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Archive: March 2005

My Two WordPress Cents

I was going to ignore the whole WordPress search engine gaming situation, especially with Matt on vacation and so unable to speak for himself at the moment.  Dougal and Jonas have weighed in with their bits, and that seemed good enough.  But as a high-profile WordPress user and supporter, I’ve had some readers ask me about my opinion.  So okay, here it is.

I’m not going to call Matt any names, or declare his actions to have been evil.  Matt and I, along with Tantek, founded GMPG and worked together on XFN.  I would consider Matt a very good acquaintance.  (Don’t read too much into that: I’m unusually choosy about using the term “friend”.)  He’s young, enthusiastic, and very smart.  That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t make mistakes, but it might mean he’s more willing to try things out just to see how they go.

From a technical point of view, though, this isn’t much of a change from past practices.  Anyone who’s installed WordPress has probably noticed that, by default, the system contains links to all of the big WordPress contributors.  If you just set up the default template and don’t fiddle with anything, those links show up in your blog.

And what effect do those links have?  They can pump enormous amounts of Google juice into the sites of those people, for one.  Remember when Matt reached the #1 result on Google for “Matt”?  The pre-installed links can seriously skew blog-networking systems, for another.  If Technorati didn’t exclude those people from the ranking lists, they’d dominate the Technorati Top 100.  As of this writing, photomatt.net has more links from more sources than does Boing Boing.  So do most, if not all, of the other blogs that come with your WordPress install.

Adding hidden article links seems to me to be another step along the same path.  Is it a good path?  All I can say is that it isn’t a path I would have followed.  Then again, I’m such an old-school hippie-Utopian pseudo-socialist about the Web that I don’t have retailer affiliate accounts, and never did.

Based on what I’ve been picking up from conversations and sessions at the Search Engine Strategies conferences, what Matt did with these hidden links is at best a gray-hat SEO tactic, and probably a black-hat move.  There will be (and already have been) reprecussions, and Matt will have to deal with them.  How he deals with them will, I think, be far more important than what he did.  We’ll just have to wait to see how that unfolds.

Meanwhile, I fully intend to keep using, hacking on, and contributing to WordPress, because it’s a good system at a great price with an even better license.

Update: Matt has explained his side of the story.

At The End

Terri Schiavo, as you’re no doubt aware, died this morning as the result of twelve days of starvation and dehydration.

I am not qualified to judge the actions of anyone involved in the situation, nor do I have a clear sense of what the “right thing” to do was in that particular case, but I know this much for myself.  If it is acceptable to end a life, then it should be mandatory that the ending be as quick and painless as possible.  Withholding sustenance strikes me as a horrible form of euthanasia.  An overdose of painkillers, or a painless poison, would be far more merciful.

Years ago, long before she was diagnosed with cancer, my mother made me promise that, given certain circumstances, I would help her by ending her life.  Those circumstances didn’t come about; instead, an aggressive, pervasive malignancy destroyed her body and took her life.  But had those circumstances come about, no matter how much keeping that promise might have meant to me and to her, I do not think I could have starved her to death.

Again, this is in no way a comment on whether or not Mrs. Schiavo should have been allowed to die.  It is simply a wish that we might make termination procedures more merciful, or else stop them altogether.

Workspace Restoration

Oh, the joys of emergency restoration, drive repartitioning, data gaps, and reconstructing an absent work environment.

You may recall that I mentioned sending my PowerBook in for repair.  It’s still at the repair depot.  Apparently it needs a replacement for a rare component, so its repair is held up by a backorder situation.  You’d think they could do the Dell thing and just swap the hard drive into a new machine with the same configuration and send that to me, but I guess that would make too much sense.  So my only hopes for getting back up to speed lay with my trusty G4/500 with 384MB of RAM.

The first step: I had to install OS X on it if I had any hope of getting myself back to a semblance of productivity.  The only problem was that my boot volume, even stripped down to its essentials, didn’t have enough room to play host to both OS 9 and OS X.  I’d originally set up the drive to have a 2GB boot volume—acres of room in the Classic days—plus a 1GB scratch volume and a 22 GB main partition.  I’ve been doing drives this way for a decade or so.  Unfortunately, my strategy wasn’t sufficient for a Panther-driven world.

