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Archive: April 2004

15 Petals

One of the great privileges of writing More Eric Meyer on CSS was having two wonderful technical reviewers: Porter Glendinning and Dave Shea.  Even better was the chance to have Dave create a CSS Zen Garden design, give it to me as a graphic comp, and creating the CSS needed to make it work.  I describe that process in detail in Project 10 of the book, but as a preview, the design is now available as—and here I take a deep breath to avoid giggling like a celebrity-struck schoolgirl—the one hundredth official Zen Garden design.  The photographs used in the design were all taken by me at the Cleveland Botanical Gardens, but the design itself is all Dave, baby.  Interestingly, I never told Dave where I’d taken the pictures, so the faint thematic echoes of 15 Petals and the Garden’s web site are coincidental.

I will say here and now that design #99, Wiggles the Wonderworm, is an utterly fantastic and delightful concept.  If I could, I’d switch his design with mine, so he could have the #100 slot.  Wiggles rocks my world.

As you can tell, the syndicate hasn’t yet silenced me.  In fact, I got a message from an operative deep inside their organization who says that his boss has met both Mallett and Watterson.  Obviously his boss is a part of the conspiracy.  I’ve let him know that he needs to be extra careful.  Trust no one!  I mean, look at today’s strip.  How much more C&H does it get?  Until next time, courage.

Conspiracy Theory

Oh, God, now they’re going to come for me; this may be the last communication I ever send.  But it will have been worth it, if only to find the real truth, whatever that turns out to be.

Damn Ferrett, anyway.  He’s the one who blew my cover.

This is my story.  I just hope it can serve as a guide, and a warning, to those who may follow me.

Some of you may be too young to remember the name Bill Watterson, but he’s the man who created Calvin & Hobbes.  Bill is one of the Cleveland area’s most famous residents, but he’s also one of its most elusive.  As an article published in the Cleveland Scene details, he not only withdrew from the comic pages in 1995, but also from public life shortly thereafter.  He resides in or around Chagrin Falls, which coincidentally was the subject of a song by The Tragically Hip, and not so coincidentally is the small town through which a giant Calvin is rampaging on the back cover of the first Calvin & Hobbes collection.  The striped-awning shop in his hand is the Popcorn Shop, a great little small-town store that sits right next to the falls themselves.

It is something of a coincidence that it was next to the actual falls, on a platform right next to (and somewhat below) the Popcorn Shop, where I officially proposed to Kat on her 29th birthday.  That has little to do with the story, but I thought I’d share it anyway.

Back to my tale—I just hope I can finish before it’s too late.

A while back, our local paper started carrying a comic called Frazz by Jef Mallett.  Immediately, I was struck by how much the illustration style looked like Bill Watterson’s. The main character (Frazz) looks an awful lot like a Calvin in his early twenties.  He works as the janitor in an elementary school, and is closer to the students than most of the staff, as you’d expect from an older Calvin.  Frazz is a musician in his off hours, and there have been whole strips devoted to Frazz singing some lyrically complex song, just like the lengthy poems found in Calvin strips and treasuries.  He’s also an avid biker, as is his girlfriend, Miss Plainwell, who is a very Susie Derkins type of girl.  Frazz likes to play practical jokes on people, often jokes that involve a truly surreal sense of humor.  One of the students with whom Frazz spends a lot of time is Caulfield.  Catcher in the Rye reference?  Yes.  It isn’t the only one.  The pacing, style of humor—it all has a very Wattersonian feel to it.

At some point, it was revealed that “Frazz” is a derivative of the character’s last name, when he was addressed as “Mr. Frazier.”  That’s when I started to get really suspicious.  So far as I’m aware, Calvin’s last name was never given in the strip.  So it was entirely possible that we were reading about the exploits of one Calvin Frazier.  When a later strip revealed his first name to be Edwin, I wondered if it was just to throw us off the track.  Or, perhaps, his real name is Calvin Edwin Frazier, and for some reason he’d started going by the middle name.  (Could he be in hiding from fans?)

Then came The Sign.  The moment when I couldn’t rationalize away my suspicions any more.

In a Sunday strip, Frazz is talking with one of the girls at the school.  She mentions that she plans to be famous one day, and when Frazz points out that she doesn’t even like to be called on in class, she says she wants to be famous, not well-known; that she wants to be well-known for her work but not be a public figure.  “Like J.D. Salinger or Bill Watterson,” says Frazz.  “Never heard of them,” she responds, for the punchline.

At that, I threw down the paper, turned to Kat, and said, “All right, now he’s just toying with us.”

There is one major objection that gets raised: there is Frazz merchandise available through the uComics site.  “Ah HA!” you cry, “that can’t be Watterson.  He was famously antithetical to merchandising of any kind whatsover.”  That’s true, and look where it got him: as the Scene article points out, the most common sightings of Calvin these days are those completely unauthorized stickers of him urinating on logos, usually Ford but sometimes others; race car drivers come in for this treatment a lot, too.  (And take a look at the illustrations in that article.  One is the naughty sticker, two are Watterson drawings, and two are credited to “Jef Mallett.”)

