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Shock and Awe

I almost feel like the Presidential election didn’t happen.

You see, for the entire second half of Election Day, from almost noon until after midnight, Eastern time, I was aboard a Continental flight to Tokyo.  We had video-on-demand systems but not live satellite television, so as we arced over Canada, Alaska, and the northern reaches of the Pacific Ocean, we flew in ignorance.  As Jeremy Keith put it regarding his own flight to Japan, we were aboard Schrödinger‘s Airplane.

For me, the wave collapsed as we began the initial descent toward Narita.  One of the flight attendants, having announced that they were starting the initial-descent procedures and would like us to check around our seats for any personal items we might like to start stowing, added:  “And for those of you interested in the results of the election, we have a new President: Barack Obama.”

There was a burst of applause from the economy section of the plane.  In business class, there was silence.

Well, not quite.  I was myself sitting in business class, thanks to a great big pile of reward miles and some lucky timing in calling the airline.  As I heard her say Obama’s name, I let out an involuntary “Wow“.  Because until that moment, deep down I had believed, truly believed, that Mr. Obama would not win the Presidency.  That was not the outcome I desired, but it was the outcome I expected.

I am in many ways ashamed of my doubts and fears, because I had thought less of my fellow Americans than they deserved.

Since then, from here in Tokyo, I’ve felt weirdly disconnected from what’s happened.  In time zone terms, I’m fourteen hours in my home’s future, half a day ahead of everyone back home.  But because I received word after it was all over and soon after slept through America’s Wednesday daylight hours, I feel like I’m a day behind.  Time and distance combine to create a feeling of disconnectedness from the end result, as though I’m getting word of election results in Germany or India or Australia: interesting, but something seen at a remove.

It’s odd.  I’m used to being an observer, but this is something else entirely.  I think it’s pure astonishment.

People and Places

I don’t know about you, but I find the results of the People magazine cover Ericsperiment (thanks for the term, Bob!) to be quite interesting.  The boiled-down version of the results is: just about everyone saw what I did, but nearly everyone drew the wrong conclusions about what I was saying.  (What?  I’ll explain.)

First, I want to address a couple of objections that were raised.  The first was: “It’s just a family photograph”.  No, it’s not.  It’s a magazine cover shoot.  Those things are planned, directed, and executed down to the tiniest detail.  If you think it’s just a family portrait, you’re either being willfully obdurate or else completely ignoring the context.  That’s a mistake, because context is everything.  I’ve been involved in a few portrait sessions of no public reach whatsoever, and the photographer is always telling people where to stand or sit, adjusting the angle of people’s arms, getting them to fractionally tilt heads one way or the other, shifting people an inch or two, and so on.  “Just a family photo” is when the magazine gets a real family photo, taken by an amateur using a consumer-grade camera during a vacation, and puts it on the cover in a white Polaroid-esque frame at a 15-degree angle.

The second was that the image is a Photoshop job, created either by assembling individual shots or altering a group photo.  Maybe, maybe not; either way, Photoshopping or a lack thereof is completely irrelevant to my point.  If it wasn’t Photoshopped, then the photographer is responsible for the arrangement of the shot; if it was, then it’s the Photoshopper who bears responsibility.  Either way, someone arranged the shot, and did so very badly.

So here’s what I saw: “large group” and “outsider”.  That was the immediate message.  Look at the cover again, paying attention to where the faces are.  There’s a blob of faces above the headline text, which is the group.  Then there’s a face to the left of the headline text, which is the outsider.

This is completely independent of the race, color, gender, creed, etc. of the people in the photo.  The visual message is “here’s a bunch of people, plus a hanger-on”.  Not because of color, which is what most people assumed I was talking about (and more on that in a minute).  Because of placement.

Though I think this unlikely, you may not quite be seeing it.  In that case, imagine a cover image with nine faces in the same places, only they’re of religious deities.  Or pop stars.  Or CEOs.  Or heads of state.  Or conference speakers.  Or browser-team leads; heck, even browser logos.  Whichever it is, imagine your favorite of each group is in the lower-left position, with all the others up above.  Feel good about that?  Even neutral?  Still think there’s no message being conveyed by that placement?

