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Content Blocking Primer

Content blockers have arrived, as I’m sure you’re aware by now.  They’re more commonly referred to as ad blockers, but they’re much more than that, really.  In fact, they’re a time machine.

Consider: a user who runs a content blocker can prevent the loading of Javascript, CSS, cookies, and web fonts.  (They can block more than that, but those asset types seem to be the main targets thus far.)  A person loading an article or other page from a web site gets the content, and that’s it, assuming the publisher hasn’t put some sort of “go away” server-side script in place.

Sound familiar?  It should.  We’ve been here before.  It’s 1995 all over again.

And, just as in 1995, publishers are faced with a landscape where they’re not sure how to make money, or even if they can make money.

Content blockers are a two-decade reset button.  We’re right back where we were, twenty years ago.  Except this: we already know a bunch of stuff that doesn’t work.

I don’t mean that ads don’t work.  Ads can work.  We’ve seen small, independent ad networks like The Deck do pretty okay.  They didn’t make anyone a billionaire, but they provided a good audience to advertisers via a low-impact mechanism, and some earnings for those who ran the ads and the network.

The ads that are at risk now are the ones delivered via bloated, badly managed, security-risk mechanisms.  In other words: what’s at risk here is terrible web development.

Granted, the development of these ads was so terrible that it made the entire mobile web ecosystem appear far more broken that it actually is, and prompted multiple attempts to rein it in.  Now we have content blockers, which are basically the nuclear option: if you aren’t going to even attempt to respect your customers, they’re happy to torch your entire infrastructure.

Ethical?  Moral?  Rational?  Hell if I know or care.  Content blockers became the top paid apps within hours of iOS9’s release, and remain so.  The market is speaking incredibly loudly.  It’s almost impossible not to hear it.  The roar is so loud, in fact, it’s difficult to make out what people are actually saying.

I have my interpretation of their shouting, but I’m going to keep it to myself.  The observation I really want to make is this: the entire industry is being given a do-over here.  Not the ad industry; the web industry.

Remember, this isn’t just about ads.  Ads are emblematic of the root problem, but they’re not the actual root problem.  If ads were the sole concern of content blockers, then the blockers (mostly) wouldn’t bother to block web fonts.  It’s possible to use web fonts smartly and efficiently, but most sites don’t, so web fonts are a major culprit in slow mobile load times.  The same is true for Javascript, whether it’s served by an ad network, an analytics engine, or some other source.  So they’re both targeted by blockers—not for enabling ads, but for disabling the web.

Content blockers strip the web back to what it was 20 years ago.  All the same challenges and questions are back, full force.  How do we make sites better, smarter, and cooler?  How do we make money by publishing online?

There are reputations and probably fortunes to be made by learning from our many mistakes and finding new, smarter ways to move forward.  I would advocate that people start with the core principles of the web standards movement, particularly progressive enhancement, but those are starting points, a foundation—just as they always were.

It’s not often that an entire industry gets an almost literal do-over.  We have two decades of hindsight to work with now, as we try to figure out how to (re)build a web where users don’t feel like they need content blockers just to be online.  This is an incredibly rare and exciting juncture.  Let’s not waste it.

The Shape of Things to Come

Software may be eating the world, but we are shaping it.  What we do now—what we build, how we act, what we tolerate—will profoundly influence how society develops over the next few generations.

That’s not because what happens now will change you or me.  We’re unlikely to change much, if at all.  We’re set in our ways, most of us.

Our children are not.

What they see online will seem normal to them, just as what we saw growing up seemed normal to us.  And because there is no meaningful distinction between online and offline, what they come to accept as normal online will be seen as normal offline.

So the way we build our networks matters in the most profound possible way.  If we build networks that make it easy to abuse and harass, and make it difficult to defend against abuse and harassment, our children will come to see that as normal, even desirable.  Similarly, if we build networks where it’s hard to abuse and harass, and easy to defend against such attempts, that will become the norm.

System design is social design.  The question is, what kind of society do we want to design?

And the more important question is, when are we going to start?

This article was originally published at The Pastry Box Project on 2 September 2015.

Dislike

Facebook is emotionally smarter than we give it credit for, though perhaps not as algorithmically smart as it could be.

