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February 2004


Sunday, 1 February 2004

As any visitor can easily see, the new design is in place and seems to be working smoothly. In conjunction with the redesign, I've reworked the post structures and permanent URIs a bit. The old URIs won't change ('cause, you know, they're cool) but moving forward, I've tightened the URIs up a bit. In this, I followed Tantek's lead to a large degree. Generally my posts won't include a timecode since it's highly unlikely that I'll post more than once per day. (Shoot, any more I'm lucky to post more than once per week.) If I ever do need a timecode for a post, it will be simple enough to add; my XSLT is already set up to handle it.

You may also have noticed that the posts previous to today have disappeared from meyerweb's home page, and from the RSS feeds. This happened because I rewrote some of the XSLT and changed the base XML structure of the archives, and trying to merge the old structure and transformations with the new ones was just too annoying for words. So I've basically hit the reset button on the posts, although the old posts are still available from the archives, just as they always were. It's a temporary situation at best, since both the home page and RSS feeds will fill up as I write more entries.

As for the masthead image you can see today, it's the same one I used for the Eos theme in the previous design, thus giving some minor sense of continuity to the process. (Said image is the intellectual property of Tantek Çelik and used with his permission, by the way.) The masthead image won't remain constant—I'm planning to change it every week or two, with future images coming from photographs I've taken. I already have thirteen ready to go, culled from the two thousand or so images in my iPhoto library. I imagine that eventually I'll add the ability to pick a favorite theme, or to pick one at random, or something. I might even add the ability for you to supply the URI of an image you particularly like, although that seems a little obscure. You can already do it with a user stylesheet anyway, since the site's CSS signature (www-meyerweb-com) remains fully in place. For those who feel the urge, the masthead images are 1280 by 128 pixels in size, and I've tried to keep them to 25KB or less.

Gradual changes will probably continue to happen for a while, in fact. The sidebar content will be developed over time, for example. I may also slowly enhance the design from its current sparse styling. I doubt it'll change a whole lot, to be honest, but I may from time to time test out new techniques or visual effects.

Let's see, what else... oh yes. If you're using Mozilla or Safari (and maybe Opera), notice what happens when you mouse over the title of the post. That's generated content, not a background image, which is why Explorer doesn't get the same effect. This fails to bother me, since it's more fun visual frosting than anything critical. What's interesting to note is that it doesn't work in Safari 1.1 unless the border is changed in some way. If the hover effect is removed, no generated content. I wonder if that's been fixed in the current internal builds.

The sidebar is absolutely positioned, and the gray area around the page content is the background of the html element (which means the black borders around the content are set for the body element). The sidebar assembly was reworked so that it's easy to add different content for different areas of the site. For example, the Destinations on Kat's page are different from those in my area of the site. I haven't done a lot with this capability yet, but probably will as time goes on.

That's about it for now. I'll get back to the usual ramblings tomorrow.

Mapping Things Out

Monday, 2 February 2004

First Matt Haughey did it, and then Nick Finck did it too, so I guess I'll join the movement. Here's a map of where I've been in United States, one which I created myself rather than use the generator offered by World66. I've never been to either Alaska or Hawaii, so I left them off the map.

A map of the United States showing the states which Eric has visited or driven through as of 2 February 2004.

The reddest state is my home state, and the one where I've lived for most of my life. (Psst... it's Ohio.) The medium-red states are the ones I've visited, and the light red states are those through which I've driven on my way to some other destination. In order to qualify as a "visited" state it had to contain a destination, a place I went intending to meet someone or see something, and where I stayed for at least a night. Thus, although I once spent three nights in Arkansas, it wasn't by choice (we were caught by the blizzard of late January 2000) and we were only there because we were on our way to another state, so Arkansas is light red. I also left the Upper Peninsula of Michigan white because I've never been there, even though I've visited the Lower Peninsula several times. It's an arbitrary decision, I admit. Yes, I know they're all one state.

I thought about giving states varying shades of red based on how often I'd been there, but that seemed like way too much effort. I suppose if I had GIS software of some kind that interfaced with a database of some other kind, I could have quickly generated such a map. Again, the effort: too much. I decided to move on to other things.

After reading my political discourses, Michael Glaesemann and Todd Roberts both wrote to suggest that I try the Political Compass, so I did. I found it interesting because it plots your stance not only along a left/right axis, but also an authoritarian/libertarian axis; in other words, your responses place you somewhere in a two-dimensional space. For those who are interested, here are my Political Compass results, in which I'm rather unsurprisingly graphed as a libertarian liberal. Also somewhat unsurprisingly, I took the test twice and got two different plots, although both were the same general area of the same quadrant. This plot represents my second run through; on the first run, I was plotted closer to the origin.

In doing a little more research, I came across some complaints about the Political Compass, particularly that its methodology is closed and there's suspicion that it's rigged to favor certain results (although not the results I got). One critic decided to create his own political survey as a response, one based on an open methodology, and he titled it Political Survey. Very creative. So I took that one as well, in part because Andrew Sidwell wrote to recommend it, and here are my Political Survey results, which place me as a pragmatic liberal. It's tempting to claim that pragmatism and libertarian leanings go hand in hand, but of course that's plain wrong. One person's pragmatism is another's wild-eyed delusion.

As I mulled these results, I realized that while helpful, they weren't as important as a more fundamental realization. It's simply this: when it comes to matters such as political belief, trying to plot yourself one-dimensionally will lead to thinking of a similar depth. You need at least two dimensions to even begin to accurately capture the stances of real people, and to therefore be able to think with any real sophistication about the topic at hand. What's tricky is picking your axes. Right/left (or liberal/conservative) is an easy choice, but what about the second axis? The two surveys I took used that axis in different ways. Suppose we were to take the two surveys and merge them, so we graphed political beliefs in a three-dimensional space. Again, what do you place on which axes? These are difficult questions in themselves.

