XHTML 2.0 element nl as meaning "nested list," when in fact it stands for "navigation list." My bad. I've corrected the original entry as well. It's another data point in the topic of markup, semantics, and semantic overloading, but not one I'm currently prepared to explore in detail. Meanwhile, I'll just increase my Buzzword Rating by saying "Semantic" a lot. Semantic semantic semantic.

So it looks as though the Northwest Passage will open up in our lifetimes, but I'm sure there's no such thing as global warming. After all, the Republican News Cha—er, I mean, Fox News Channel said so. It's all just a fantasy of radical environmentalists who don't have anything better to do, apparently. Which makes sense, because obviously there isn't anything else to get upset about, like widespread deformities in amphibians. Oh wait! Sorry, the FNC gurus have said that last one is all made up as well. Too bad nobody told Scientific American before they published an article about an eight-year scientific investigation of amphibian deformations. Oh, those wacky scientists. When will they learn that science is only valid if its conclusions agree with certain political agendas?

Which, oddly, reminds me: ever noticed how when a judge rules in a manner favorable to conservatives, it's hailed as respect for the rule of law, but when the ruling leans to the left, that's called judicial activism? Maybe it's time to turn the terms around, just to see how the right wing likes it. After all, there's nothing like extremist apoplexy to brighten one's day.

Increasing Circulation

Wednesday, 29 January 2003

I've watched word of the Web Standards Meetup work its way through various blogs like a slow conceptual pulse, so I may as well keep it going. I seem to be the only one in my area signed up so far, and I'm slightly bummed that there are cool people like Nick and Molly signed up in cities far away from me. Of course it was only after I signed up that I realized the meetup is the same night I'm presenting at a local community college, so I'd be incredibly late or in absentia anyway. Of course, people interested in standards could come meet at the talk, and then we could all go to a nearby place afterwards. It's an idea. It might even be a good one. You be the judge.

I'd been toying with the idea of trying to get local Web folks to assemble for socialization and (human-relation) networking for a while now, but thanks to Meetup I don't have to undertake the organizational effort. That's pretty cool. It just makes sense someone named Eric would be involved in something that cool. We're everywhere, and everywhere we go is cool. That's the kind of cool we are.

Some time yesterday, someone asked how my new book was coming along. I asked which one they meant. It turned out they meant Eric Meyer on CSS, and that they'd spotted a mention of it on MozillaZine. So I went over to see what they had to say, and discovered they were saying that evolt had posted an interview with me last Saturday. Well, shoot the horse and slap me silly! I'm always the last to know.

Actually, said interview was already available in Italian, and I forgot to mention that fact until now. I sense a karmic balancing here.

So, Opera 7. It's out, and yes, it does wonderfully well on css/edge, so you can all stop e-mailing me now. I'll update the demo pages one of these days to say so, I promise. Just not today. Opera 7 still suffers from some disappointing CSS bugs, though. One is on this page right here, assuming you're using the default page stylesheet or one of its variants. The entry dates should be appearing below the horizontal line at the top of each entry, not above the borders. Also, on my Speaking page, the :first-line underlining of li children of ul#upcoming is being applied to more content than it should. Neither is really tragic, but they are a touch annoying. Opera 7 also has some problems with negative text-indent values on block-level links; it seems to be flipping the sign on the value, so that it's positive. But I could be wrong about that, since I haven't invested a lot of time in detailed analysis of the behavior.

There have also been some changes that make OperaShow do odd things to some of the files available on my Speaking page. It's probably a case of my writing my projection-media CSS to cater to Opera 6 bugs, and Opera 7 having fixed said bugs. I probably won't get around to fixing up old talk files, so if you really want to see them as first written, keep a copy of Opera 6 around. Hey, at least you can have multiple versions of Opera on your computer, just like most browsers.

These are just the things I've noticed from a little surfing around. To a degree, I'm just picking nits, but I also wonder how many other "combinatorial" problems I'm going to encounter. It's one thing to pass a test suite, which is a set of controlled circumstances that is easily predictable. Dealing with the wonderfully wacky ways authors like to combine bits of CSS in pursuit of a given effect is something else entirely.

Is Opera 7 better than Opera 6? Yes. Does it have a good CSS engine? Yes. Is it the best CSS engine I've seen? No. Close, but not quite.

On a completely different front, the interface on this medical detector is really cool, not to mention the technology itself is pretty nifty. Give 'em about 15 years to wedge in more advanced scanners and extra features, and we'll have tricorders after all.

Stay in View, Please

Thursday, 30 January 2003

Imagine the ability to spread a bunch of sub-millimeter sensors around and then collect the data. Now go read "Companies test prototype wireless-sensor nets" at EE Times Advanced Technology. Then, assuming you haven't, go read A Deepness In The Sky by Vernor Vinge. It goes on rather longer than I might have liked, but it's still full of interesting ideas, including the use of a "smart dust" sensor network. It would seem that privacy as we know it really will be over. David Brin touched on this topic in Earth, and apparently addresses it directly in The Transparent Society, which I haven't read. Is the only defense against technological invasion of privacy the ability to detect the invasion, and the ability to counter-invade? I don't see too many other options, frankly. It might be possible to jam some forms of invasion privacy, but who could afford the gear to detect and defeat all possible forms of invasion?