I’ve been pondering this for a few weeks now, and Zeynep Tufekci’s “Facebook and the Tyranny of the ‘Like’ in a Difficult World” prodded me to consolidate my thoughts.

(Note: This is not about what Tufekci writes about, exactly, and is not meant as a rebuttal to her argument.  I agree with her that post-ranking algorithms need to be smarter.  I also believe there are design solutions needed to compensate for the unthinking nature of those algorithms, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Tufekci’s piece perfectly describes the asymmetrical nature of Facebook’s “engagement” mechanisms, commented on for years: there is no negative mirror for the “Like” button.  As she says:

Of course he cannot like it. Nobody can. How could anyone like such an awful video?

What happens then to the video? Not much. It will mostly get ignored, because my social network has no way to signal to the algorithm that this is something they care about.

What I’ve been thinking of late is that the people in her network can comment as a way to signal their interest, caring, engagement, whatever you want to call it.  When “Like” doesn’t fit, comments are all that’s left, and I think that’s appropriate.

In a situation like Tufekci describes, or any post that deals with the difficult side of life, comments are exactly what’s called for.  Imagine if there were a “Dislike” button.  How many would just click it without commenting?  Before you answer that question, consider: how many click “Like” without commenting?  How many more would use “Dislike” as a way to avoid dealing with the situation at hand?

When someone posts something difficult—about themselves, or someone they care about, or the state of the world—they are most likely seeking the support of their community.  They’re asking to be heard.  Comments fill that need.  In an era of Likes and Faves and Stars and Hearts, a comment (usually) shows at least some measure of thought and consideration.  It shows that the poster has been heard.

Many of those posts can be hard to respond to.  I know, because many of the Facebook posts my wife and I were making two years (and one year) ago right now were doubtless incredibly hard to read.  I remember many people leaving comments along the lines of, “I don’t know what to say, but I’m thinking of you all.”  And even that probably felt awkward and insufficient to those who left such comments.  Crisis and grief and fear in others can make us very uncomfortable.  Pushing past that discomfort to say a few words is a huge show of support.  It matters.

Adding “Dislike” would be a step backward, in terms of emotional intelligence.  It could too easily rob people who post about the difficult parts of life of something they clearly seek.

Marvelous

I’m typing this as North America slowly unwinds below me, fleeing the rising sun that will still overtake us, light-headed and a touch giddy from a sustained shortness of sleep.  If this all sounds a little bit familiar, you’re right, and thank you for following my meanderings over so many months.  Anyone can write, but not everyone is read, and it’s always an honor.

I’m not going to write about my obsessions this time, at least not directly.  But as it happens, I’m watching a movie about someone else’s obsession: Tim’s Vermeer.  In short, it’s about the inventor of Video Toaster and Lightwave, Tim Jenison, and his quest to figure out how Johannes Vermeer did what he did so incredibly well.  Tim hypothesizes that Vermeer used high 16th-Century technology in a novel and long-forgotten fashion.

In the process of making his case, Tim not only reverse-engineers the technique, he decides to recreate Vermeer’s studio, employing 3D CAD modeling and visualization, not to mention computer-driven lathes and mills and routers to build the furniture to exacting precision.  It’s a fascinating contrast to the constraint he sets himself of only using materials that would have been available in the 16th century for the room and the painting itself.  He puts a piece of wood into an industrial tool the size of a 1970s DEC mainframe and sends it commands to fashion a chair leg in the style of 16th-Century Europe, and then picks up a pestle to grind the pigments for his paint by hand.

In the end, he produces a painting that bears all the hallmarks of a Vermeer, a very close copy of The Music Lesson, even though Tim has never studied or even practiced painting of any kind.  In the process, he uncovers a clue in Vermeer’s original, something not noticed in the 350 years since its production, that provides very strong evidence he’s gotten it right.  It’s a really fascinating story.

And there I sat, seven miles above the earth, moving at a significant fraction of the speed of sound, watching the whole story unfold on my iPhone 4S plugged into a compact charging device, the movie streaming over wifi from a media server stowed away somewhere in the airframe.  Far above me, a constellation of beacons circled in polar orbit, helping to keep the plane on course and on time as it hurled itself through the thin air.