My theory is that this time around, Watterson is trying limited merchandising as an experiment.  No stuffed Frazz dolls, of course, but some mouse pads and coffee mugs on which you can emblazon your favorite strip.  Would a syndicate go along with this?  Oh, God yes.  If I were running a comic syndicate and Bill Watterson came to me with a proposal to pull a Richard Bachman, I’d not only fall to the ground and kiss his feet, I’d hire an actor to play the pseudonymic persona full time and have all the mailed strips routed through that actor’s place of residence, just to erase as many tracks as possible.

It’s possible that I’m reading patterns into the noise, I admit.  I certainly may be projecting my longing for a return to the early days of Calvin & Hobbes (which I liked much  better than the last couple of years) onto the situation, hoping for the return of a personal hero, even if in disguise.  This whole Mallett/Watterson thing may well be my own personal Lot 49.  If there really is a Jef Mallett, it’s my hope that he’d be flattered by my theory, not insulted.

But if you never hear from me again, it’s because I’ve said too much and the syndicate had me silenced, stuffed into a trio of tiny boxes and buried in the back pages of a newspaper.

Wow, Is My Book Red!

I got my first paper copy of More Eric Meyer on CSS this morning, so I had to accelerate my update process for the companion site; the project files are now online.  Apparently on many machines, the cover and site colors are a startling dark pink, which isn’t the intent.  On my machine, the color is a deep red, as is the actual book.  Imagine a fire engine made out of tomato soup—that’s pretty much the shade of red.

Either way, it’s still fairly startling.

It’s kind of a weird feeling to have two books come out at almost the same time.  CSS:TDG, Second Edition, arrived just two weeks ago.  Now here’s MEMOC, forming something of a weird acronym duet.  So now I have this small stack of two new books.  The covers are still shiny and creaseless.  They have that hot-off-the-presses crispness.  I almost hate to open them.  I’m always afraid I’ll break their spines, and then I won’t be able to move them any more.

Guru By Design?

You’ve probably already seen the Gurus vs. Bloggers matchup over at Design By Fire; I quite enjoyed it, and not just because it’s funny.  I found it to be gratifying because I took a close look at the designs, and I think there’s very little doubt about it.  meyerweb’s design just screams “guru,” don’t you think?  (David Robarts does.)  I’m kind of hoping that I get into a future round of the matchup, so I can by completely demolished by the likes of Dave Shea or Doug Bowman.

Of course, I can always counter with cute pictures of Carolyn. A closeup of Carolyn lying on the floor and look out of the corners of her eyes toward the camera, with her left hand near her chin and the index finger extended into the corner of her mouth. She’s suffering through another cold, but that doesn’t seem to prevent her from being just too adorable for words.  Now, I know it isn’t the right finger, but I still can’t help thinking, “One billion dollars!”

For some reason, Kat and I like the show $40 A Day, where host Rachael Ray visits a different city each week and goes through a full day without spending more than $40 on all her meals.  One of this past weekend’s episodes had her visiting Cleveland, calling it “one of the most underrated cities in America.”  Kat and I found it fascinating to watch, getting an outsider’s perspective on the city.  We don’t have the time or space for me to enumerate everything great about this city.  Nonetheless, it was still interesting to hear words of praise from a visitor, even one hosting a show that does what are basically puff pieces about the visited cities.

It didn’t hurt that two of the three restaurants she visited were the always-excellent Tommy’s (where the waiter shown on-camera is one of those guys who’s been there forever) and Trattoria Roman Gardens down in Little Italy, not to mention spent some time at the West Side Market.  I thought the show could have done with a few less “___ ROCKS!” jokes—okay, we get it, the only song the rest of the country associates with us is “Cleveland Rocks.”  Thank you.  It’s time to move on.

Of course, I suppose I might be tired of the whole “rocks” thing because it’s a lot like having people always tell you the sky is blue.  After a while, it gets to be a little bit wearying to keep being repetitively told something you already know.

It’s On Every Channel!

I got word yesterday that More Eric Meyer on CSS has already come back from the printers, so it ought to be available within a week or so.  Woo hoo!  I’ve put up a companion site with the table of contents; the project files will be online soon.  And yes—that really is the cover.

Speaking of books, the second edition of Cascading Style Sheets: The Definitive Guide is now available pretty much everywhere.  Over at Amazon, its sales rank has been hovering around 200 for a couple of weeks now, so that’s pretty cool.  I’ve heard from a few readers who already have their copies, and some errata reports have started to come in.  Joy!  It’s always frustrating to finish a book, because I know that the errors that got missed will immediately be spotted by all the readers.  No matter how hard we tried, some errors are going to slip through.  The perfectionist in me quails at that knowledge.

But then, releasing a new book does afford me the chance to be amused by reader reviews.  Here’s one that had me chuckling:

i understand the basics of css already, i just needed something to outline the syntax and concepts in css2 and then just function as a reference. this book did neither, and i’ve found it to be a complete waste.