As an example, the December 2003 issue of Scientific American describes work done to map the regions of the world in a two-dimensional space that represents modernity:

Modernization, the subject of intense scrutiny at least since the time of Marx and Nietzsche, has seldom been measured systematically. One of the most useful attempts to do so has been done by political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Wayne E. Baker of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

In their approach, being modern implies not only a lack of traditional beliefs but also a need for free expression. To measure these attributes, they use responses from the World Values Survey, an international collaborative study based on extensive questioning of people in scores of countries making up more than 80 percent of the world's population. The first of these dimensions—the traditional versus secular-rational scale in the chart—derives from attitudes toward religion, respect for authority, and patriotism. The second dimension—survival versus self-expression—derives from questions about physical security, trust in other people, gender roles, and personal happiness.

That sounds pretty good, but should modernity be measured by picking different conceptual spectra to combine? Not being a political scientist, I can't intelligently answer the question, but I'm sure there's plenty of room for disagreement. If you're already subscribed to the digital version of the magazine, you can read the whole article: Measuring Modernity, or you can see the resulting map published at the World Values Survey Web site. For that matter, you can get a slightly blurry scan of the Scientific American article in PDF format from the WVS site. My fundamental point is that, again, a two-dimensional map yields far more useful information (and a much more complete basis for debate and analysis) than any one-dimensional line could hope to offer. Assuming, of course, that any debaters accept the graphed space as being appropriate; if not, then the debate can't even start.

At any rate, the process of going through these surveys helped me realize just how poorly the current public political debate maps to the real opinions people hold. The two American political parties jockey for position on the right/left spectrum, and the members of those parties try to move to the right or left of each other in an attempt to capture votes. But what if what I want in a candidate is a particular placement along a y axis, not the usual x (right/left) axis? The media just makes the situation worse, likely because simplistic right/left distinctions help keep news segments as short as possible. Heaven forbid they should actually try to capture the nuances of a candidate's positions and opinions. That would take time, and might demand that viewers actually think.

So if nothing else, my public political musings have led to the realization that I was being far too restricted in my own thinking about the whole topic, which was an intellectual failure on my part. I sincerely hope that this realization will spur me to consider other topics with a similar level of sophistication. It's easy to get trapped into a limited view—often all too easy. Fighting that temptation is an important step toward thinking more clearly and completely.

Love, Feline Style

Tuesday, 3 February 2004

Ever since the day after Carolyn came home, our cat Gravity has mostly ignored Carolyn's presence. We'd been somewhat concerned that there would be hostility between them in the months to come, which wouldn't really end well because Gravity still has claws. Those concerns are now, for the most part, erased. This afternoon, we discovered that not only has Gravity gotten used to Carolyn's presence, but now regards her as a part of the family.

We know this because Gravity left Carolyn a gift—a freshly killed mouse, lying on the floor right next to the bassinet where Carolyn sleeps during the day. A small mouse carcass lies on the floor next to the bassinet. From what I understand, this is typically how mother-cats feed their children, and start training them to hunt for their own food. I wished there were some way to communicate to Gravity that she could have her hunting spoils back, since Carolyn's fairly well fed even without rodent supplements. When you think about all this, it's really rather touching, in a morbid way. Kat and I both got a pretty good laugh out of it.

Of course, then I had to dispose of the carcass.

So Safari 1.2 is out, and of course was released just two days after I changed designs. So the fix for the first-letter bug that occurred with "Thoughts From Eric" in the previous design is in place, but you can't see it working here. On the other hand, my recently constructed test page demonstrating Safari 1.1's bugs with :hover and generated content show that 1.2 fixed the problem. So, that's cool.

What is even cooler is John Gruber's in-depth exploration of the OmniWeb beta. The "tabbed" interface, although not what I personally think of as tabbed, is still a welcome addition; I've found that I basically can't live without tabs. (I do a sweep of all my regularly read blogs by opening them all in tabs, via a bookmark group.) What sounds really outstanding, though, is OmniWeb's workspaces and site-specific preferences. It's probably enough for me to tolerate the obsolescence of the rendering engine, which is equivalent to Safari 1.0, but we'll see. You should see, too—go read John's review of the browser, which is comprehensive and detailed. Truly excellent.

Complete topic shift: back in September, Molly was aghast at the Quizno's television commercial featuring an adult male human suckling at the teat of a wolf. Well, their new ad campaign has launched, and if anything it's more wrong. Sure, it's a complete ripoff of the Spongmonkeys, mostly because it turns out the same guy did both. Warning: if you follow the Spongmonkeys link, I am not responsible for any psychological damage you may suffer, but it is very much like the commercial.

Is it just me, or are commercials in general getting a lot weirder of late?

It's Always Something

Thursday, 5 February 2004

Anyone visiting the main page of meyerweb with IE6 in the last fifteen hours (it's now about 1300 EST) may have noticed the sidebar was intruding into the main content column, and generally looking icky. The problem has now been fixed. It happened thanks to, of all things, a bug in IE/Win's rendering engine. (Gasp! No! How can this be?)

Here's what happened. I added the "Redesign Watch" and "Platelets" lists to the sidebar, which is actually marked with an id of extra in the source because it's what I regard as extra material; it comes after the page's content in the source. I wanted the two lists to be side by side, and here's how I originally did it:

#extra #redesigns {float: left; width: 9.5em;}
#extra #platewatch {margin-left: 9.5em;}

Simple enough, or so you'd think. Instead, this caused IE6 to push the sidebar about half an em to the left, which is what led to the overlap. The (previous) link at the bottom of the Platelets column was also way out of joint. If I removed the two lists, then everything went back to normal. So clearly IE/Win was having trouble with the floats, or perhaps with floats inside a positioned element. At any rate, it was the new material that was triggering a bug.