Along similar lines, the more I hear about the things that can happen to IE/Win users, the happier I am about being a Macintosh user who works for Netscape. The very idea that a Web browser can be taken over, and seriously mess up the operating system in the process, makes my eyes cross. I'm starting to wonder how any company with the slightest shred of concern over security could possibly justify running IE/Win. Here's a scenario: a high-level manager wanders past a site that does a drive-by download of a toolbar which then does its own download of a small program that quietly transfers all of the hard drive contents to another system. Hey, were those your corporate secrets leaving the building just now? Yeah, I think they passed a virulent data-eating virus on its way in.

Then again, if said company is also running Outlook, I suppose getting upset over virus infections became passé a long time ago. In any case, the only defense against this sort of thing is the ability to find out that it's happening and put a stop to it. If there were a way to inflict similar damage on the original perpetrators, we'd all be mini-Cold War actors: don't mess with my data and I won't mess with yours. In that kind of situation, how long would it take someone to decide a first strike was a good idea, and how much damage could they inflict?

Shuttle Down

Saturday, 1 February 2003

No doubt you've already heard that the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart over Texas during re-entry this morning. NASA's Web server is currently offline due to excessive load. The original CNN report of the problem ends on a horribly tragic note.

I remember when Challenger was lost, 17 years ago this past week. I was a sophomore in high school, walking from lunch to my first afternoon class with my friend Dave when his father (a teacher at the school) stopped us in the hall and said, "Did you guys hear the Shuttle blew up?" I didn't believe him at first; I think the first words out of my mouth were, "Ha ha, very funny," even though as I uttered them I knew he wasn't kidding. It was a reflex action, an emotional spasm, divorced from anything else.

I actually own a copy of the report of the Presidential Commission on the Challenger accident. I don't know what that means.

NPR just reported that Colonel Ilan Ramon, the Israeli crew member, was one of the pilots who attacked an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. There is a tiny, tiny part of me that's glad that this accident happened at an altitude 200,000 feet instead of a lower altitude, one where people might have asserted it must have been a terrorist missile attack against the Shuttle and its Israeli crew member. There's a larger part of me that is dismayed that our world is such that it was one of my first thoughts.

As I watched the video of the multiple debris trails of Columbia slowly etching the Texas sky, I couldn't help but wonder why America's national tragedies keep coming on perfectly clear blue mornings.

Moving On

Monday, 3 February 2003

For those curious, Cuyahoga Community College has sent out a press release regarding their "Geeks & Gurus Visual Communication & Design Lecture Series." The first session of the series is to take place this Thursday at 7:30pm, and features yours truly. Check out the release for more details; I'm hoping to make it to the rest of the series as an audience member. All the other sessions look really interesting. There is more detailed information available at awdsgn.com.

As I indicated before, this Thursday's presentation will greatly affect my ability to be at the Web Standards Meetup, unless of course everyone shows up at the talk and we go somewhere afterward. I definitely plan to make it to the Web Design Meetup next week, though.

Restyling Madness!

Thursday, 6 February 2003

Just a quick reminder that the WThRemix competition closes in eleven days. Here's your chance to remake the face of the W3C Web site, and maybe win some peer accolades and a few prizes along the way. I'll be impressed by any entry that gives the W3C site a bold new look without changing its markup structure at all, personally, but I'm not a judge so impressing me won't get you anywhere in the competition.

Did I mention that the different thematic choices for adactio.com are really, really impressive when you visit the author's journal?

I somehow missed the announcement of the winners of AllTheWeb's restyling competition, so I'm going to mention now that the contest is over and the winners' entries publicly available. There are some really good entries. I worked (remotely) with one of the runners-up when he was an intern at Netscape last year. Speaking of which, I hope to have some good (or at least interesting) news in the near future.

I'm off to be a geek or a guru, or maybe even both, at Tri-C's Western campus tonight, where I'll talk about (among other things) how CSS can be used to restyle any site, regardless of what the site author has to say about it. Hope to see you there!

Keeping Perspective

Friday, 7 February 2003

Wow. The attendance at last night's talk was overwhelming, probably a hundred or so people; we ended up having to break down an airwall and spill into an adjoining room to provide space (not to mention seats) for everyone. My deepest thanks go out to everyone who was there to hear me run over my allotted time. The talk file will soon be available on the Talks page. Thanks also to Al Wasco for making the event possible.

Just before the talk, an audience member told me he'd read my journal entry where I talked about the Xupiter toolbar and what it can do to IE/Win, and that he's basically moving to the Macintosh platform as a result of all the security problems in Microsoft. I'd worry about my apparent power to mold people's thinking, except I have to remember that's what it is: an illusion. There's not only the Xupiter thing, but SQL Slammer hit the news (and Microsoft's internal network) in the last week, and shortly thereafter a security consultant mentioned he's thinking of migrating to the Macintosh because it has far fewer security problems. So it's not just me saying this. If anything, it's probably just me sailing with the prevailing winds.

None of this really seems terribly important, though, what with tragedies national and personal among those I know. I even find it hard to get worked up over the whole Opera/MSN thing, which feels to me more like a broken browser detect than a deliberate act on Microsoft's part. As a friend likes to say, "Never ascribe to malice that which can be more easily explained by stupidity." Sniffing user agent strings to send them different style sheets is, as I may have opined once or twice before, pretty stupid.

I finally managed to pick out frames for my glasses and started wearing them today. All I can say is that I don't understand how anyone thought this was a good idea. My vision is much sharper in the center, and then gets rapidly distorted towards the frame... and then, beyond the frame, the world looks like it always has. The whole package is messing with my depth perception, balance, and ability to see at all. No wonder prescriptions have to get strong over time; the glasses are wrecking your vision! It's all an optometristic conspiracy, I tell ya! Aliens would doubtlessly be involved except life isn't The X-Files.