Bathed in marvels, I watched a man who had birthed or helped birth some of those marvels resurrect a forgotten marvel and produce a marvel of his own.

Then I cued up Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, because the antics of an anarchic sentient raccoon are never not funny.

This article was originally published at The Pastry Box Project on 2 August 2015.

Medium Trials

Originally published at Medium on July 30th, 2015.

Yesterday, I decided to try importing a story to Medium. I’d hunted around for a way to auto-post to Medium from WordPress, which runs the blog portion of meyerweb (the rest is mostly HTML, with a little PHP here and there), and hadn’t found one. Then I found the “Import story” feature on Medium and thought, Sure, why not?

So I tried it out on my most recent post, which also happened to have some code in it, as my posts sometimes do. The process was, as anyone who’s used it can tell you, very simple. Paste in a URL and the content gets sucked in.

Well, except for code blocks.

Everything was imported without incident except the Javascript. That seems like a metaphor for something.

I’d structured the block with a pre element, as I always do, and yet the line-breaking was stripped away. It looks like my indentation tabs were preserved, but without the linefeeds, they didn’t have nearly the same utility.

The real problem is that the importation of the code block stopped cold at the first <, dropping the rest of the code on the floor. Now, I admit, I didn’t escape or entity-ize the character in my source, and maybe that was the problem. Still, I feel like an import tool should be a little smarter about things like less-than symbols on import. Otherwise, how many less-than-threes will end up as just plain threes?

Fortunately, the fix was simple: I went back to the original post, drag-selected the whole code block, copied, went back to Medium, drag-selected the mangled code, and hit ⌘V. Done. It was properly formatted and no less-than terminations occurred.

Today, I’m experimenting with writing my post on Medium first, after which I’ll repost it at meyerweb. This is likely the only time I’ll do it in that order, given my experience over here. Captions are deucedly hard to edit (at least in my browser of choice, Firefox Nightly), the apparent inability to add simple decorations like border to images, and the apparently intentional, active enforcement of single-space-after-sentence even when editing annoy me deeply. (Yes, that’s how I roll. Let’s not have the spacing argument here, please.)

I can see why Medium appeals to so many. It’s pretty frictionless, a lot more so than almost any other tool of its kind I’ve used. I mean, my WordPress install is pretty frictionless to me, but that’s because I invested a lot of time customizing it to be that way. Much like my browser, mail client, and other essential tools.

So anyway, that’s what I found during import and authoring on Medium. Here’s hoping this posts properly, and without the stray “in” that’s somehow shown up in my post, and which I can’t select, mouse to delete or otherwise remove through non-Inspector means. If only I could prepend an “f”!

It didn’t show up when I posted, fortunately.

P.S. I discovered this was the title just before publishing. It was supposed to be just “Medium”. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The Guilt I Carry

Last year, in an effort to help him and many friends of mine struggling with the tragic death of Chloe Weil, I told Jeremy Keith I had let go of guilt over Rebecca’s death, and that was the truth.  I mourned, I had regrets, but there was no guilt, because there was nothing we could have done except what we did.  Her cancer and death was always going to happen, and the only thing—the only thing—we could have done to avoid it was to have never adopted Rebecca in the first place, thus causing some other family to experience all the joy and sorrow of her brief life.  I accepted that, and it brought some small measure of peace.

All that was true.  Almost all of it is still true…except for guilt.  That came back, seeping into me so slowly that it took me a long time to realize it.  When I finally recognized it for what it was, I realized it had been there for months.  I also realized it was a particular form of guilt: survivor’s guilt.  This came as a surprise, honestly.  As it’s usually defined, at least as I understand it, survivor’s guilt seems to be recognized in the parents of children who take their own lives, but not to those whose children die from disease or accident.

Last week, I published my first piece with Modern Loss to talk about this.  A brief excerpt:

If Joshua had asked why I was saying sorry, I would have told him I wasn’t apologizing because I felt guilty, but rather because I was sorry in the sense of sorrowful. Sorry he had to experience the death of his older sister, who died on her sixth birthday of aggressive brain cancer. Who had been gone just about 51 weeks on the day we had that conversation. Sorry she had been terminally ill, sorry the world is as harsh and unfair as it is, sorry his best friend in the world is dead.