I seriously considered doing this:

#extra>#redesigns {float: left; width: 9.5em;}
#extra>#platewatch {margin-left: 9.5em;}

By using the child-selection combinator (>), which IE/Win doesn't understand, I could have entirely hidden both rules from IE/Win. That would have meant the Redesign Watch and Platelets lists would simply follow one another, as Destinations does Navigation, because none of the floating or margin-modification would have been allowed to confuse Trident (IE/Win's layout engine). This solution, while practical, didn't really satify me, so I decided to try another approach. Perhaps floating both elements will be sufficient, I thought. So:

#extra #redesigns {float: left; width: 9.5em;}
#extra #platewatch {float: right; width: 5.5em;}

It worked: the two lists ended up side by side as I wished, and the sidebar was no longer pushing its way into the main content column.

This should not have been a real surprise to me, as I'd been aware that IE/Win has trouble with floats overlapping the margins of normal-flow elements that follow them in the document source. I just forgot, which I seem to do pretty regularly—it's the one IE/Win bug I can't seem to permanently store in long-term memory. I have some hopes that writing it up will help affix it in my brain, in addition to helping out anyone who's had similar problems with their layouts.

Thanks to The Ferrett for pointing out the layout problem, so I could track down and fix it. I hadn't sworn at IE enough this week anyway.

I also rediscovered Explorer's lack of support for the keyword inherit. So the "previous" link in the Platelets column will use a monospace font in IE. Other browsers will properly see it in the site's default font (Arial, as of this writing). I could write a rule or two to make the display more visually consistent, but I decided against it. In this case, I'll accept the visual evidence of limitations in IE over needlessly complicating my CSS.

Oh, by the way... did you notice that I added HTML+CSS redesign and license-plate information to the sidebar? My personal page also has a new sidebar feature, one which will be of particular interest to anyone who wants to know what I'm reading in my few spare moments. These are all the result of my working on creating "blogmark"-type data structures and pushing them live via XSLT (<shudder />). I haven't bothered to set up individual RSS feeds for them, but it wouldn't be difficult. I may extend this to a real "blogmark" area where I point at stuff that I find interesting, but don't want to spend time writing about. Most of the things I'd be likely to link I'd be getting from other people's blogmarks anyway, and somehow the process of taking someone else's blogmark and turning it into a local blogmark just seems silly.

It's Always Something Else

Saturday, 7 February 2004

According to a correspondent, the Redesign Watch and Platelets columns don't actually sit side by side in Linux, but instead the Platelets drop down to start after the end of Redesign Watch. This is, apparently, consistent across his various Linux browsers, including IE/Win (using crossover). I'm not sure I can explain this. The widths of the two divs that contain those modules are set to 9.5em and 5.5em, respectively, and they have neither margins nor padding (nor side borders). Add them together, and you get 15em, the exact width value of div#extra. I was going to claim a rounding error, except it's happening in all his browsers, so now I'm thinking maybe a font thing. I might suspect that the Platelets float is expanding its width to enclose the content, except explicit-width floats shouldn't change width even if its content won't fit. IE/Win might do that, but I wouldn't expect it from Firebird/Mozilla, which apparently also has the problem.

As with any experiment, the design here will probably slowly evolve as I run into such things. As an example, I may adjust the widths of the two modules slightly, perhaps to 9.25em and 5.75em, just to see if it causes more problems or not. I knew that, in setting widths so closely to each other and to their inherent content widths, I was taking a risk. I don't see the risk as any greater than using a table, though: if I did drop those modules into a two-cell table, then the content might push the table to be wider, thus having it stick out of the sidebar entirely. That would be fairly awful. So, as usual, it's all about tradeoffs. Here, I traded away "always stay next to each other" to get "always stay within the sidebar."

As silly as this progression of creeping fixes might seem, it's nothing compared to what Morbus Iff went through in an attempt to make Panther act the way he wanted it to act, and indeed the way Jaguar acted. I suspect there are similar tales of woe from any major power user of any operating system, or any technology for that matter. The more you know, the easier it is to get yourself trapped by unexpected changes.

For example, there have been some problems with the CSS validator of late; Mr. Zeldman has all the details. As a result, there's been some confusion here and there about the validity of the Box Model Hack. Let me be clear up front: the hack is valid. It always was, and always will be unless the CSS grammar undergoes some fairly radical changes. This is an entirely different question than whether or not you should use it, or any other hack—that's much less clear. I'm not saying that the hack is Good or Bad. I'm saying that it is completely valid according to the CSS grammar.

Historical note: the Box Model Hack was derived from test p.twentyb in section 7.1 of the CSS1 Test Suite.

Here's the heart of the matter, the part that causes most people to assume that the hack isn't valid:

voice-family: "\"}\"";

I know, it looks like a burst of line noise, or maybe a regexp (but I repeat myself). It's still quite valid. It's an attempt to supply a voice-family value of "}", while quoting that value. This is analagous to:

font-family: "New Century Schoolbook";

Now suppose we had a font family named Joe "Average" Public, with the quotes being a part of the name. We'd likely want to quote the name when making it part of a value. Thus, we'd need to escape the quotation marks that are in the family name itself, like so:

font-family: "Joe \"Average\" Public";

In order to keep the quotes in the name from breaking the value up, they've been escaped using a back-slash. That's part of the CSS grammar. In that light, then, reconsider the name "}". If it's to be quoted, then the quotes in the family name have to be escaped. Thus, highlighted part of the following example is the escaped voice family name:

voice-family: "\"}\"";

Therefore: a valid hack. Again, I'm making no claims that using the hack, or indeed any hack, is a good idea or a bad idea. I just wanted to make clear how this particular hack works, and that it conforms fully to the CSS grammar.

