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Archive: July 2003

Close One Door, Open Another

Today is my last day at AOL Time Warner.  In the end, my interests weren’t compatible with the positions available in the post-Netscape environment, so I decided to leave.  I won’t have any free time, though:  I’m proud to announce that I’m firing up my own consulting business!  I’ll be concentrating on the following:

  • Advising clients on best practices in standards-oriented design
  • Guidance through standards conversion projects
  • CSS and HTML optimization for improved site performance
  • Hands-on training in CSS and design techniques for groups of any size
  • Help resolving design compatibility problems

As you can probably tell from the above points, I’ll be taking my passion for intelligently using Web standards and applying that passion to my work with clients.  More detailed information should be on the way soon, but the work I’m already doing has me too busy to set up the consulting site.  Here’s a sample of what’s on my plate:

  • I’m working with a major and highly respected name in the industry on optimizing their site’s CSS and providing guidance for their future plans.
  • I’ll be doing three days of CSS training at a major research facility in early September.
  • Also in September, I’ll be chairing a conference track at Seybold San Francisco, one of the largest and oldest technical conferences in the United States.  In addition to the chair duties, I’ll also be delivering two presentations and sitting on two panels.
  • This November, I’ll be in Las Vegas co-presenting a developer-centric CSS class at COMDEX.  The other presenter for this session will be Molly Holzschlag.

I have some other projects simmering as well, but that will do for a quick glimpse into this new venture.  Hopefully I’ll find some time in the next week to get the consulting site up and running.  In the meantime, if you’re interested in my services, please feel free to get in touch with me via my meyerweb e-mail address.  (And please, make the subject line really painfully obvious so I don’t accidentally throw your message away with all the spam I get!)

I may not be working for Netscape any more, but I’m still incredibly proud of the work done in my two-plus years there.  It was an honor and a joy to be a part of our team.  I wish the people still at AOLTW continued success in their fight to promote standards both inside and outside the company, and I truly hope we’ll have a chance to work together again in the future.

Federation

In response to yesterday’s musings, a correspondent wrote in to say:

…a local Swiss government [has] switched their site (now 95%+) to structural HTML and CSS and freed the site from font-tags and framesets….  In the meantime, I have found that beginning at January 1st, 2004, a new law will be in force that demands from all official Swiss sites that they be accessible.  So to speak, Switzerland has now [its] own “Section 508″.

I noticed some layout problems in IE5/Mac, but otherwise the site looks pretty good.  The important point is this: there are people working in government sectors who care about accessibility and forward-thinking design.  What we need now is a channel to get them in touch with each other and swap tips on how to advance the cause.  Who wants to set it up?  (I’d do it myself except I already ride herd over a high-volume mailing list, and that’s plenty.)  If someone does create a venue for government Webmasters who are pasasionate about using standards, and is willing to devote the time and energy to making sure that venue is a good one, please tell me where it is via e-mail and I’ll share the news here.

Another reader wrote to say that in the wake of a recent redesign:

…we’ve gotten quite a few letters from people who work for various federal government agencies (especially the DOJ) saying they aren’t even allowed to use any other browser besides Netscape 4.

I can’t say this really surprises me a great deal, having talked to folks at a U.S. government research facility who only recently managed, after much internal argument, to convince their IT staff that running Mozilla instead of NN4.x was an acceptable course of action.  I suspect that a major reason the government sticks with NN4.x is its relative level of security; it may not be bulletproof, but it’s a darned sight more secure than some other browsers I could name.  Then again, this is the same government that uses Windows more or less universally, so I’m not sure how secure they really are.  (Not much.)

Then there was a followup message from my unnamed government source, who said in part:

…none of the other on-staff developers really want to learn new methods, I think, and therefore they’re going to stonewall any endeavor that’s going to require them to take some classes (or, potentially, cost them their jobs, I suppose).