So before I could even install OS X, I’d have to repartition the hard drive.  That meant shunting everything to my newly arrived OWC Mercury Elite Pro 250GB hard drive, repartitioning the internal HD, installing OS X, running it through a zillion software updates, and then copying over the OS 9 folder so I’ll have it if I need to reboot into Classic.

Joy and more joy.  So I did all that over the weekend, starting off with a full Retrospect backup of all the drive volumes and then proceeding to move files around like I was playing a FireWire-based version of Towers of Hanoi.  While I was at it, I threw away a good deal of cruft (old installers, log files, that kind of thing) and moved a big heap of old data to a new permanent archival home on my external drive.

I’m happy to report that, in the end, everything came together rather nicely.  I’m now up and running with OS X on this aging beast, and while it certainly isn’t as snappy as my 1.25GHz/1GB RAM PowerBook, it’s quite functional.

Why did I just bore you with all that?  Because I wanted to share which free packages and extra doodads I’ve discovered are absolutely necessary to my getting back up to speed in OS X.

  • Complete MySQL from Server Logistics — I can’t run WordPress locally without MySQL, and this is the package that actually installs correctly.
  • CocoaMySQL — a nice little GUI front end to MySQL.  Handy for reaching into the DBs and tweaking values, which can be necessary if you do a sqldump on one machine and then jam it wholesale onto another.  Which I did.
  • Classic Window Management v1.0 — makes the OS act rational again by grouping together windows by process.  So if I click on the desktop, all the Finder windows pop to the fore.  When I click on a BBEdit window, all the BBEdit windows pop up.  None of this interleaved application nonsense.  (Which you can still invoke with a modifier key.)  Installing this also meant installing APE, but that’s probably a good thing anyway.
  • This isn’t really a software install, but it’s free.  I also hacked OS X to make Command-N create a new folder, instead of open a new Finder window.  More details can be found via my post “Now That’s A Switch“.  No, I will not adapt to the OS in this case: it will adapt to me instead, whether it really wants to or not.
  • SheetSpeed — if there’s one thing I can’t stand about OS X, it’s the bendy slidy dialog boxes, otherwise known as “sheets”.  (Which I sometimes pronouce with more of a “ih” sound than an “ee” sound in the middle, if you know what I mean.)  With SheetSpeed, you can crank the slide time down to zero, meaning the sheets just pop into existence and then disappear the instant you’re done with them.  You can also slow them way, way down, but doing so for any purpose other than temporary amusement should be grounds for a mental examination.
  • Ejector — great for clearing out .dmg volumes.  Sure, I could use Exposé to move everything aside and click-drag-toss, but that’s just not my style.  Ejector is far more capable than the Eject.menu file that comes with OS X.
  • Mouseposé — I’m forever losing my mouse pointer on my Cinema Display.  Or I was, until I installed Mouseposé.  It’s also very handy for presentations, which will be a lot more relevant when I finally get my laptop back.
  • TinkerTool — nice for things like putting the Dock precisely where I want it, and also for tweaking the OS here and there.

In addition to all those goodies, there are the more robust programs, some of them costing actual money (gasp!), that I just can’t live without.

  • BBEdit 8.1 — natch.
  • SubEthaEdit — this is becoming invaluable to me for remote collaborative document editing.  Tantek and I recently worked on a document while physically separated by 2100+ miles, and then worked on the same document while in the same room at SXSW.
  • Firefox — of course.
  • Thunderbird 1.0.2 — better at IMAP than Eudora 5.2, which is the version I’m using.  (I was surprised to discover it’s Carbonized!)
  • Transmit — all right, I admit I’m still without this one.  I’m a registered user of Transmit 2, and I can’t find an installer for it anywhere.  I miss it.  In the meantime, Fugu has been filling in.  I’d actually consider switching to it if it supported drag-and-dropping.  Instead, I just emailed the folks at Panic to see if they can point me to a 2.x installer.
  • DragThing — so much better than the Dock in so many ways.  Its one failing is that when you minimize windows to its process dock, they don’t appear as tiny thumbnails of themselves.  So I use the Dock as a process dock, and DragThing for everything else a dock should do.