This is at any rate better than the recent FrontPage ad that's making the rounds of standards-aware folks. I'll just point to Dave Shea's post, which contains both a link to the ad in question and a useful hint to understanding why it's so funny.

Au Naturel

Sunday, 8 February 2004

The masthead has changed, as those of you dropping by will probably notice but those of you depending on RSS might not. Like the first week's masthead, this one is based on an old meyerweb theme ("Natural"). At this point I plan to change the masthead every Sunday until I run out of new ones, at which point I'll start randomly cycling through the old ones on a weekly or twice-weekly basis. I'll decide when the time comes.

I got several screenshots from helpful correspondents pointing out that the Redesign Watch and Platelets modules either do sit next to each other, or don't, apparently depending on your native time zones. Or maybe whether your house's street address is even or odd, I don't know. So when you get right down to it, this seems to be a pseudo-random problem at best. The layout works for me in every browser I tested, both Mac and Windows. At this point, I guess it's up to the whims of the Layout Gods.

I've spent the past week feeling more and more downcast about the state of America. Why? Janet Jackson, of course. A one-second glimpse of half a woman's chest has lead to an FCC probe (which seems an unfortunate choice of words), the possibility of several million dollars in fines for CBS, digital delay for the Grammys and Oscars, an enforced edit of ER by network executives, and a complete change to the Pro Bowl's halftime show. Apparently, Ms. Jackson's right breast wields more power than we could possibly comprehend. What would happen if she revealed them both at the same time? The world trembles in fear.

No word on whether the FCC also plans to investigate CBS in relation to the rapes, murders, assaults, thefts, and other 'immoral' behavior depicted on CSI and CSI: Miami, or for its willingness to charge enormous sums of money to run advertisements featuring flatulent horses and crotch-savaging dogs.

Feeling Friendly

Tuesday, 10 February 2004

The Web is getting more and more friendly. In the past two weeks, there have been three XFN tools that were announced:

Can you feel the love?

While I was trawling personal sites. I kept seeing something I that I just don't get. There seems to be a small trend toward posting a link to one's Amazon wish list. What's the goal? Is it just a convenient way to say, "Here's what I like"? Do you assume, or hope, that a random passerby will decide to buy you something off of the list? And wouldn't it be kind of creepy if they did? Somebody clue me in. I mean, yeah, social networking is interesting and I'm all for the spread of information, but this seems like it might have crossed a line. I only wish I could decide which one.

Confess! Confess!

Wednesday, 11 February 2004

Okay, so I can't count. I claimed yesterday that there were three new XFN tools, and then listed four. Plus I missed one. So... among our many XFN tools are rubhub; Rubhub It; Autoxfn; the MT template; Daniel Glazman's Nvu, which supports the editing of XFN values on links as part of the UI; and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope.

Based on the feedback to my question yesterday, it seems the #1 reason to link to your Amazon wish list is to help out family members who can't seem to remember what you like whenever a birthday rolls around. The other reason given was to provide a window into your interests, which is felt to help foster a sense of familiarity in what can sometimes seem an impersonal medium. Fair enough. I did something along those lines when I added the "Reading" feature (with archive) to my personal page. Perhaps the only real difference is that I'm giving a current and backward glace at my interests, whereas the wish list link provides a forward look.

A couple of people also wrote to say that they actually have had random passers-by send them something off of the wish list, sometimes in thanks for a favor they'd done online, and that it was pretty neat. I'm not sure I'd feel the same way, but I thought I'd pass along their feelings on the matter.

Speaking of passing things along, I promised that I'd summarize the suggestions I received regarding books presenting reasonable arguments for the conservative point of view. Here's the summary.

  • Letters to a Young Conservative by Dinesh D'Souza
  • Radical Son by David Horowitz
  • The Content of Our Character by Shelby Steele
  • The Death of Right and Wrong by Tammy Bruce
  • First Principles: A Primer of Ideas for the College-Bound Student by Hugh Hewitt
  • The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man by J. Budziszewski
  • A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat by Zell Miller

I also received e-mail from liberals who had been looking at the same issue, and wanted to mention some books they thought were good. They are:

  • Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell (for a look at both sides)
  • The 2% Solution by Matthew Miller
  • The Politics of Rich and Poor and other books by Kevin Philips

Please note that I have not read any of the books I just listed, and so am neither recommending nor condemning any of them. Similarly, I'm passing along an unchecked recommendation for The Weekly Standard, not to be confused with The Weekly Standards.

Those of you more interested in the latter of those two links will probably also be interested in the Web Standards Awards, with three awards to be given every month. You can submit any site for consideration, whether it be your work or someone else's, but be sure to check the competition criteria first. The first three winners are already listed on the site. Check them out—there's some great work there—and then go check out Wasabicube. It's elegant, lovely, and I love the current-page effect in the sidebar. Now I want to redesign meyerweb again, except if I did it would be a ripoff of Peter's design. So I'd probably better refrain.


Monday, 16 February 2004

Ordinarily, you'd think that an almost weeklong absence indicates a major project, or maybe an illness, or some other major life event. Not this time. This time it was a major computer hardware failure. Not a hard drive, nor a monitor, nor anything you might usually suspect. No, this was far more basic.

