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Archive: February 2008

Deer Trap

As we drove from preschool to dance class, a gentle snowfall blurred the more distant houses and cars like a thin fog.  Jack Johnson was quietly serenading us when up ahead, without warning, two white-tailed deer appeared from a treeline on the right and darted into the street, their hooves skidding slightly on the slick pavement.

“Oh, look, sweetie!  Do you see the deer?”

“Deer!? Where?” I could hear her leaning out of her booster seat to peer through the front windshield.  Within moments, the does made it off the pavement and bounded across the half-shoveled sidewalk to vanish into the subdivision.  Brake lights winked off and cars sped up to reclaim the precious, precious seconds lost to this sudden intrusion of nature into late-afternoon suburban routines.

“Did you see them?”

“Yeah”, she said distantly, still craning to look.  “Where did they go, Daddy?”

“They ran between those two houses”, I said, gesturing toward the driver’s side window as we passed the spot.

“Do they live there in those houses?”

“No, sweetie, deer live in the woods.”

“Then what are they doing in between the houses?”

“They’re probably looking for food in people’s yards.”

Silence fell for a moment.  I spared a half-glance toward the back seat and caught a glimpse of her in my peripheral vision, a half-formed vision of intense concentration.  In my head, I quickly ran through everything I knew about deer from my years of rural living, preparing for the expected questions about what deer eat and when they sleep and where their houses were.

“Daddy?”

“Yes?”

“Why did the deer cross the road?”

South Bypass

I’m going to follow the lead of the Airbag crew and mention publicly that, as per the decision I reached last March, I will not be attending SXSWi this year.  I thought about posting to that effect a few months ago and decided against it—what, am I supposed to post about every conference I’m not attending?  That doesn’t exactly scale.

But there really is something different about SXSWi.  It’s the annual tribal gathering for our field and a couple of related fields, or at least is the annual tribal gathering who aren’t freaky/insane/hardcore enough to hit Burning Man.  The default assumption is that you will be in Austin in March, which is actually a symptom of the conditions that led me to opt out this year.

I can sum up why I’m not going in just a few quick bullet points (and if you’re going to attend any panels, get very used to bullet points):

  • I can’t concentrate above a certain noise level
  • I don’t function well in large crowds
  • I don’t drink alcohol
  • I’m not single

There is a last selfish reason to go, which is to see a bunch of friends and acquaintances I don’t get to see other places.  Only SXSWi has grown so incredibly huge that I didn’t really get to do even that last year.  There were people who were there the whole time I was that I never saw, like Matt.  I don’t mean that I didn’t have enough time to talk with them, either.  I mean that at no point did photons scattered by their bodies land on either of my retinas.

Don’t get me wrong: SXSWi is a huge buzz.  You can get a geek high just standing around soaking up the ambient energy, and you never know who you’re going to run into.  I once shared a cab with Cory Doctorow and Lisa Rein without, I think, any of us really knowing who the others were until halfway through the trip.  The opportunities to meet and greet and get to know people of every kind are just incredible.  Like I said, it’s a tribal gathering.

So there is of course a part of me that’s sad I won’t be there, because the great thing about SXSWi is the people, both those I know and those I don’t know yet.  There’s a much bigger part of me, though, that’s glad I’ll be spending those five days at home with my family instead of feeling frustrated and lonely in a crowd notably bigger than the town where I grew up.

Anyway, if you’re going and especially if you’re going for the first time, I urge you to pay special attention to the wisdom of Mr. Bag:

Want to meet that OMG OMG OMG blog A-lister?! Fine, just go do it. Nobody, and I mean nobody in this industry is so huge that they can’t be bothered to say hello and shake your hand. And that’s it, done.

To which I’d only say “that OMG OMG OMG blog A-lister” should be replaced with “anyone who interests you”.  Blog A-lister, design rockstar, code guru, startup maven, whoever.  Just go up and say hi and spend a few minutes chatting.  It’s totally cool.  In fact, it’s kind of the point.

Common Bonds

A List Apart #253 brings the issue of version targeting back into the limelight with opposing-view pieces by Jeremy Keith and Jeffrey Zeldman.  (And I love the “Editor’s Choice” on this issue, J. David Eisenberg’s “‘Forgiving’ Browsers Considered Harmful“.)

I’m not going to comment on the views presented; both gentlemen do a fine job.  What I do wish to add, or perhaps to restate, is an observation about everyone interested in, and thinking or arguing about, this topic:

We all care about the same thing.

We all want to advance web standards.  We all want browsers to improve their support.  We all want better and more advanced specifications.  We all want to reduce inconsistencies.  We all want a better web.