Then there are the programs I want to install but can’t find in the form I want, like CalendarClock, which has become a commercial product and is no longer available as donationware.  I might have an installer for it on my laptop… not that it does me any good right now.

Anyway, there will undoubtedly be more to come, but I thought I’d share my gotta-have-‘em bits with you.

Here’s Durstan!

It turns out that the reason Durstan wasn’t on the cover of his book is that he’d made his way onto the covers of some other books.  All of them from another publisher, even.  I present the shocking evidence!

A modification of Jeffrey Veen's 'The Art & Science of Web Design' that uses Dunstan Orchard's face instead of Jeffrey's. A modification of Jeffrey Zeldman's 'Designing With Web Standards' that uses Dunstan Orchard's face instead of Jeffrey's. A modification of Eric Meyers's 'Eric Meyer On CSS' that uses Dunstan Orchard's face instead of Eric's.

Believe it… or don’t.

Localized Content

There’s the World Tour, which is exciting and all that, but then there’s the fun of hometown gigs.  It just so happens that I have two coming up in the near future.  Here they are, along with some brief information on what I’ll be talking about.

NOTACON 2

Conference dates: 8-10 April 2005.  Both my talks will be the morning of Saturday, 9 April.

  • The Construction of S5; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the DOM — a look at where S5 started, why it grew, how its growth was accomplished, what kinds of design decisions had to be made, and where it’s headed in the future.
  • Humanely Wielding a Clue By Four: Reflections on Managing a Massive Mailing List — a look back at three-plus years of managing css-discuss, this will be an unvarnished peek into the life of a list administrator who actually cares about the list.

Northeast Ohio Chapter of the Usability Professionals’ Association (NEOUPA)

Metting date: Tuesday, 24 May 2005.

  • Rapid UI Prototyping and Easy A/B Usability Testing with CSS — an updated version of the short talk Molly Holzschlag and I gave last year at User Interface 9, this will look at ways to use CSS and standards-oriented design to quickly develop UI designs and to do comparison testing of different designs.

Neither event is free, but then, neither event is terribly expensive, either.  So come on down!  They should be a peck o’ fun.

I’m also speaking at the NASA Glenn Research Center this afternoon, but that’s an internal gathering, not a public event, which is why I didn’t mention it before.  I haven’t been there since the late 1980s, so it’ll be interesting to see if anything’s really different.

Workshopping in London

World Tour 2005 continues to add dates.  In addition to Japan (May) and Austraila (September), I’ll be heading to London for a one-day workshop on CSS, XHTML, and standards-oriented design to be held Saturday, June 4th.  You can get all the agenda and other details on “Professional CSS XHTML Techniques” from the Carson Workshops website.

This is a limited-access event: only 40 attendees will be allowed.  Suppose you’re one of that 40, as of course you should be if at all possible.  Not only does that give you a 1-in-40 chance of winning a full copy of Dreamweaver MX 2004, it also gets you the “Survival Kit”, a disc containing all kinds of examples, articles, tools, and so forth.  You’ll also get a whole day of high-tempo, practical instruction in CSS-driven design, with plenty of opportunity to pose questions and get answers.

While this won’t be a workshop for total beginners, it won’t require advanced knowledge of CSS and XHTML, either.  Basically, if you’re at least somewhat familiar with HTML or XHTML and know the basics of writing style sheets, then you’ll fit right in.  Even if you’re beyond that, I’ll be covering a  lot of ground that you should find interesting.

And then there’s always the opportunity to hang out that evening, after the workshop is officially over, and talk about whatever comes to mind.

“Professional CSS XHTML Techniques” — London, UK on Saturday, 4 June 2005.  Hope to see you there!

That Acid Buzz

Just a few days after Chris Wilson’s post to IEblog, Håkon Wium Lie, CTO of Opera and one of the originators of CSS, published a column on news.com titled “The Acid2 Challenge to Microsoft“, outlining the intent to create “a test page… that will actively use features Web designers crave, such as fixed positioning of elements”.  As indicated in his article and confirmed via the Buzz, the Web Standards Project  is a partner with Håkon in the development of this new “test suite”, as it’s termed on the WaSP Buzz.