Not too long after I posted the previous entry, I was working on my TiBook in the living room. Kat asked me to get something—probably a milk blanket or a pacifier or something baby related—and so I put the laptop, still open, down on the ottoman.

There was a sharp cracking sound.

As it turned out, it had actually been two cracking sounds. Both hinges that connect the laptop's display panel to the body had snapped clean away from the panel. A broken display hinge on a 15-inch TiBook Longtime readers may recall I had a similar experience about this time last year while in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Apparently that wasn't some bizarre and isolated incident. In both cases, I had let go of the laptop panel when it was an inch or two above a well-padded surface. In both cases, something had given way. Amazingly, in both cases the laptop screen continued to function. The extra problem with this latest breakage was that since both hinges had failed, there was nothing to hold up the screen.

Luckily, a few months back an Apple Store opened up in a new mall about five miles from my house. I'd been meaning to get up there and check it out; last Wednesday, I finally did. I would have preferred better circumstances, obviously. So I took my broken laptop to the Genius Bar. As I opened it up and laid it flatter than a TiBook should really ever be, a guy standing nearby said, "Gosh, I've always wished I could open my PowerBook up that far."

"I can show you how," I said with an arched eyebrow. He declined the offer.

So after looking over the whole machine and hearing my description of how it had happened, the Genius' guess was that the hinges had been over-torqued. They had been rather stiff ever since I got the machine, actually; it was almost impossible to open the laptop with one hand. So Alan (the Genius) made some notes to the effect that it was a hardware failure, and not the result of abuse, and that it was a covered repair. I changed the administrator password so they could get to the desktop if need be, shut down the system, and then handed the machine over to be shipped to a repair center.

It arrived back at the Apple Store today. That's five days to ship, repair, and return. It's one more day than the last time, but there was a weekend involved. The new hinges are a lot smoother than the old ones, too. I'm once more impressed by the speed and service Apple provides. So thanks to Alan at the Genius Bar, to the unknown technician who repaired my poor baby's spine, and to Apple for continuing to make me glad I'm a customer. Of course I'd rather the laptop had never had any problems, but there will always be problems. The mark of a good company is that they address those inevitable problems professionally and with a minimum of hassle for the customer. As far as I'm concerned, that describes Apple in full.

Exceeding Expectations

Tuesday, 17 February 2004

When I praised Apple yesterday for their repair service, I didn't realize just how much praise was due. I was so excited to get my laptop back with working hinges, I hadn't looked closely at the rest of the exterior. As TiBook owners know, the finish has a tendency to scratch. I'm not sure why that is, although I'm sure a Google search could yield all manner of answer, but the upshot is that the back of the display panel had a few nicks and dings; even a small dimple that prompted someone to ask if the laptop had stopped a bullet for me.

Now it doesn't. The unknown technician replaced not only the hinges, but also the whole panel backing... and maybe even the whole display panel, screen and all. Now the machine looks as sharp and smooth as the day I bought it.

Let me be clear: those scrapes had nothing to do with the hinge problem. They were the result of "normal wear and tear." There was absolutely no obligation on Apple's part to do anything about them, any more than it would be Dell's responsibility to replace a plastic surface on a Windows laptop that had gotten a scratch after half a year of ownership. While fixing the major problem, the unknown technician noticed that there was something else that could be fixed, and just went ahead and did it. No fuss. It wasn't even noted on my repair history. It was just done.

I've never been sorry to buy Apple products. Now I'm actually proud to be a customer.

As a postscript, I'd like to point out that mine is an older-model Powerbook. The new ones have a much more scratch-resistant surface, and a totally different hinge system. On the new ones, there's a single large and sturdy hinge that runs most of the width of the machine, occupying about the same amount of space as the gap between my hinges. They have other improvements too, like a backlit keyboard and ports on the sides instead of in the back, and I wish I could have waited another two months to buy my laptop so I'd have one of the new ones. Nothing wrong with mine—the new ones are just cooler.

For those of you using an RSS aggregator, you're probably going to see all of my entries turn up as new a few more times. I'm adjusting the way I produce the feeds to include an indication of the post length and the categories to which the post belongs as text at the end of the feed description. I may also modify it to include the first sentence of each paragraph instead of just the first sentence of the entire post.

Incidentally, a few of you have asked why I don't provide the complete post content in my feeds. For me, it's a bandwidth issue. I was looking over the access statistics for January, and was astonished to find that the two RSS feeds together were accessed over 189,000 times. The home page, by comparison, was hit over 53,000 times. The latter accounts for 9.3% of the outgoing bandwidth; the two feeds together add up to 1.54%. If I were to have the feeds contain full posts, that would increase RSS-feed bandwidth by an order of magnitude at least. It would also reduce the number of 304 (Not Modified) responses the server returns for the RSS files, because I do go back and correct spelling errors and such. The feeds don't have to be updated when I do, but they would if I provided full post content.

I do have sympathy for those of you using aggregators like NetNewsWire (I'm using the Lite version, myself) and FeedDemon. I'd have more sympathy for LiveJournal users if the LJ server returned 304s, but it never does, forcing me to download the whole feed every time I ask for updates. So I did consider the syndication experience from the user's point of view. I also have to consider the impact on the server, and frankly, given the way RSS is designed, the potential impact is just too high for me to move to full-content feeds.

So now you know.

Fear The Cute!

Wednesday, 18 February 2004

Okay, enough talking about computer repair; it's time for another picture of Carolyn. It's one of the first good ones we have of her smiling, and this is, for her, a relatively understated smile. When she's happy, she'll let loose with grins so wide her eyes scrunch shut. She actually smiles quite often, but each one is of fairly short duration—and when she does smile, we're too busy enjoying the sudden rush of dopamine and other neurochemical whatnots our brains start pumping out. It's really, really hard not to smile back. Not that we're resisting.