The disagreement is over how best to get there given the situation we face now, as well as how we perceive that current situation.  A recurrent metaphor for me is that we’re a large group of pioneers trying to chart the best course through an unknown country, and there is disagreement on which route entails the least risk to the whole group.  Cross the desert or the mountains?  Traverse a swampy delta or a hilly forest?  Move through this valley or that one?

Sometimes what binds us is strong enough that the few differences seem sharper by comparison.  That shouldn’t keep us from remembering what we have in common, and the importance of that commonality.

Manhattan Problem

It’s not every day I uncover a case involving the botched theft of information about nuclear weapons.

Here’s how it went down: in the infosthetics feed was an entry about a video regarding nuclear stockpiles around the world and the effects of a nuclear explosion in New York City.  The video was produced by Chimp on a Chain for Good Magazine.

That’s a long-standing area of interest for me, so I watched it.  When I got to the New York City portion, something started to bother me beyond the obvious horror of the scenario.  The point of detonation, the explosive yield, the elapsed-time intervals, the radius distances—all seemed very familiar, like I’d seen them somewhere before.  And I had.

They were nearly all taken verbatim from the New York City scenario found at the Atomic Archive.  I could find only two differences.  The first is that the total death toll given in the video is slightly higher than that in the Atomic Archive’s scenario.  Otherwise, all the numbers matched up.

The second difference is really a major error on the part of the video’s makers: they dramatically under-represent the areas of damage.  For example, the ten-second ring’s (found at 2:33 in the movie) radius is labeled with the correct distance (2.5 miles) but the circle placed on the map is much, much too small to be 2.5 miles in radius.  The circle doesn’t even cover the breadth of Manhattan Island, whereas an accurate plot would have it stretch across the Hudson River on both sides into New Jersey and Long Island.  You can see this in part 5 of the Atomic Archive’s scenario, or on a HYDEsim plot of the same scenario.

The video seriously misrepresents the area of damage that would result from such an incident, making it appear much smaller than it would be, and I just can’t fathom how or why they would get that so wrong.  Even assuming they mixed up the meanings of “radius” and “diameter” doesn’t appear to explain it.  The ring distances shown correspond to a three-kiloton explosion at most, not to 150KT.

That’s the botched part.  So where’s the theft?  There is no credit whatsoever given in the video for the material’s source.  There is a reference to the Archive on the video’s page at Good in the “Resources” box, but the material in the video has been used without permission—I checked this with the custodian of the Archive—as required by the site’s policy.  Even if one could argue this is a case of not needing permission on non-profit grounds, attribution is still required.

It would almost be worth subscribing to Good so that 100% of my payment could go to the non-profit of my choice, as the site promises, except I’m limited to their choices of non-profits and none of them appear to be charged with educating magazine publishers or video artists about the niceties of copyright law, intellectual property rights, or even just plain common courtesy.

CSS Tools: Reset and Diagnostics

I’ve hinted and teased and promised, and I’ve yet to make good on any of it.  I’m sorry.  Can I make it up to you?

Okay, then, here you go: a permanent home for my reset styles.  It takes up residence in a new “CSS” subsection of the Toolbox section of the site, along with my efforts to create a generic set of diagnostic styles.  In the case of the resets, I’ll increment the version number and date whenever I make changes, and probably maintain an archive of previous versions.  Not that I expect that to happen with any frequency, but you never know.

The diagnostics are a lot more experimental and thus aren’t so formal as to have things like version numbers.  If I change anything of specific interest there, I’ll try to write a post about it.  I should get around to writing about the shown-in-page stylesheet one of these days, though I figure anyone can view source and work out the particulars without too much effort.

Non-Quotidian Problems

After I published the latest iteration of the reset styles, Paul Chaplin pointed out that my simplification of the quote-suppressing rules actually broke the intended effect in Safari 2, Gecko variants , and so on.  This happened because I assumed support for quotes: none, and it just isn’t there in most browsers.  Apparently, I was testing IN THE FUTURE! that day.

“Well, no problem,” I thought to myself, “I’ll use content: none instead”.  Nope.  Even in browsers that support generated content, support for the content value none appears to have fallen through the cracks.  Using it completely fails to suppress the generation of content, so far as my testing can determine.  Even more amusingly, content: normal prevents the insertion of quotation marks in Camino (and probably other Geckos), but not Safari.

So we’re back to explicitly forcing the assignment of empty content boxes in order to stop the insertion of quote marks: content: '';.  Oh, joy.  Paul had come to the same conclusion, and worked out a nice little fallback set that reminds me of the cursor trick that gets you a hand-pointing icon in both IE and the rest of the world, only his trick is completely valid.  So I’ll be adding that in, along with some thanks to Paul.

For my next magic trick, maybe I’ll base a reset rule on :nth-child() and see what people invent to simulate the intended effect.

February 2008
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