Yeah, I guess you probably would.  Say it with me, sparky: “Definitive Guide.”  Not “Reference.”  It’s not an outline, and wasn’t when the first edition came out.  If you need a reference with a quick outline, you could always try the CSS2.0 Programmer’s Reference, which has, of all things, an outline of the syntax and concepts of CSS2 and provides a full property reference.  Amazing.

I know you aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, but sometimes you can get a little guidance from its title.

Anyone who reads Italian might be interested in an interview with me conducted by Marco Trevisan.  For those who don’t do as the Romans do, the English version should be available in the near future.

Update: Gini‘s sister is doing better, although she was evicted from the hospital even though still suffering a lot of pain.  Ferrett tells me that it looks like some of meyerweb’s readers did contribute to the support fund, and again, Kat and I both thank you for reaching out.

A Charitable Request

Two of our greatest friends in the Cleveland area (and in our lives in general) are the oddly-named Gini and Ferrett.  They’ve been with us through every triumph and tragedy of the last year; they made the trip to Mansfield for Mom’s memorial service, and also happened to be the first to lay eyes on Carolyn the night she came home.  We’ve come to know that they’ll be there for us when we need them, and have tried to be the same for them.

Gini’s little sister could use a big heap of help.  She’s in danger of dying from unknown causes, and her family is in danger of losing their home while the insurance company plays dice with her life.  Even if you aren’t able or inclined to donate money to help somebody you’ve never met, your thoughts and prayers will be very much appreciated.

I would say that I can’t imagine what Gini is going through right now, except that’s not really true.  I know what it’s like to have a younger sibling who is in danger of dying from a disease that nobody is sure can be cured, to have a family member lying in the hospital while phone calls are made, while worried voices say things like “we don’t know if she’ll make it” and “the next few days will tell the tale.”  I know what it’s like to get a phone call that’s traveled half the continent, distant and blurred, to tell me that someone I love is terribly ill.  It’s a horrible, desolate feeling.

If you can help, please do.  Kat and I both thank you.

No Foolin’

Gmail appears to be for real, so my idea that it was a joke was flat wrong.  Of course, some would say “flat wrong” has been a recurring theme of mine for the last few days.  (Or longer.)

F-F-F-F-Foolin’

April Fools Day has rolled ’round again, and already the confusion is thick in the air.  Doug and Dave have swapped faces for a day (or perhaps longer), much as newspaper comic artists often do.  The WaSP reports that the use of standards has hitherto unsuspected benefits, and Nature is reporting that stronger trade winds have changed the planet’s rotation enough that today should be 2 April, not 1 April.  Global warming is blamed.

Then there are the edge cases.  Google’s announcement of Gmail has now been reported by CNN, The New York Times, c|net, Wired, and more.  It sure seems like an April Fools Day joke on Google’s part, just like Pigeonrank, but heck, it could be real.  Here’s the thing: just because it got reported by major media outlets doesn’t make it true.

I found this out back at the very beginning of 2000.  You all probably remember the Y2K noise leading up to that point; there were reports that vendors had to certify pencils as Y2K compliant in order to sell them.  It got pretty silly.  In the middle of it all, as we went through month after month of analysis and certification of the systems at CWRU, one of the DMS gang said something like, “Are we sure that Aurora [the CWRU Web server] won’t suddenly think it’s January 1900?”  The response was, “I sure hope not, because then it would insist on using a telegraph to connect to the Internet.”  We started riffing on that idea, kicking around what the page design would look like, what kind of news would be there, turn-of-the-century pictures that should show up, and so on.

So we did it.  My co-worker Pam and I went down to the University Archives and found a number of photos that were of the right era and that were clearly allowed to be used (many of them had no known author and so would not pass into the public domain until 2020), and scanned them in.  I created a wood-grain design for the home page, including a modified badge that proclaimed us the “Yahoo! Most Wired College 1899″ site.  We had two places  on the page where the year was listed, and I had to deliberately introduce Y2K bugs in order to make them say “January 1, 1900″ on that day.  We set up a cron job to roll the old-timey graphics into place at the stroke of midnight on 1 January 2000, and went off to party.

By eight o’clock on the morning of the first, we had several dozen e-mails in the server contact inbox.  They were about evenly divided into people congratulating us on having a sense of humor, and people insulting us for being so stupid as to have suffered a visible Y2K bug on our public Web server.  (I’d like to think that at least some of those were tongue-in-cheek.)  By the end of the day, Wired had reported it as a real Y2K bug, even quoting our message apologizing that the server “believes that it is January of 1900,” and the next day the story was printed more or less verbatim in The Washington Post.  We ended up issuing a press release about it, and the joke design, which was intended to stay in place for a couple of weeks, lasted 33 hours before the administration said, “Yeah, uh-huh, very funny.  Get rid of it.”

As I write this entry, I have no idea if Gmail is an April Fools joke or not.  (Okay, that’s not true.  I have some idea that it’s a joke, but I’m not certain.)  In a way, it’s kind of irrelevant.  The whole situation has simply reminded me that those in the news media can be as easily duped as the rest of us, and that’s something worth remembering in the current political climate.

April 2004
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