(And if you still aren’t seeing it, maybe a comparative example, courtesy George Butler, will provide some insight.)

Now, given that one of the people has been placed as an outsider, the natural next step is to wonder why they’ve been so placed.  And here, there are obvious visual differences that jump right out:  like being female, having darker skin, and being younger.  Already primed to ask “Why is this person an outsider?” we can find apparent reasons, and in this case they’re touchy ones.  If you know the background story of the family, then there’s a non-visual one as well: that she’s adopted.

But remember, I’m not saying Bridget (the young lady in that position) has been excluded for any of those reasons.  I’m saying that having been given a visual cue that she is excluded, we look for reasons to explain that exclusion.  That’s exactly what most of the people who responded to my post about the cover did.  All those people saw it, consciously or otherwise, and responded to the message… and then took that next step, trying to find reasons to explain the message.  Then, as per each individual’s feelings and experiences, they reacted, either accepting or rejecting what they thought I was saying.  Interesting, though, that so many people came to the same conclusion about what they thought I was saying.  That’s evidence of a strong message, whether or not said message was intended.

And that is the failure that occurred, one which I lay squarely at the doorstep of the magazine.  I might also toss in a head-slap to the campaign, if they saw the image and gave approval to use it—such pre-approval is sometimes, but not always, an option.  The problem with that composition should have been obvious from the outset, and avoided.  That it wasn’t makes me wonder a number of things about the magazine.  Taking a teenaged girl and putting her in the outsider spot?  Seriously?  How callous do you have to be to do that?

Oh, and special postscript to all the people who took the time to share their pitying sorrow over how “you Americans” are so race-aware:  I know it’s a tragedy, but remember, we’re still a young country and have not had the same lengthy maturation time you’ve enjoyed.  So please, try to remain patient with us while segregation, anti-immigrant violence, race riots, tribal warfare, and ethnic cleansing uniquely wrack our poor, blighted country, and continue to hope that one day we’ll join the rest of the world in the tranquil harmony that so characterizes your enlightened societies.

Placement

I was in line to buy a few groceries and spotted the latest issue of People magazine in the point-of-sale magazine rack, the one with the McCain family on the cover.  Something about the cover just seemed a little bit… off.  Do you see it, too?

There’s a metaphor there, but I’m having trouble deciding exactly what it is, or perhaps more accurately to whom it applies.

Seriously, I’m not generally one to read messages into things—in fact, I probably lean too far the other direction—but on this?  Somebody needs to be fired for gross negligence, because there’s a message being sent here, intentionally or otherwise.  In fact, it’s worse if it’s unintentional.  The question is who was negligent.  The photographer for not seeing what the placement communicated?  The editor for approving use of the image on their cover?  The McCain campaign for approving the image in the first place?

Maybe all of the above.

I’ll be very interested in people’s responses on this one… and even more in People‘s response, should anyone ask them about it.

Crafting Ourselves

My referrers lit up recently due to Jonathan Snook’s article about CSS resets and how he doesn’t use them.  To Jonathan and all the doubters and nay-sayers out there, I have only one thing to say:

Good for you.

Seriously; no sarcasm or passive-aggressiveness intended.  If I thought my reset styles, or really anything I’ve ever published or advocated, was a be-all end-all ultimate solution for every designer and design that’s ever been and could ever be, I’d be long past due for six rounds on the receiving end of a clue-by-four.

Reset styles clearly work for a lot of people, whether as-is or in a modified form.  As I say on the reset page, those styles aren’t supposed to be left alone by anyone.  They’re a starting point.  If a thousand people took them and created a thousand different personalized style sheets, that would be right on the money.  But there’s also nothing wrong with taking them and writing your own overrides.  If that works for you, then awesome.

For others, reset styles are more of an impediment.  That’s only to be expected; we all work in different ways.  The key here, and the reason I made the approving comment above, is that you evaluate various tools by thinking about how they relate to the ways you do what you do—and then choose what tools to use, and how, and when.  That’s the mark of someone who thinks seriously about their craft and strives to do it better.