That’s sad, but it’s also not unique to the Web field; you get reactionary behavior of that kind in just about any work situation.  I wonder, though, if perhaps it’s more entrenched in the government sector because job losses are so rare.  Or are they?  I always thought federal jobs, at least, were massively protected and rarely did anyone ever get fired, but I might have swallowed some Reagan-era Kool-Aid.  Someone let me know if I’m wrong.  Too many things to learn, not enough brain tissue…

One Foot In the Past…

Anyone who’s been reading this site for more than a year might remember my rantings last year when the Section 508 Web site went online and proclaimed it worked best in IE5+ for Windows.  The other day, I got e-mail from another developer working for the U.S. House of Representatives, who had some disheartening information to share, and I think it’s worth talking about.  I’m going to quote my source in some detail, but as you might expect, this will be an “unnamed government source.”  I’m going to use the pronoun “he” because it’s technically gender-neutral English, and I don’t feel like saying “he or she” every time I need to use a pronoun.

The e-mail was prompted by this person finding and reading last year’s rants.  Thus, after a short introduction, he said:

…as far as the 508 guidelines go, we use them, but nobody seems to actually be concerned with accessibility. It’s just making sure the InFocus software approves you according to the guidelines, and plod onwards. Nobody cares about the usefulness or lack thereof of the features they’re putting in, nothing is planned out, and the barest minimum to meet the guidelines is all that you’ll get from most developers.

This, of course, is a problem of management: it would seem nobody in this particular shop has made forward thinking a priority.  Rather than plan for the future, they’re stuck in the past.  (Some would say this is unsurprising in a government institution, but never mind that now.)  You might think a quick intravenous application of Designing With Web Standards might be just what the doctor ordered.  However, it turns out there’s a reason the project managers don’t care:

Of course, this is infinitely more preferable to the attitude from the actual Congressmen; I’ve actually had aides ask me if the site has to include accessibility features.

And there’s the problem.  The clients are not only aware of accessibility, but borderline hostile to it.  How do you overcome that kind of hurdle?  We can say, “It’s your job to educate the client,” but at a certain point you have to stop singing to the pigs.

I seem to recall that, some time back, AOL was sued for being inaccessible, and lost.  Will it take a similar suit to bring government sites into the 21st century?  I sincerely hope not; if there’s one thing I think America could do with less of, it’s lawsuits.  (No offense intended to the legally inclined folks I know.)

In such a situation, the best approach to improvement would likely be a back-stage effort by the coders themselves.  They can just do the right thing and not bother their clients with the details of how things get done, right?  Maybe not:

…just about everybody is still coding with FONT soup. This is especially frustrating when people ask me for help to do something which would be trivial if they knew a modicum of CSS, but which is onerous at best given whatever HTML hack they’re using. I’ve broached using more CSS with people, and they all just mutter something about Netscape 4 and stick their heads back in the sand.

At this stage, I’m not sure what can be done for Our Hero, except maybe expressing some compassion and pity.

This is the kind of situation that I think is more common than many of us realize, and it’s a serious impediment to the forward motion of the Web.  The enormous amount of wasted bandwidth and time such coding practices incur would, if translated into dollars, very likely cover a significant chunk of the U.S. national debt.  There are too many Web authors stuck in 1999, and not enough who are looking forward to 2005 and beyond.  What words, what memes would penetrate their shells and point them in the right direction?

This is a deep and serious challenge for groups like the W3C and the WSP, not to mention people like me, who just want things to be better than they’ve been in the past.  Last night I met a guy who expressed incredulity that Netscape had hired me, back in May of 2001, to tell people that standards were a good thing.  “What was your title, Manager In Charge of Repeating the Painfully Obvious?” he asked, laughing.  If only that had been so; in an ideal world, there would have been no need for Netscape to hire me in the first place.  What seems so obvious to so many of us seems to be utterly unknown to so many more—or, perhaps worse, known but disregarded.

What will it take to turn things around?  More corporate XHTML+CSS designs?  A pronouncement from one of those consulting firms who get quoted by the media all the time, but nobody really knows what else they do besides issue semi-useless browser demographic data and charge huge consulting fees?  Another grass-roots campaign like the original WaSP?  Blackmail?