But not sorry out of responsibility or guilt. At least, that’s what I would have said, but I’d have been violating one of my basic tenets of parenting. Because I would have been lying to him.

You can read the whole thing at Modern Loss.  It’s a standard-length article, about 800 words.

I wrote it, in part, to understand myself.  But I published it in the hopes that it will help someone, some day, understand a bereaved friend or relative a little bit better…or possibly even themselves.

Witness

I’m writing this as Game 3 of the NBA Finals is playing downtown, not knowing how it’s going.  The Cavaliers may be up by 30, or down by 30; it doesn’t actually matter to me either way.  I’m not much of a sports fan, truth be told.

But I am a Cleveland fan.

I’ve lived here more than half my life now, after a rootless early childhood and then a semi-rural upbringing.  I came here for college, way back in the late 1980s, and never left.  Never wanted to leave.  The opportunities were there, but I never took them.  When Netscape came to me and asked if I wanted to be a Standards Evangelist, I told them only if I could do it without relocating.  They said yes.  I told Google the same thing about a decade later; they said no.

Something about this city got into me, and didn’t let go.  We have our problems, sure.  You’ve heard some of them on the news.  Everywhere has problems.  I hope we can fix ours, and I hope other places can fix theirs.  Either way, I have long been proud to call Cleveland home, as I will for years to come.

Most of my friends are incredibly excited about the Cavaliers.  Deliriously so, some of them.  It’s pretty awesome to experience, even secondhand.  So I’ve been reading about how the first two games of the finals went, and in them, I recognized something very familiar.

From what I’ve read, pretty much nobody outside the 216 gave the Cavs any real chance in this series.  The Golden State Warriors were judged to be simply too powerful.  And yet, Game 1 went into overtime, where the Cavs lost steam and one of their star players to injury.  Everyone (outside Cleveland, that is) said that was it.  The Cavs made it a great game, they said, but being down to one star player was the end of their run.  After which, Game 2 went to overtime, and the Cavs won it by a razor-thin margin.

That’s Cleveland in a nutshell.

This is a city that is constantly underestimated and derided, but we already know our faults, and we know our strengths.  There’s a core of steel under the bruised and battered skin.  Just like the Cavs.  Down to one headline player, they managed to force overtime and pull a win on the home court of the team that everyone said they couldn’t beat.  The Grit Squad, they’re calling themselves now.  People are saying the LeBron has taken a team of players that shouldn’t be this good and made them into a force.  That may well be, and if so, LeBron stands to make far more as Coach James than he ever will as King James.

America loves an underdog, but it also loves to dump on Cleveland, so I have no idea how sports fans around the country have seen this series.  What I know now is that, win or lose, the Cavaliers have shown the rest of the country what this city is really like, and for that alone they’ve earned my respect.  I think they deserve the same from anyone who’s witnessed what they’ve done.

So Game 3 is underway, probably close to done or even finished by now.  I have no idea if it was another squeaker or a blowout, nor who won.  As soon as I publish this, I’ll go check on how things went.  For the sake of all my friends, I hope the Cavs made it a win in their first Finals home game—but however things turned out, I’m sure The Q was bedlam tonight as the fans celebrate not just being in the finals, but the spirit of the team that embodies this city I call home.

Untitled

If you do something you love for long enough, it gets into your bones.  But more than that, the things adjacent to it do as well.

Since I got started on the web, very nearly 22 years ago now, I’ve never really seen myself as a designer.  Granted, I did some visual design in the early days, because anyone who set up a web site back then had to be the designer: there was nobody else.  No graphic designers would deign to look at the web, and no “web designers” yet existed.  We were Web Masters because we had to be, drawing buttons and laying out content along with writing code and doing UX and UI and IA and everything else.

So I did design when I had to, but I always knew I wasn’t a capital-D Designer.  I knew this in the same way I knew I was not a boulder nor an odor: it wasn’t a failing or even a lack, but just what was true and even unremarkable.  I was a code monkey who knew his way around Photoshop and could mimic what he saw around him decently enough, but I didn’t have the creative vision or training or, really, inclination to generate my own, unique work.