I keep meaning to crate an actual picture gallery on her personal page, but other stuff keeps getting in the way. Heck, I haven't even created an e-mail account for her, mostly on the grounds that it does her no good until she learns to type. I just hope that by the time she's old enough to want an account, Carolyn won't have to deal with the volume of spam we see every single day. I'm not holding my breath, though.

Love the haircut, myself. I think this may well be the first published picture for which she tries to hurt me, a decade or so from now. Sorry, sweetheart, but it was just too cute not to share.

Social Spam Shield?

Thursday, 19 February 2004

I expressed a faint hope yesterday that the spam problem would be solved, and wouldn't you know it, a proposal along those lines popped up in my RSS feeds. A couple of researchers have published a paper describing a way to use social networks as an anti-spam tool. In brief, the idea is to build e-mail cluster maps. As reported in Nature, the researchers:

...decided to tackle the problem by taking advantage of the fact that most people's e-mail comes from a limited social network, and these networks tend to be clustered into clumps where everyone knows each other.

If I understand the concept correctly, those of you who decide, on a whim, to e-mail me with a question about CSS or to comment on something I've written would never get through if I were using such a system. If you're nowhere near my cluster, then I don't see how you're going to get through. If the only criterion for being assumed a 'real person' is that you're sending from a cluster, then all spammers would have to do is form their own clusters.

I'm quite interested in social networks these days, but I'm not sure that spam is one of the problems a social network can really fix. At this point, I'm coming to believe that e-mail delivery fees are the only possible solution, and I have grave doubts it would work. I've seen this idea described a few times, and here's how it generally works.

  • Everyone gets to set a cost for accepting mail. I could say, for example, any message has to have a 10-cent delivery fee paid for me to even accept it. You might set the threshold at five cents, or 50 cents.
  • When sending a message, you authorize up to a certain amount to be paid for delivery. I might say that I'll attach three cents to every outgoing message. For any account with that delivery fee (or lower), the message will reach the inbox, and I'll be charged three cents. For any account with a higher delivery fee, the message is bounced back with a "needs more money to get through" error.
  • Anyone can choose to refund the delivery fee, either one at a time or by creating a "free entry" whitelist. So I might set my delivery fee at 50 cents, but permanently give my friends a free pass into the Inbox. For random correspondents with legitimate inquiries, I could give their delivery fee back. For spam, I could read it and collect the delivery fee.

It sounds great, and the technology could probably be created without much difficulty. The general idea is that if you don't want to see spam, you reject all messages with too low a delivery fee; if you want to stick it to the spammers, you read their messages and collect their money. I still see a few problems with the idea.

  1. If a spammer manages to fool my system into thinking the spam is coming from a friend, it gets in for free. If the mask is good enough, I never get a chance to collect the fee.
  2. Who's going to volunteer to run the micropayment system that would have to underpin the whole setup? And if there are no volunteers, then where's the business model that would be needed to get a company to do it?
  3. How does one keep the spammers from hacking, bypassing, or otherwise fooling the micropayment system, and wouldn't any effective techniques to do so work just as well for the current mail system?
  4. Assuming there is a micropayment structure in place, what's to keep large ISPs from charging everyone a cent to pass a message through their servers—thus making e-mail no longer free for anybody?

Maybe that last point would be an acceptable price to pay for ending spam. It would pretty much kill off listservs, though, and that would sadden me quite a bit. Even at a penny per message, every post to css-discuss would cost $35.67 to deliver to all the subscribers (as of this writing). On average, we get about 50 posts per day, so that's $1,783.50 daily, or $650,977.50 annually. If I had that kind of money, I'm pretty sure that I wouldn't spend it on a mailing list. I'd buy a Navy fighter-bomber instead.

On the other hand, with a delivery-fee e-mail system in place, I could very easily set up an account where people could send their CSS questions for a delivery fee of, say, $29.95. If I accepted delivery, that would get you a detailed answer to your question, or else a refund of the delivery fee if I didn't answer (or there was no answer to be had). So that would be kind of cool. I suppose I could approximate the general idea today using PayPal or some such, but that would mean going to the effort of setting it up, which isn't something I'm likely to do given that I have no evidence that there's any real demand for its existence. Actually, the presence of css-discuss pretty much says that there isn't, since it's a whole community of people providing help for free.

So I got started on all that because of the idea of using social networks for spam countermeasures, and like I said I'm interested in social networking these days. In that vein, I was rather amused to see myself at #2 and #4 on rubhub's new Top 10 lists, and not in the least bit surprised to find Zeldman sitting atop both lists.

I was also quite fascinated by Jonas' ruminations on how XFN, VoteLinks, and related technologies can easily form the basis for rudimentary trust networks. Jonas, a sociologist by training, has been writing some very interesting things about the semantic web and social networking recently, which is why I've just added him to my blogroll and RSS aggregator. As he points out, combining XFN and VoteLinks would be a snap, and has the potential to enrich the semantics of the Web. Instead of just counting links to a page, a community assessment of that page could be tallied.

What interests me even more is the next step. What else can be done with link relationships, and how will the pieces fit together? How many small, modular metadata profiles would it take to begin semanticizing the Web? I suspect not too many. This seems like a clear case of emergent properties just waiting to happen, where every incremental addition dramatically increases the complexity of the whole. John Lennon once said that life is what happens while you're making other plans. Meaningful technological advancement seems to be what happens while committees are making other plans. It could very well be that the Semantic Web will come to pass because the semantic web arose on the fringes and paved the way—that the latter will become the former, simply by force of evolution. That strikes me as rather poetic, since it means that the principles Tim Berners-Lee followed in creating and defining the Web would become the keys to where he wants to go next.