I wish I knew.  This is yet another uphill battle against overwhelming odds, but a battle so much worth fighting that I can’t walk away from it.  I think this is my third such battle in the Web space alone.  Sometimes I wonder how many battles I have in me.  I also wonder why I keep finding new battles to fight.

Distant Speeches

I wish I were in Seattle right now, hanging out with all the cool folks speaking at Web Design World.  Oh well, I guess one can’t be at every conference.  I also wish the WDW site didn’t use points to size their fonts, since that makes the text painfully tiny in some browsers, including one I use fairly often.  Oh well, I guess you can’t expect good Web design from every Web design conference’s Web site.

Hey, wait a minute.

Although I may not be in Seattle this year, I will be in Cambridge, MA this October for User Interface 8, and have added a note to that effect to my Speaking page.  On the latter page, you’ll find a registration code you can use to get a nice discount at UI8, and incidentally add a small bonus to my bank account.  We both come out ahead—what’s not to like?

I’ll also be at Seybold in early September, but I don’t have the details ready just yet.  Check back in a few days if you’re interested.

Broken Windows

Ever worry about the security holes in your graphics and audio technology?  Yep, you guessed it, there’s a critical flaw in DirectX (specifically how it handles MIDI files) that will—say it with me, now—let an attacker take control of your Windows machine.  Go, read the security bulletin and get the patch.  Again.  For the second time in nine days.

To those who are wondering when meyerweb became the Windows Security Monitor: rest assured, I’m only passing along the flaws that Microsoft deems “critical.”  The lesser severity levels (like “important”) don’t get mentioned, because otherwise I suspect I wouldn’t have room to talk about anything else.  If you’re running Windows, you really should go sign up to get security bulletins sent to you.  It may increase your daily e-mail traffic, but at least you’ll be informed.

Critical security flaws in the multimedia APIs?  Picture me shaking my head in weary, resigned disbelief here.  The amazing part to me is that people actually choose to buy machines using this technology—and I seem to be using that term very loosely.  The real irony is that I may be buying such a machine myself, in the not too distant future.  Quite possibly next Sunday, A.D.

Rounding A Corner

Adam Kalsey shares a method for rounding corners that has minimal HTML impact.  I explored the same basic concept (along with several others) in Project 10 of Eric Meyer on CSS, although in my case I used it to provide rounded corners between two differently-sized sections of a document; sort of the visual inverse of what Adam demonstrates, but using the same fundamental techniques.

It’s always interesting to see ideas emerge in different places, mutate, evolve, advance, and generally act like they have a life of their own.  Did somebody say “meme?”

The thing is, of course, that we’d be better off not having to hack in bits of HTML just to get these effects.  CSS3 offers proposals for corner-rounding properties, and that’s a good step forward.  One can also use XBL to dynamically insert the needed bits and style them, without having to clutter up the source document.  Here’s my XBL-based recreation of Adam’s demonstration.  Now here’s a variant employing more complex corner and border effects.  And then there’s blockquote styling with great big background quotation marks and rounding of some corners.

The above examples will only work fully in Gecko-based browsers (as of today, anyway), but what’s interesting to note is that they don’t look bad in non-Gecko browsers.  Take the blockquote example, for one.  In a Gecko browser, you get all the eye candy.  In a non-Gecko browser you get a visually distinct blockquote with less eye candy.  It still looks pretty good, or at least not bad; it could probably use some padding, but these aren’t polished examples.  The document structure is clean, and semantically appropriate.  What’s not to like?  This seems like another aspect of the concept of graceful flexibility—or, if you prefer, progressive enhancement—and one worth further investigation.

SpShSh

I don’t think I mentioned this before, but there’s an aural-CSS supporter besides Emacspeak out there.  It’s called Fonix SpeakThis, and while its aural CSS support is pretty limited, it does exist.  (A tip of the hat to The Literary Moose, by the way, for passing along the information.)  I find the existence of another aural-CSS browser, however limited, to be interesting in light of the aural style sheets appendix of CSS2.1, which says in part:

We expect that in a future level of CSS there will be new properties and values defined for speech output. Therefore CSS 2.1 reserves the ‘speech’ media type… but does not yet define which properties do or do not apply to it.  The properties in this appendix apply to a media type ‘aural’, that was introduced in CSS2. The type ‘aural’ is now deprecated.