I wonder how much it actually costs to rent a country. I suppose that's one of those "if you have to ask, you can't afford it" deals.

The Silence of the Fat Lady

Saturday, 8 February 2003

Fabian Valkenburg sent in e-mail letting me know that my comments on Opera 7's CSS support got used in the talkback to an evolt.org article, and that I'm wrong about Opera 7's display of the dates on this page being a bug. As it turns out, the answer to that is "maybe."

First, a word on how I set up the title and date styling in the basic site theme. Both are contained in successive h5 elements, each with an appropriate class value (title and date, in fact). I make the title inline so I can wrap a border around it that "shrink-wraps" the text. Then, since I want to move it upward, I relatively position it upward two-third of an em. Since it has been relatively positioned, for the purposes of laying out other elements, browsers should act as though the element wasn't positioned at all. (See CSS2:9.4.3 for details.) So, in that sense, the relative positioning should have no impact on how the date is laid out, and in fact it doesn't in the browsers I tested; I only brought it up to show that the title wasn't floated. On the other hand, I float the date to the right and right-align its text. Since I'm floating the date to the right from below the place where the date's h5 would have been (because the date comes after the title), I give it a negative top margin to pull it upward, so that it sits just below the top border on the entry.

Now here's where things get fuzzy. According to CSS2:9.5.1, the outer top edge of a float may not be any higher than the top of preceding float or block boxes. It doesn't say anything about inline boxes. Remember that with CSS, it's possible to have inline and block boxes for sibling elements. So the effect of that portion of CSS2 is to allow floats to ignore preceding inline boxes when they float. Or not ignore them, as the case may be.

Let me frame it another way: here's a testcase that shows h3 and h4 elements in the normal flow, and then with the h4 elements floated. To my way of thinking, both floats should sit below the h3 elements that precede them, regardless of the type of box those h3 elements generate. This is because my conception of floats is that they start from their place in the normal flow, and then move to the right (or left). From there, they move downward if they must, but not up. Unless I give them a negative top margin to move them up, of course.

The behavior I just described is what IE5.5/Win and Gecko-based browsers do, to pick two examples. But what Opera 7 (and, in many cases, IE5/Mac) does is not a bug, because it doesn't violate the CSS specification, so I retract my earlier statement. I believe that what it does is not what site authors would want, but it isn't wrong. Thanks to the wording in CSS2:9.5.1, neither are the browsers that don't agree with Opera 7 wrong, although I would accept that they're further away from the letter of the specification. Whether or not they violate its spirit isn't clear, and it's in cases like this that browsers tend to do whatever their programmers thought best.

So what we have here is a gray area in which I believe the letter and spirit of CSS are pulling in different directions, and browsers are splitting over which path they choose. Hopefully CSS2.1 will be clarified to address what should happen, and we won't have to bother arguing about who's doing what better in which way for whom.

As for css/edge, yes, I hear you. Opera 7 gets most or all of the demos correct, and may in fact reveal some erroneous assumptions on my part in the pure CSS menus demo (or maybe not; I don't know yet). When I get time to actually run Opera 7 through all the demos and evaluate its behavior, I'll see if I can get the support information updated. Unless of course I finally decide that the support information is becoming too much trouble to have around, in which case I'll update it into oblivion. It never really helped prevent people from misrepresenting what the demos were supposed to do anyway.

Personally, I like Opera 7 (or did once I switched its skin to the classic look), and my comments weren't meant to cast it into the junkbin of bad browsers. If I were a Windows user, I'd probably use it a lot more than I do. There are rough edges, as with any browser, but overall it's quite good—I think I said that already, but some people don't seem to have heard that part. Opera 7 handles a site redesign project I'm working on a lot better than Opera 6 does, I'll say that much.

New Review, Old Author?

Monday, 10 February 2003

There's an interesting review of Eric Meyer on CSS at Linux Journal. Instead of just reviewing the book, Russell Dyer also asked me some interview questions and wove my responses into the review. I really like the format; it allows him to make points about how and why the book was written in a certain way without just guessing. It also means that a reader will get a better sense of the book's purpose through the author's words.

Thanks to Nick, I found out what operating system I am. [You are HP/UX: You're still strong despite the passage of time.  Though few understand you, those who do love you deeply and appreciate you.] I'm wondering how much time constitutes a passage, since I don't feel that old. Yet. As for few understanding me, that's no surprise. Nobody gets me. I'm the wind, baby.

I thought about incorporating a graphic displaying the current U.S. Homeland Security Advisory System level into my site design, but in the end decided I didn't want John Ashcroft getting anywhere near my Web site. Thus I continue to shore up a pleasant illusion that he couldn't have someone crack into the server's file system and download everything in about nine seconds if he felt like it. All in the interests of defending liberty from those who would destroy it, of course.

Although it occurs to me to wonder who that someone might be. The Department of Justice? The National Security Agency? (Side note: one of the funniest things I've seen lately is that the NSA has a privacy and security notice on their Web site, and it's sort of a shame that it doesn't just say: "You have none. Get over it.") The Department of Homeland Security? Probably any of them. It bothers me that the only safeguard to my personal privacy could well be an interdepartmental fight over who gets to invade it first.