Seeing What's Out There

Saturday, 21 February 2004

A relatively recent addition to the XFN What's Out There? page is the XFN Dumper favelet, which lists all the XFN-enabled links in a page along with their XFN values. I decided that I wanted a different presentation and a little more information, so I hacked up ben's XFN Dumper v0.2 and came up with XFN Dumper v0.21, which is currently in beta due to its problems running in both kinds of Internet Explorer. If you'd like to try it out anyway, you can find it on my new XFN Tools page. Once it exits beta I'll move it over to the GMPG site.

I've spent the last two weeks (minus repair time, of course) running NetNewsWire Lite, and I've discovered that it's addictive in exactly the wrong way: hard to give up, even though I really want to do so. This is no reflection on the program itself, which is excellent. The problem I have is with the fundamental experience.

Allow me to explain. In order to visit all my favorite weblogs/journals/whatever, I had a collection of home page URLs in a group in my favorites toolbar. That way I could open it up and go straight to a site, or else command-click on the folder to open them all up in tabs. The whole group would open up, each site to its own tab, and then I could close each tab as I read what was new, or else determined that there wasn't anything new since the last time I dropped by.

Now, of course, I have an RSS aggregator that tells me when something new has appeared on a site. Thanks to NetNewsWire, I've become much more efficient about keeping up with all the weblogs I read. I'm also losing touch with the sites themselves, and by extension, with the people behind those sites.

What I've come to realize is that half the fun of visiting all those sites was seeing them, in enjoying the design and experience that each author went to the effort of creating—the personality of each site, if you will. Sure, I've seen The Daily Report a zillion times; who hasn't? I still got a bit of an emotional boost from dropping by and feeling the orange, even if Jeffrey hadn't written anything new. The same goes for mezzoblue, and stopdesign, and all the others. Maybe it's the same impulse that makes me play a record I've always liked, or re-read a favorite book for the twentieth time. It doesn't matter. Part of my connection to the people behind the sites seems to be bound up in actually going there. Using an aggregator interrupts that; it lessens the sense of connection. It distances me from the people I like and respect.

And yet, thanks to that same aggregator, I can keep up with all those weblogs and half again as many news feeds in one tidy package. The latest Slashdot Science and Apple news, xlab OS X, the W3C, and more feeds come pouring in. I don't have any connection with those sites, so that doesn't bother me; in the case of Slashdot, I actually prefer getting the feeds because it means I can visit the referenced sites without subjecting myself to the comments.

The obvious solution is to strike a balance: to use the aggregator for news, and go back to my tab group to read personal sites. I'm going to give it a whirl, although the raw efficiency of the aggregator is so compelling that I feel a deep reluctance to unsubscribe from the personal-site feeds.

That's what I mean by the experience being addictive in exactly the wrong way.

I suspect that what I may do is keep all the feeds, but when any personal site is updated, I'll go visit them all by command-clicking the bookmark group. That way I'll catch up with the folks who have something new for me to read, and at the same time visit everyone else—just to say, if only to myself, "You're still there, and I'm still dropping by to see you, and that's how it's supposed to work."


Tuesday, 24 February 2004

There's something about this picture that really works for me—there's joy and hope and melancholy all wrapped up together, and that's a mix I can rarely refuse. It's available as a 16" x 20" poster from Cafépress, and I'm seriously considering making the purchase. If you like the image, or if you support the cause to which all proceeds will go, then get on over there and buy it!

Personally, I do support the cause benefiting from sales of the poster, which is to resist any attempt to amend the United States Constitution to ban same-sex marriages. I primarily support that cause because in my view, there's no good reason why the subject of who can or can't be married should be a part of the Constitution, amended or otherwise. I mean, if we're going to start amending the Constitution to prohibit behaviors we don't like, then when do I get my amendments banning civilian ownership of vehicles that get less than 30mpg on the highway, poorly formed HTML markup, and televangelists? And if those seem silly, how come my dislikes are less worthy of being Constitutionally enshrined than somebody else's?

Beyond that, I'm generally supportive of what's happening in San Francisco, at least in a general sense—I'm not sufficiently informed about the specific legal situation in California to have an opinion about the legalities, but the fundamental purpose is A-OK with me. Because as longtime readers (all four of you) can probably guess, I see no reason why homosexual couples should have any less ability to marry than heterosexual couples. I once was friendly with a couple who had been together twelve years, wore marriage bands, and had thrown a ceremony in which they exchanged the bands. The works, pretty much. Yet they couldn't get married, legally speaking. They were a far better example of loving pair than a lot of hetero couples I've known, and yet they could never be spouses. You might be wondering... were they male or female? It doesn't matter. Which is, I think, sort of my point. It isn't original, but I thought it was worth repeating.

Especially since we now have a new federal appeals judge in place, one who said that homosexual acts are comparable to "prostitution, adultery, necrophilia, bestiality, possession of child pornography and even incest and pedophilia." I'm sorry, but if you can't perceive a difference between activities engaged in by consenting adults and, say, an action perpetrated by a person upon a corpse or an animal, then you aren't intellectually qualified to sweep the floor of the federal appeals court, let alone sit on it.

Deep breath. Move on.

I guess Saturday was a day for talking about aggregator experiences; in a post made that day, Meryl put forth a different perspective on the topic than I did, and at about the same time. I agree with Meryl that an aggregator that can present a styled article should provide the option of disabling that behavior, and just delivering the text content. I just suspect that she and I would have different settings for that preference.