I don’t know about you, but as I read the article, several red flags went up and alarm bells rang in my head.

First off, the Acid2 challenge to Microsoft?  Why only Microsoft?  An acid test worthy of its name would expose bugs in every browser on the market today.  The original test did exactly that, and helped change the face of the Web.  In fact, if you’re still using IE/Mac, the first browser to actually get the Acid test correct, you can see it in action.  Type about:tasman into the address bar, and there it is, with modified text.

Second, the original Acid test (which I haven’t linked to because it seems to longer be available on the Web) was part of a larger and more constructive effort.  At the time, Acid test author Todd Fahrner was (as was I) a member of the WaSP’s CSS Action Committee.  If that name doesn’t sound familiar, you might be more familiar with the CSS Samurai.  One of the things the CSS AC did was to produce reports on the top ten failings of CSS support in various browsers.  We didn’t just say, “Browser X should be better”.  We wrote up what should be better, and why, and pointed to test cases illustrating the problems.  The Acid test was justifiably famous, but it was in the end one test among many.

And those tests were tough for all browsers, not just one browser or one campany’s browsers.  We weren’t partisan snipers, despite what many claimed.  We worked to point the way toward better behavior on the part of all browsers by focusing on the problems specific to each browser.

I am no longer a member of the WaSP.  When the first incarnation of the organization went into dormancy, the CSS AC went along with it.  Although the new WaSP has asked me to join a few times, I have resisted for various reasons—personal, professional, and perceptual.  I was also asked if I wanted to contribute to the Acid2 effort as an independent, and declined that as well.  So in many ways, this post is the epitome of something I find distasteful: a person who has had every chance to make contributions, and instead criticizes.  In my defense, I can say only that while I may have refused these invitations, it is not out of antagonism to the basic goal of the WaSP.  I have every reason to want the WaSP to succeed in its goal of advancing the cause of standards on the Web.

But this Microsoft-centric campaign has me concerned, and ever so slightly appalled.  The creation of a tough CSS test suite is a fantastic undertaking, something that is to be applauded and is probably long overdue.  But to cast it as an effort being undertaken as a challenge to Microsoft not only starts it off on the wrong foot, it has the potential to taint not just the Acid2 effort, but the entire organization.

Exploring Better Standards Support

While I was preparing for SXSW, Chris Wilson—and there’s a name that takes me back a few years—posted an entry on IEblog about standards.  I’m not going to excerpt any of it here because most of you have already read it.  For the rest of you, go read it.  As long as you don’t continue into the comments, it won’t take very long.

First off, let me say that I’ve known Chris for many years, and we get along great together.  I have a lot of respect for him, and I firmly believe the feeling is mutual.  He did incredible work in the very early years of CSS, and while some of that work may seem lacking when viewed in light of later implementations, it was that all-important first step on the journey of a thousand miles.  If I ever make it to Seattle with a couple of days to spare, he’s right near the top of a pretty short list of people I’d do my utmost to find time to see while I was there.  (I just added another person to that list a couple of days ago, actually, but that’s a story for another time.)

With a paragraph like that, you probably think I’m going to tear into him now.  Nope.

I’m posting my thoughts on this for three reasons.

  1. Chris was nice enough to name-check meyerweb as a site that’s helped “[harvest] the collective knowledge of the web development community” with regard to standards.  If nominations were being taken, I’d point to the css-discuss wiki before I would meyerweb, but nevertheless I’d like to think I’ve earned a place on that list—and I’m glad that Chris thinks so too.
  2. Some of my writing from the post “Unbreaking the Web” was quoted in a comment by Thomas Tallyce.
  3. The 800-pound gorilla is stirring.  It’s hard not to share a few observations.