As we passed out of that epoch of the web, I was more than content to stop trying to design and instead be an enabler of design.  My efforts to teach HTML and CSS had twinned, helical aims: to help anyone who wanted to create a web site share their thoughts, and to help any designer who wanted to create a visual effect share their vision.  I was a technical author, a developer, a sometime observer of design, but never a Designer.  I knew Designers by then, and I knew they possessed a skill and focus I did not.

Which was okay.  After all, I possessed a skill and focus they did not.  Our work was complementary.

What I didn’t realize was that, over all those years, as the knowledge I shared seeped into their bones and became second nature, the same thing was happening in reverse.

For the past few months, I’ve been managing a design project, getting a ton of help from Jason Santa Maria; but I’ve also been the annoying client, making unreasonable demands of everyone involved.  I insisted on changes of direction partway through, and coped with changes of understanding at other points in the process.  I refused to listen to reason at one point, and yielded to reality at another.  For most of it, I compared font faces and sizing, trying to decide which I liked best, telling Jason I wished I could have a little of option A, a little of option B, a dash of option C, struggling to put into words what I could almost see.

Among my friends, I’m vaguely infamous for not being able to tell, at a glance, the difference between Helvetica and Arial.  I’ve seen the detailed analyses of the two, and if I had the exact same run of text in each face, sitting side by side, I could probably do a credible job of figuring out which was which, but give me a standalone block of sans-serif text in Ariatica or Helvetial and my odds of knowing which it is are literally no better than a coin flip.

And yet, there I was, staring at the same layout set in various font faces, feeling the sense of each, obsessed with spacing and intervals and kerning, examining which had the best italics while trying to decide if italics should even be used, if their use conveyed the right message.  I scrutinized the spacing between blocks of text, the alignment of fragments of information, the rhythm of the entire piece, every bit of content.  It wasn’t enough that it be passable, or decent, or even good; it had to be right.  I focused on all the details as well as the overall picture with a will and intensity I had never felt before.

It wasn’t easy.  I massaged my temples as the stress of needing to make exactly the right choice overwhelmed me; I paced around my office, glaring at the alternatives on the monitor every time I passed by; I felt tears of frustration rise as I ran into yet another setback and knew that the final result would not be everything I had originally wanted it to be.  I stood in someone else’s office and rode herd on their archaic software setup, literally telling them where and how many times to click, because that’s what was necessary to get the job done properly.  I wrote and rewrote emails to the various parties in the project, masking my battered spirit as best I could while still being clear about where things stood and where I wanted them to go.

Not, as I say, by myself: Jason was invaluable to getting me off to the right start, keeping me on the right track, and helping me through the setbacks.  I doubt I could have done a tenth as well without him.  But as we progressed, I increasingly felt like I knew what his answers to my questions would be.  My inexperience and fear of error and just plain fear meant I kept checking in with him, but with every iteration, I felt more confident that I already knew the right answers.  In a lot of cases, I made the changes I was already sure he would make, and Jason’s feedback confirmed that I had done right.

Over two decades, I had slowly, unwittingly absorbed everything I needed for this project.  It had seeped into me, creeping out of a thousand Keynote slides and a million words, written and spoken, from my friends and their friends and all the people they looked up to and quoted.

Gradually, I had become a capital-D Designer.  I had a very specific intent to render, and with help and focus, I made the end product as reflective of my intent as possible.  I knew when the design felt wrong, but more importantly, I knew when the design felt right.  And I could see, at first with Jason’s help but increasingly on my own, how to get from one to the other.

This morning, the result was unveiled—literally unveiled, ritually, at the direction of our congregation’s rabbi.  A block of sparkling silver-blue granite carved with a few words of English and Hebrew.  A compact arrangement of text bearing more emotion and meaning than anything I have ever done, horrifying and beautiful, set flush into the earth of Cleveland Heights, where similar markers will one day be set for me and for my wife.

Everything I absorbed over all those years, everything I learned by choice or by chance, and most of all the help I received from everyone who’d ever shared their knowledge and insights with me, all made that possible.  Made me a Designer.

Thank you all.

This article was originally published at The Pastry Box Project on 7 June 2015.

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