License To rel

Thursday, 26 February 2004

If you thought XFN or VoteLinks were the last (or only) word on lightweight semantic link annotation, think again. Tantek writes about the idea of adding a license value to indicate a link that points to licensing terms. In his post, the expression of this idea is centered around Creative Commons (CC) licenses, but as he says, any license-link could be so annotated. Apparently the CC folks agree, because their license generator has been updated to include rel="license" in the markup it creates. Accordingly, I've updated my CC license link for the Color Blender to carry rel="license", thus making it easier for a spider to auto-discover the licensing terms for the Color Blender.

Tantek also said of the idea of applying CSS to documents that uniquely styles license-links:

I wonder who will be the first to post a user style sheet that demonstrates this.

Ooo, me, me! Well, not quite. I don't have a complete user stylesheet for download, but here are some quick rules I devised to highlight license links. Add any of them to your user stylesheet, or you can use these as the basis for your own styles. (Sorry, but they won't work in Internet Explorer, which doesn't support attribute selectors.)

/* simple styles */
*[rel~="license"] {font-weight: bold;}
*[rel~="license"] img {border: 3px double; color: inherit;
  padding: 1px;}

/* add a "legal" icon at the beginning of the link */
*[rel~="license"]:before {content: url(legal.gif);}

Here's my question: should the possible values be extended? Because I'd really like to be able to insert information based on what kind of license is being referenced. For example, suppose there were a c-commons value for rel; that way, authors could declare a link to be rel="c-commons license". Then we could use a rule like:

*[rel~="c-commons"]:before {content: url(c-commons.gif);}

...thus inserting a Creative Commons logo before any link that points to a CC license. At the moment, it's highly likely that the only rel="license" links are going to point to CC licenses, but as we move forward I suspect that will be less and less true. I hope we'll soon see some finer grains to this particular semantic extension.

If you don't like using generated content for whatever reason, you could modify the rule to put the icon in the background instead, using a rule something like this:

*[rel~="c-commons"] {background: url(c-commons.gif) no-repeat;
  padding-left: 15px;}

The usual reason to avoid generated content is that IE doesn't support it, but then IE doesn't support attribute selectors either, as I mentioned. So don't add any of these rules to an IE user stylesheet. Use Firefox, Safari, Opera, or one of the other currently-in-development browsers instead.

In other news, I was tickled pink (or maybe a dusky red) to see that for sol 34, one of the "wake-up" songs for the Spirit team was The Bobs' Pounded on a Rock. My hat's off to you, Dr. Adler! I've been listening to that particular album recently, mostly to relearn the lyrics. I've been singing to Carolyn when I feed her, and some favorites of ours are Plastic or Paper, Now I Am A Hippie Again, Corn Dogs, and of course Food To Rent. It's awfully cute that she smiles at me when I sing to her, mostly because I know one day she'll grow up, learn about things like "being on key," and stop smiling when I sing.

In the meantime, though, she's perfectly happy to rock on! Carolyn, sitting in a chair with her lower half covered by a blanket, raises her left hand above her head with the index and pinky fingers extended, exactly in the manner of hard rockers and head-bangers the world over.

Gathering Stormclouds

Friday, 27 February 2004

Okay, maybe Tantek's right and the CSS I devised yesterday wasn't the greatest (note to self: avoid writing journal entries at 4:45am). And yes, it would be more elegant, at least on the markup side, to use the href values to determine how to style links. It feels a touch clumsy, for some reason, maybe because the selectors end up being so long and I'm used to short selectors. Go check out what he has to say and suggestions for better selectors, and while you're at it go take a look at substring selectors to get ideas for how to do even better. (I don't think anyone supports *= yet, so you're likely to have to use ^= instead.)

Back in high school, my best friend Dave and I devised a scenario where water shortages in the American southwest became so severe that states literally went to war with each other over water rights and access, fragmenting the United States in the process. It never really went much of anywhere, just an idea we kicked around, and that I thought about trying to turn into a hex-based strategic wargame but never did. It's always lurked in the back of my head, though, the idea of climate-driven warfare.

According to Yahoo! News, a Pentagon report asserts that climate change is a major threat to national security; well, actually, to global security. And that if the global climate crossing a "tipping point," the changes will be radical and swift. In such a situation, economic upheaval will be the least of our concerns—we'll be more worried about adding to the climate shifts with the aftereffects of nuclear exchanges.

I actually read about this on a few weeks ago, and although now you have to be a member to read the full article at Fortune, there's a copy at Independent Media TV. The Fortune article characterizes the report as presenting the possible scenarios if global climate shifts occur, but not claiming that they are happening or will happen. It also says that the Pentagon agreed to share the unclassified report with Fortune, whereas the Yahoo! News article says the report was leaked after attempts to hush it up. For that matter, the Yahoo! News article makes it sound like the report claims that The Netherlands will definitely be uninhabitable by 2007, and so on. According to the Fortune article, that was one aspect of a scenario, not a concrete prediction. This is probably due to the Yahoo! News article being a summary of an article in The Observer, which is a production of The Guardian and claims to be the "best daily newspaper on the world wide web." Uh-huh.

So I guess I'm saying read the Fortune article, as it gives more information and takes a more balanced tone—not that it sounds any less disturbing, really. The fact that the report was commissioned at all suggests that the subject is being taken seriously at the Pentagon, which is not exactly a gathering place for leftist wackos. I'll be very interested to see what reaction, official or otherwise, is triggered by this report in the weeks to come. My fear is that it doesn't matter any more, that whatever accusatory words might get thrown around will just be insignificant noise lost in the rising wind.

Identity Archipelago

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