In other words, aural is a dead end, and speech will be used in the future.  At some point.  Really.

Fans of complexspiral‘s visual groove might also appreciate Atlantis, which looks a whole lot more professional.  As is to be expected.

Raffi Krikorian raises some long-term problems arising from URL-shortening services that are worth pondering.  It isn’t the case that absolutely everything has to be preserved for all time, but how many links would suddenly break if a popular shortening service disappeared?  I already don’t like such services because they hide the ultimate destination, which robs me of an important piece of information in my quest to decide whether or not I should follow a given link.  How many times have you seen a post that says, basically, “This is interesting!” followed by a shortened link?  It could be a political story from the BBC, a collection of Battlestar: Galactica fan fiction, the official site of the Malaysian legislature, or an outrageously disgusting fringe-porn site.  How can you tell?  By following the link.  It’s like Web roulette.  Place your bets!

I guess it’s also true that shortening services irk me because they should be utterly unnecessary.  In the first place, there’s almost no excuse for URLs to be so long that they need some kind of shortening service.  Okay, maybe mapping programs have some excuse, but that’s about it.  The kind of enormous cryptic URLs that most database-driven sites generate is just sloppy and wrong.  In the second place, as for putting URLs in e-mail and newsposts, you can contain the URL in angle brackets—<http://like.this/>—and any client worth running will understand that the whole string is a single URL, and ignore any line-wrapping that might occur within the brackets.  If your program can’t handle that, especially if it tries to interpret the bracketed text as an HTML tag, then it’s time to get another one.

Incidentally, the title of today’s entry is a hand-shortened form of “Speech, Shells, and Shortening.”  Which is better?  Granted, it’s kind of cool having an entry title that sounds like a door on Star Trek, but it isn’t what I’d call particularly useful for determining the contents of the entry before you actually read it.  See what I mean?

Being Noticed

I’ve made the big time: Internet gossip columns!  Okay, not really, but Opera Journal has just run a short piece about my ruminations over possibly moving to another country.  On the theme of moving elsewhere, CNN recently ran an article about Americans who are heading for Canada.  I do hope these folks do a little more research before making the move; nowhere is as perfect as it first seems—no, not even Canada.  Anyway, having that article come so closely on the heels of my recent posts makes for a weird feeling, like the universe somehow centers on me.  Which I’m pretty darned sure it doesn’t.  Personally, I wouldn’t want it to; as someone I know used to say, “The problem with solipsism is that it makes me responsible for all the idiocy in the world.”

[Aside: I'd just like to point out that the markup for the word "me" in the previous sentence is <em>me</em>.  Maybe MC Frontalot could use that as a (much) nerdier version of Eminem's name, as a parody or something.]

To come back to something vaguely related to having my potential moves discussed in public, I had a very interesting conversation with my father Sunday at the anniversary porch party Kat and I threw.  Among discussions of my job situation and the prospect of striking out on my own, and how that might work in a fiscal sense, he said to me, “Back when you were in high school, you told your mother and me that you wanted to be a recognized name one day.  I don’t remember if you had a specific plan in mind, but it’s something your mother and I talked about a couple of times in recent years, how you’d worked toward that goal and achieved it.”

This took me completely by surprise; I don’t remember ever having said that, nor that it had been a goal of mine.  I always felt like I’d lucked into whatever fame I have.  Granted, I worked hard to reach my current position, but I was lucky to be in the right places at the right times, and to have opportunities that could be developed into advancement.  But now I wonder if the idea of being a “known name” lurked in the back of my head for years, and subconsciously guided me toward the place I now find myself.  I also wonder if, at any time before a couple of years ago, I knew why it was important to me.

July 2003
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