The Nature of Progress

Thursday, 13 February 2003

A redesigned Netscape DevEdge has been launched. Look, ma, no tables. Well, hardly any, and none in the basic design. I was a primary project manager for this one, and the design is a from-scratch effort. It's nothing visually groundbreaking, and of course using positioning for a major site has been done, but we've gone a step further into using positioning to make the design come together. The site didn't quite validate at launch thanks to some deeply stupid oversights on my part, but hopefully they'll have been fixed by the time you read this entry.

As for the design approach we took... that's a subject for another day, and also the subject of an article I wrote. I predict that we'll draw fire for using HTML 4.01 Transitional, for not validating when we launched, for our font sizing approach, and for our dropdown menus. On the other hand, we'll probably draw praise for making the markup accessible (once one of my stupid mistakes is fixed), for using CSS in a sophisticated manner, for pushing the envelope in reasonable ways, and for our dropdown menus. For myself, I'm very much satisfied with and proud of the result, and very grateful for all the effort and help I got from the other members of the team.

On a less important but possibly more amusing front, yesterday I hacked together a color-blending tool after Matt Haughey asked on Webdesign-L how to calculate the midpoint between two colors, and Steve Champeon explained how to do it in some detail. The JavaScript is no doubt inefficient and clumsy, the tool may not work in your browser, and for all I know it will lock up your computer. It was just a quick hack. Well, not quick, actually; I'm not very skilled at JavaScript. Enjoy it, or don't, as you like. Just don't expect me to fix or add anything unless you mail me the code needed to do whatever you want the tool to do.

Lucas Gonze over the O'Reilly Network mentioned a fascinating paper on "cascade attacks" and how they can be used to take down a distributed network. So the Internet can suffer cascade failure, eh? I wonder how much effort would be required to take down the Internet's starboard power coupling. Or, worse yet, trigger a coolant leak.

It's been revealed that the blurry, grainy image of the Space Shuttle Columbia wasn't taken using any advanced telescopes or military systems after all, but three engineers who used some off-the-shelf parts to put together a personal experiment. CNN says: 'Hi-tech' shuttle pic really low-tech. Let's think about that for a second. Three guys took an eleven-year-old Macintosh, hooked it up to a telescope that probably cost no more than a couple hundred dollars, and took a picture of an object almost 40 miles away moving 18 times the speed of sound. That's low-tech? The fact that you can even recognize the object they imaged is astounding. Hell, the fact that they imaged anything at all is astounding. No criticism of the three men intended; I'm sure they're brilliant guys who know what they're doing. But think about it!

I refer to moments like this as "technological vertigo." They're those points where you suddenly come to a dead halt while you realize the incredible complexity of the world, and just how much we take for granted. For that one moment, you stop taking it for granted. Here's an example: a couple of years ago, I was driving south through suburban Columbus. In the back yard of a house just off the interstate, I spotted an old satellite dish lying on its side, obviously no longer in use. Then it hit me: whoever lived there once had the ability to receive information from orbit, and decided to throw it away. Their garbage was so much more advanced than anything their parents had ever even envisioned that the gap was barely comprehensible. Any general in the Second World War would have given anything, including men's lives, to have the kind of communication capability that now lay discarded in somebody's back yard.

The even more remarkable thing about this trashed satellite dish is that there was nothing remarkable about it. So somebody threw out an old satellite dish—so what? They can always get another one, and one that's a lot smaller, better, and more capable than the piece of junk they tossed, right?

And that is perhaps the most incredible part of it all.

Voices in the Wilderness

Friday, 21 February 2003

I'm back from Los Alamos and out from under the worst of the e-mail avalanche. Northern New Mexico is beautiful in its own way, although a touch too barren for my tastes. But only a touch. For a landscape junkie like me, the cliffs, river gorges, and mountains were definitely a potent mix. The far better mix was the conversations with Jeff and Carrie about the Web, the world, and our lives. Sometimes the best way to discover yourself is by talking to someone else.

The presentations the three of us gave at the Los Alamos National Laboratories seemed to be very well received, and the people there couldn't be a nicer bunch. Which seems a little odd, when you think about what they do there. I subconsciously expected a bunch of white-coated square-jawed men with clipboards and cold eyes talking about the amazing potential of the atom to bring about world peace and the inevitable triumph of American science. Perhaps I watched a few too many 1950's-era science fiction movies as a kid.

In a post on Webdesign-L, Karl Dubost has reminded me just how smart Chris Lilley really is. From a post Chris made to www-html in late May 1994:

As soon as images were allowed inline in HTML documents, the web became a new graphical design medium. Some people will just want to put out text, but some will want to apply graphical design skills and make a document.... If style sheets or similar information are not added to html, the inevitable price will be documents that only look good on a particular browser, at a particular window size, with the default fonts, etc.
—Chris Lilley

Karl's post arose in the context of a conversation about the concept of "graceful degradation," which is the idea that a properly created document will be usable in older user agents, even if it doesn't look quite the same. (Well, okay, it's a lot more than that, but in the context of Web design, that's what most people mean.) Karl rightly points out that the term needs to be replaced with something that doesn't sound quite so bad. Of his suggestions, I think the best is "graceful flexibility," and it's a term I intend to start using from now on.

I updated the Color Blender to accept three different CSS color value formats (four if you count shorthand hex as separate from regular hex). Thanks to Steve Champeon and Holly Marie for spurring me to do so. I can think of two more things to add to it—a swatch-picker as suggested by Roberto Díez, and a color-wheel type picker—but they probably won't happen any time soon.