So as Chris points out, the IE team faces an enormous challenge.  This is compounded by the enormous loss of IE developers over the past few years.  Think about it.  Would you work on a project that was the legal and administrative equivalent of a toxic cloud?  Internet Explorer is the focal point of dozens of lawsuits, antitrust litigation, and more.  It’s a project straitjacketed by its own success (however rightly or wrongly that success was achieved).  I don’t have any direct knowledge of this, but the IE team has probably become the Marie Celeste of Microsoft, a doomed wanderer of the bureaucratic seas, staffed by a few trapped souls and the subject of whispered tales of horror among the engineers.

( “And there… dangling from the door handle… was a scripting hook!” )

Despite this recent legacy of pariahship, it would seem that resources are gathering behind Explorer, and not just on the security front.  Chris says, and I have no reason to doubt him, that plans are afoot to add standards support to Explorer.  My concern is over the fate of those plans, because the best-laid plans… you know.  No matter how much the engineering team might want something, if their irresistible geek force encounters an immovable administrative object, well, my money’s on the object.  The only hope is to interpret the object as damage and route around it, which is usually a lot harder to accomplish in a bureaucracy than it is in a network topology.

Chris’ post makes it very clear that backwards compatibility will not be sacrificed, at least in quirks mode.  I wrote some thoughts along those lines in “Unbreaking the Web“, so I won’t repeat them here.  In summary: improving standards support will not break the Web.  It won’t even break the vast majority of sites, and any sites that do break will get sorted out in short order.  With a public beta, those problems could be identified and solved well before the browser went final.  Backwards compatibility is no longer a reasonable excuse for avoiding standards support.

And then there are the resource limitations.  It’s hard to think of anything Microsoft does as lacking in resources, but just as there are hungry people in America, there are starving programs within Microsoft.  I believe that, for some time now, the IE project has been living on a sub-subsistence diet.  It will probably be hard to attract people to help feed it.  The staffing requirements for regression testing alone would be daunting.  I don’t envy the IE managers their task—all the more so because no matter what they do, it won’t be enough for some people.  They’re going to get slammed.  Their only real choice is in trying to pick the things for which they’ll be slammed less.  If improving standards support in IE isn’t a corporate (or divisional) priority, they’re in for a world of hurt.  Which is why I sincerely hope they’re a priority.

But neither is that a complete excuse.  Working for a firm like Microsoft means taking on massive challenges, doing more than you thought possible with less than you should have available, pulling long hours and pounding your head against a wall in order to do the apparently impossible.  That’s part of the job description, and being there is pretty much a matter of choice.  I say this isn’t a complete excuse because, obviously, any given team can only accomplish so much.  It just isn’t a “get out of jail free” card.  If you’re going to tell us that standards are important and that support will be improved, it has to be a notable degree.  There has to be evidence that a lot of work went into adding a lot of useful things, and fixing a lot of old problems.  Again, this is because the promise was freely made, not because it’s what the Web Gods demand.

We all, and by that I mean “us Web designers and developers”, need to stay involved in this conversation.  It’s easy to post a few thoughts, assume that they’ve been ignored, and let things drift.  It’s also easy to assume that the entire IE team read your ideas and immediately agreed to every single last one of them because they’re so blindingly obviously critical, and then get completely enraged when they don’t show up in the final product.  I for one plan to keep an eye on this situation, and to think about ways I could help the IE team.

Because if I truly care about standards—and I do—then I owe the IE team as much as I’ve given to the teams working on Firefox, Safari, Opera, and all the rest.  We all do.  Whatever we would have done for the least of these our browsers in the name of advancing standards support, we owe the Explorer team no less.

Chris did ask for specific requests, so here are my top ten CSS requests in priority order:

  1. Support all selectors—including CSS3 selectors, which I believe are stable enough to be implemented
  2. Clean up positioning and add fixed positioning
  3. Clean up floating/clearing
  4. min-/max-width/height (got that?)
  5. Fix problems with inline layout, especially the handling of top and bottom padding and margins on inline elements
  6. Arbitrary-element hover
  7. Focus styling for form elements
  8. Better printing support, including better page-break control and page orientation
  9. Support CSS table styling, including the table-centered display values
  10. Support generated content

…plus the unranked but still very important “fix bugs! fix bugs! fix bugs!”.

Did I miss anything important, or under- or over-value anything, on that CSS list?  Let us know.

March 2005
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