Try This On For Size

Monday, 24 February 2003

Ian Hickson complains that he can't read meyerweb.com due to his high-resolution display being placed too far away. Two words, Ian: Text Zoom. Two more words: user stylesheet. (Three words, if you prefer "style sheet.") You can make the Web more legible with this simple rule:

html, body {font-size: 1em !important;}

That will reset this site's text to match your browser's default font size setting, because I do use ems and percentages for all elements that descend from the body element. On the body, I use a pixel value for font-size, thus establishing the basic size of text for the site, and every other element scales from there. Reset that element's size, and you change the baseline from which the rest of the site is sized (which is how the "advanced setup" text-sizing feature works). The same will happen on the new DevEdge, as it happens, and on any other site that intelligently uses inheritance and CSS to size text. The tools are there. Use them to your advantage.

(Aside: I find it weirdly funny that Ian's complaining about not being able to read my site, which uses valid CSS, when his site is almost completely unreadable in IE5/Mac thanks to his valid CSS.)

I've been trying to come up with a name for this font-sizing approach. "Baseline sizing" is too evocative of the baseline used to lay out lines of text, which has nothing to do with this technique. "Body sizing" sounds like it's a weight-loss program. "Right sizing" probably hits too close to home for a lot of unemployed IT folks. Something to mull over as I nurse back muscles sore from shoveling wet, heavy snow and ice.

An Eon of Silence

Tuesday, 25 February 2003

Pioneer 10 has fallen silent after traveling 7.6 billion miles. Its mission started when I was just a couple of weeks past the age of two. It will reach Aldebaran in about two million years.

I wonder if we'll already have been there and gone.

Upgrading Designs

Friday, 28 February 2003

The Amaya team has recently said they're very willing to accept contributions of redesigned icons and color choices for the browser. So those of you with talent in that area, get to it! Since the WThRemix contest closes today, you should have plenty of time to devote to Amaya, right? Right? Right.

I recently had a very interesting conversation with Ian Hickson about fonts and font-sizing. Both of us have thought a lot about fonts in CSS and Web typography over the years, but I think we both realized that we had more thinking to do. When you get right down to it, there is no good solution regarding font sizing on the Web today. Every authorial choice has a drawback for some visitors, and every choice has a lot of benefits. Pixels penalize high-resolution visitors who can't (or won't) use text zooming. Percentages and ems can penalize visitors who have changed their default font size. Leaving the text at user default looks stupidly big for visitors who haven't changed their default font size.

It doesn't help matters that there are huge differences in how serif and sans-serif fonts look at the same value of font-size, and that the commonly-available fonts on the Web today are not suitable for really nice typography. I know some people think typography isn't something we need to worry about, but it's critical to good visual design and our current capabilites are laughably crude. In fiddling with some test pages, I rapidly came to the conclusion that there just isn't a good answer. I'm not entirely thrilled with how this site's typography is handled, for example, but I was even less thrilled by the other approaches I tested.

Is waiting for a downloadable-font mechanism our only hope? I wish there were another answer, but right now, I don't see one. It seems we'll have to accept and work with what little typographic control we have, and cede the rest of our textual desires to future improvements in both specifications and the browsers that implement them.

Out of Character

Monday, 3 March 2003

After more than a year of sitting bolt upright in a chair whose back was about 20 degrees from horizontal, Kat finally got me to buy a new chair on Saturday. I assembled it this morning, which anyone who knows me will tell you is astonishing on two counts:

  1. I put it together less than a month after I bought it. Usually I let a project like that sit for a while, to let it come to the proper sense of fullness. Or else because I'm lazy.
  2. I put it together, period. I'm not what you would call handy with a toolbox.

I did put the armrests on backwards, but I did that on purpose. They look cooler this way.

A screenshot of text on the O'Reilly Network which has some severe character-encoding problems.

Font and text handling seem to occupy more and more of my attention of late. Here's another good example of the problems we face: character encoding. This morning I dropped by the O'Reilly Network and spotted some badly mangled text. Apparently that's supposed to be a "ü" in there, since that's what the referenced article shows. How did this happen? No doubt somebody copy-and-pasted the text from a word processor into a CMS interface, and it looked fine on their machine when they previewed the text. Unfortunately, in my Web browser, no such luck. (This was in IE5.1.4/MacOS9.1, but a quick check in a recent Mozilla build showed the same problem.) It may have gone through some XSLT for extra munging, for all I know.

I have a little experience with the encoding problems that can arise when you're working with XML and XSLT. If you want to use HTML-style character entities, you have to write a stylesheet that defines every last entity you might use, which is kind of weighty, although I do it for this journal's XML files. For the new DevEdge, we wrote a separate namespaced transform based on the old entities. In our world, a "u" with an umlaut is <ent:uuml/>; an "A" with a ring is <ent:Aring/>. Of course we also have documents that are encoded for localization (e.g., DevEdge Japan) by their authors, and nobody else can touch them for fear that we'll break the encoding. For that matter, when we had an inline JavaScript alert for our printer-friendly links, the spaces in the value were encoded as %20. Every browser showed those as spaces in the link, except Opera, which showed the raw text ("This%20page%20is%20already..."). Is it right to do this? Is it wrong? I don't know. Do I care? Not really.

In a like vein, I recently found out why recent e-mail message from a certain well-known CSS luminary look like an encoded binary to me, while his responses to other authors' messages on listservs look just fine: he's sending out 8-bit text in ISO-8859-1, and something between his fingers and my eyes is munging the text into 7-bit ASCII. If he sends a message as 7-bit text, there are no problems. I'm not sure if it's my aging mail client or a server along the message's path from him to me. Again, I don't care. I shouldn't have to care.

It seems that the more powerful our tools become, the more ways we have to break the flow of information. This to me is exactly opposite of what should be happening. It's not that hard to implement character encoding, and it's not that hard to agree on a character format. We (as an industry) just haven't done it to the necessary extent, and there's really no excuse for this fact. A character should be a character. If Unicode is the answer, then great, let's do it.

As is common for my little technology rants, I don't have a solution, only questions. My biggest question is, "How long until we fix this basic problem?" I don't even care about how, really. Just when.

Today is a triple-three, for those of you who care and use two-digit date formatting: 03/03/03. I wonder if any lotteries will have that number come up tonight. I still remember when the American Embassy hostages were released by Iran after 444 days in captivity, and that night one state lottery's Pick 3 came up 444. Those kinds of coincidences are always fascinating to me.

Titanium Turnaround

Tuesday, 4 March 2003

While I was in Santa Fe, NM a couple of weeks ago, I dropped my TiBook onto a bed from a height of about three inches. The result was as immediate as it was unexpected: the hinge on the right side of the laptop snapped completely away from the display panel. I have no idea how the forces involved could have even shifted the panel, let alone rend hardware joints. The screen went blank in concert with the snapping sound, which set off an icy explosion in the pit of my stomach. Fortunately the display was fine. It had just gone into sleep mode for some reason.

So last week, I got in touch with the IC Help Desk (it's actually AOLTW's laptop) and they set things up with AppleCare. A box was delivered on Thursday, and with a tear in my eye I boxed my silver little baby up on Friday. A completely repaired TiBook came back to me yesterday. Even figuring on overnight express shipping, that's astonishing. I figured it would take a minimum of four weeks to get there, be fixed, and come back, not four days—and one of them a Sunday, too! Just when I was feeling grumpy about Apple's rapid move to OS X and the mass exodus of developers away from OS 9 (including Mozilla, which is no longer being updated for OS 9), they make me love them all over again. Well, maybe not love them, exactly, but you know what I mean.

The Font of Frustration

Wednesday, 5 March 2003

I'm still wrestling with the entire issue of fonts and font sizing. A lot of this arises from a meyerweb redesign on which I've been occasionally working for the last few weeks. My last redesign switched font styling from the user default to 11-pixel Verdana. This is not a choice without its detractors; apparently I've earned the nickname "Mr. Microfonts" in some circles. It's also a choice I made knowing full well its benefits and drawbacks.

An image showing 'lorem ipsum' text in three different fonts (Times New Roman, Arial, and Verdana) at the browser's default font size, which works out to be 16 pixels.

When I decided to go to a sans-serif font, it became almost mandatory to crank down the size. Take a look at the accompanying image, which shows a comparison of the default-size text in IE5/Mac in Times New Roman, Arial, and Verdana. To produce the text, all I did was set the font family, not the size. They're all effectively at font-size: 1em;, which given the browser's default setting is the same as if I'd set them all to font-size: 16px;. The same size value but a changing family means huge differences in the text's appearance. This is why font-size-adjust was invented, by the way. Too bad only Mozilla for Windows supports it. The lack of cross-browser implementation led to its removal from the CSS 2.1 Working Draft.

Nonetheless, when I started fiddling with the new design—which is more an evolutionary change than a revolutionary makeover, so don't get too excited—I decided to see if I could go back to the user-default approach and still be happy with the result. I think I've managed it, but what's been interesting to me has been how that choice has influenced the entire design process. What I have now is something that I think works well with a serif font, but if I were to switch to a sans-serif font, I'd have to change other things as well. More proof of the fundamental importance of text styling, as if any more were needed. Those of you who went to design school have known this for years, I suppose. Nothing I studied in the pursuit of my B.A. in History really taught me the importance of typography.

Speaking of redesigns, Scott Andrew just launched one, and I really like it. There are some interesting behaviors at my default window size, which is apparently smaller than his, but overall my thumbs are up. The warm tones and nice use of sunflowers make a nice antidote to the recent trend of minimalist white-backed redesigns, which are all fine but were starting to get a bit monotonous.

Looking over Scott's new design, I realized how much I envy people who can come up with attractive color combinations; all my designs tend to be monochromatic variations (gee, really?). People like me need EasyRGB's Color Harmonizer just to get started.

Fun at SxSW

Monday, 10 March 2003

Jeffrey, Tantek, and I finished up our panel about an hour ago. Apparently the audience enjoyed it, as only one or two people left during the talk and there seems to be some good buzz among attendees. Maybe we'll expand it and take it on the road. ("Hey, gang, let's put on a Web talk in my Dad's old barn!")

Austin is nice, and SxSW Interactive is quite interesting. Caught some of Fray Café last night but the cigarette smoke drove me elsewhere, unfortunately. I've been meeting a lot of people whose names I know well, but whose faces were new to me. That's the great thing about conferences: they help humanize everything we do, and strengthen intellectual respect into personal appreciation.

Back From SxSW

Wednesday, 12 March 2003

After a great breakfast at El Sol y La Luna and a quick chat with Tantek on der cellphonen, I spent most of the day on planes and arrived back in Cleveland this evening sans Kat; we parted ways in Houston as I flew back home and she flew to San Francisco for a conference of her own. I miss her already.

A quick SxSW Interactive braindump:

  • There was nowhere near enough time for me to talk with everyone I wanted to talk to, let alone spend time on it and really get in-depth.
  • WiFi is a particularly sharp sword of the two-edged variety. It's great to be able to check mail and IM while you're sitting in a session, but it's also kind of rude. I sat listening to Bruce Sterling talk, and sort of felt like I was the only one doing so as everyone around me typed furiously.
  • Speaking of which, Tantek posted this journal entry while sitting on the podium during our panel. While I was talking, in fact.
  • Apparently the panel was very, very well received. There was a good deal of positive feedback from various people, and I heard a rumor that we scored very high on the audience evaluation cards.
  • If you're going to have live entertainment in a small space, try not to deafen everyone with too much volume and way too much feedback. (No, I'm not talking about Fray Café, which was very well mixed.)
  • Now I am talking about Fray Café: Scott Andrew's bet-winning song is both a hoot and a holler. Although it was much funnier when Scott performed it.
  • Apparently in Texas they spell it "Austin Geek Party" but pronounce it "Adult Webmasters Party." A small group of us found this out by dropping in to talk to the Austin geeks. Imagine our surprise!
  • If there's one useful thing I've learned about Austin, it's that you need to either stay downtown or rent a car. We did neither, to the detriment of our overall experience.
  • Cory Doctorow is a very high-speed guy.

Possibly I'll have more to say, upon reflection. For the moment, I'm going to go get some beauty sleep so I'll be at my best for tomorrow's Web Design Meetup.

Multiple Exposures

Thursday, 13 March 2003

Two interviews with me have come out in quick succession:

I think a question got dropped from the UI7 interview text, although the answer is still there; I'm going to go e-mail them about it right now.

This morning I watched a freezing rain turn to snow. All the tree branches and power lines look like bizarre combs, with ranks upon ranks of small icicles hanging every few inches. I can't quite decide if it's beautiful or not. Something to contemplate on my way to tonight's meetup.

O Lucky Day

Monday, 17 March 2003

Kat returns from San Francisco today, five days after we parted ways in Houston. Then, on Saturday, I leave for... San Francisco (!). I'll be speaking at User Interface 7 West with Molly H. (someone totally different than Molly S., who I finally met last week in Austin). The full-day session we delivered last October got great reviews from its attendees, so we're doing it again, only with a better pace and less boring stretches. Our short talk, on the other hand, is new to the UI7 series and is based on some of the stuff I've been talking about recently. You can get more information from my Talks page, or else from the UI7 site itself.

I laughed pretty hard at some of Perry Hoberman's "OK/Cancel" series, but the "Infringement" series made me chuckle uncomfortably before thinking about it. The series reminded me rather strongly of the Bang Interface Neologue by Natalie Jeremijenko (search her project page for that title if you're curious). I've been thinking a lot recently about Internet society as compared to physical-world societies, how they influence each other, and how they could improve each other. In the process, my appreciation for what we have online has increased. The challenge is in migrating what I see there into the "real" world.

It's a beautiful day outside, and I have a window open to let in the clean scent of spring. Birds are cheeping quietly to each other, as if asking in hushed tones if winter is finally over, afraid they'll jinx it. This is perhaps my favorite time of year, and one of the reasons I've stayed in a region that has a seasonal cycle. The fresh scent carried on the breezes of spring, still chilled from leftover snow but bursting with life all the same, is one of life's truest joys.

Close to the Edge

Wednedsay, 19 March 2003

I'm trying to find out if there's a country or other region in this world whose annual, monthly, or daily bandwidth consumption is in the vicinity of 700 terabytes (5.6 petabits). Searches for this type of information have so far come up empty; I was pointed to the Internet Traffic Report but its figures are too abstract to be useful to me, plus they seem to be based on ping times instead of actual bandwidth. Anyone have a pointer to freely available information along those lines?

Yesterday's mail contained a copy of the shiny new book Cascading Style Sheets: The Designer's Edge by Molly Holzschlag. It's very, um, red. It's also in full color throughout, chock full o' information, presents some case studies of CSS-driven design, and talks about CSS and design as if they go together, which of course they do. I did technical editing and wrote the Foreword, where I said:

...CSS is a visual language, one that was meant to be used by designers from the beginning. Books aimed at that particular audience are long overdue, frankly, and I'm thrilled to see them emerging at long last. I'm even more thrilled that we're getting one from Molly Holzschlag.

Personally I think Molly's a really truly wonderful person and my wife agrees with me, so if you're particularly worried about bias, there's mine. One of them, at any rate. I also have a fondness for hot chai drinks, in case anyone's keeping track.

Dear God, but this is just so wrong. That damn song they sing is still stuck in my head, which I'm sure was the point, but the visuals are even more vividly seared upon my memory. Requires Flash to actually see the full extent of the wrongness. Also requires that you not be at work or some other place of propriety, or in the presence of people who are easily offended, or be easily offended yourself.

Then again, far worse things are looming in the real world, and it won't be cuddly cartoon characters who pay the price when the storm finally breaks.

AAAAA! My Eyes!

Thursday, 20 March 2003

Thanks to Tantek, I found out that Christine accused CSS of making her eyes bleed while at SxSW. I can't say that's ever happened to me, although maybe it has to Joshua Davis. (After all, we only have his word about the red food coloring.) Also thanks to Tantek, I read that the subtle evilness of CSS gives Natalie headaches, and in surfing further onward I found that it apparently also makes Dave's head explode. I'm sure there are similarly colorful stories of CSS-inspired pain and suffering out there. I wonder if anyone's accused it of giving them some horrible disease.

Between amused chuckles, I feel a touch of concern. There seems to have been a real failure to communicate with developers the benefits and perils of CSS; or at least, that's what I assume is causing all the pain. After all, from my point of view, it's font tags and nested tables with three hundred shim GIFs that inspire eye-bleeding. If there's evil in design, it's needing more markup than content to create a layout, as was the case for years. Compared to all that old-school HTML design crap, CSS is like the breeze off a mountain pasture filled with blossoming wild flowers on the first warm day of spring.

It does require something of a conceptual leap to use CSS well, there's no question. But it seems that there's a more important question, which is this: why do people find working with CSS to be so painful? Is it simply because it's new, or is there something more critical happening here?

I'll freely admit that I've had times where trying to understand aspects of CSS made the veins in my forehead throb. In fact, the worst such period was when I was trying (with a great deal of help) to decipher the line box model. I spent a week of evenings wanting to drive my head through the monitor because it just didn't make sense—but then, when I finally got it, everything seemed very clear. (Not that my summary document does anything to reflect that clarity.) I still think the line box model is flawed in certain important ways, largely because it works well to replicate legacy behaviors, and of course I've already complained about the deplorable state of typographic styling.

There are also certain behaviors which CSS does not make easy, although that's more the fault of CSS still being young in terms of development than anything else. It's true that the box model doesn't allow you to make an element stretch around a floated descendant, but that's because in most cases you don't want such stretching. When you do, of course, it becomes very frustrating that there's no simple solution. There's been a property proposed for CSS3 that would give the author the power to choose how such situations are handled. There are also proposed properties that would let authors choose how line boxes are laid out, how element boxes are sized, and more.

That's where my concern starts to grow into a certain species of dread. People are already complaining that CSS is too difficult for them to grasp. What will happen when, in the name of giving designers the layout control they want, CSS becomes so complex that nobody can learn the whole thing? What good will it do to have a compact, human-readable styling language if nobody actually understands what it says? I mean, it would still be an improvement over XSL:FO, which almost nobody can fully understand or read, thanks to its incredibly clumsy syntax. But not much of an improvement; if you know all the words but can't speak complete sentences, it's still hard to ask for directions to the nearest coffee shop with an open wireless network and a customers-only bathroom. If you catch my drift.

Problem is, I don't see a way to avoid this over the long term. It seems like any layout language will, eventually, become too complex to fully grasp. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to have a language that humans can read, and let people specialize in different areas—Joe becomes an expert in typographic styling, Jane in element layout, Jerry in font descriptors, Jolene in selector construction, and so on. It saddens me to think this, but there it is anyway.

In the meantime, I wonder what authors most need to know about CSS right now, and how that knowledge can be communicated to them. How can the pain be eased, if not completely removed?

Through Another Pair of Eyes

Friday, 21 March 2003

This week on Netscape DevEdge is part one of a two-part interview with Mike Davidson of ESPN, who talks in depth about their curent redesign efforts. On the ESPN home page they're currently using CSS positioning to lay everything out. That means they've dropped tables as a layout mechanism and, in the process, about 50KB of page weight. Mike has some very strong opinions, and I imagine they'll be controversial in certain circles, but he speaks from the perspective of a designer in charge of a commercial site that serves close to a billion page views every month. His is a thoroughly practical point of view, and he's not shy about it. I highly recommend it, and not just because I wrote the questions.

Through the O'Reilly Network, I came across a link to an English-language blog called Where Is Raed?, written by a resident of Baghdad. This past Sunday, he posted a rant against war and for democracy that should be read by anyone who wants to get insight into how the events of the past year and decade are viewed by those who had to pay the price. A tiny exceprt:

how could "support democracy in Iraq" become to mean "bomb the hell out of Iraq"? why did it end up that democracy won't happen unless we go thru war? Nobody minded an un-democratic Iraq for a very long time, now people have decided to bomb us to democracy? Well, thank you! how thoughtful.

Before you dismiss this as obvious propaganda, go read the piece in its entirety.

Note to those in the San Francisco area: I'll be hanging out with some very cool people (like Doug and Tantek) at Rockin' Java this Sunday at 2:00pm. All are welcome for discussion, open wifi, and caffeinated drinks. Be there or be, um, elsewhere.

Rockin' WiFi

Sunday, 23 March 2003

So here I am, sitting in Rockin' Java in the upper Haight, surfing on the free wifi. All kinds of cool people are (and have been) here, including Matt Haughey, Tantek Çelik, Erika Hall, Scott Andrew, Doug Bowman, Michael Leung, and Merlin. Some other people have drifted through but I didn't catch their names. Sooner or later I ought to buy something. Or not.

As is always the case for San Francisco, the weather is beautiful and the driving horrendous. Tight parking I can handle, but the restrictions on turning, one-way streets, and general vehicular topography are a nightmare. It makes Cleveland Heights look like nothing. I can well understand the impulse to be a biker in this city, and I'd almost certainly be one if I lived here.

Regardless, it's a thrill to be sitting with smart folks and talking about whatever comes to mind. I'm looking forward to more of the same over the next few days.

Extras