I’m not saying that craftsmen/craftswomen are those people who reject the use of common tools, of course.  I’m saying that they use the tools that fit them best and modify (or create) tools to best fit them, applying their skills and knowledge of their craft to make those decisions.  It’s much the same in the world of programming.  You can’t identify a code craftsman by whether or not they use this framework or that language.  You can identify them by how they decide which framework or language to use, or not use, in a given situation.

Craftsmanship is something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit recently, as has Joshua Porter.  I delivered a keynote address on that very topic just a few days ago in Minneapolis, and my thinking infuses both of the talks I’m giving next week at An Event Apart New Orleans.  I’ve started looking harder for evidence of it, both in myself and in what I see online, and I believe striving toward being a craftsman/craftswoman is an important process for anyone who chooses to work in this field.

Because this isn’t a field of straightforward answers and universal solutions.  We are often faced with problems that have multiple solutions, none of them perfect.  To understand what makes each solution imperfect and to know which of them is the best choice in the situation—that’s knowing your craft.  That’s being a craftsman/craftswoman.  It’s a never-ending process that is all the more critical precisely because it is never-ending.

So it’s no surprise that we, as a community, keep building and sharing solutions to problems we encounter.  Discussions about the merits of those solutions in various situations are also no surprise.  Indeed, they’re exactly the opposite: the surest and, to me, most hopeful sign that web design/development continues to mature as a profession, a discipline, and a craft.  It’s evidence that we continue to challenge ourselves and each other to advance our skills, to keep learning better and better how better to do what we love so much.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Set Preferences

In his inaugural “Dork Talk” column for The Guardian, Stephen Fry talked about something I’ve been mulling over for the last little while:

Very little is as mutually exclusive as we seem to find it convenient to imagine. In our culture we are becoming more and more fixated with an “it’s one thing or the other” mentality. You like Thai food? But what’s wrong with Italian? Woah, there… calm down. I like both. Yes. It can be done.

It’s always tempting to make jokes about how computer folks are binary thinkers (har de har har), but the sad joke is that most people think that way, computers notwithstanding.  I don’t think we can blame the digital age for “you’re either with me or against me” thought patterns.  And those who don’t generally think that way, whether naturally or with effort, get treated with some degree of suspicion.

This is something I run into professionally, not incredibly often but still enough to notice, and it’s frustrating when I do.  The only slightly exaggerated version is:

“Hey, do you use Dreamweaver?”

“Nope.”

“Why?  What do you have against Dreamweaver?”

If that seems outré, replace “use Dreamweaver” with something else, like “run Linux” or “watch Fox News” or “drive a Chevrolet”.

I wish I could write in 500-foot flaming letters across the skies of every country of the world in localized translations: An expression of preference does not equate criticism of differing preferences.  It’s really that simple.  My lack of using or doing or watching or liking X does not mean I think people who use or do or watch or like X are subhuman air-wasters, let alone that I claim such a position.

If more people really understood that statement and used it as a principle of daily interaction, I think we’d all be a lot less tense.

Director’s Commentary

In this latest resurgence of the “are blog comments distilled joy or pure evil?” conversation, I got tagged by Alastair Campbell as someone whose site has good comments.  This would be a great time for an abashedly mumbled “aw, shucks, it ’tweren’t nuthin'”, except saying so would be a complete lie.

Want to know how I get good comments?  I work for them.  Part of that is striving to write good posts that will get good comments.  Another part is leading by example.  And a third part is a willingness to filter the comments I get, and saying as much up front.

The first part is in many ways the hardest, because what I think is a good post may be judged otherwise by my readers.  I could spend days and days and days on a post that merits a collective “meh”.  From that, I learn.  If this were solely a “me shouting whatever comes to mind” site, then I wouldn’t care so much, but this is a conversation site.  The goal here is not for me to pronounce my views from on high and thus change the world.  The goal here is to share information, with the sharing going in both directions, and thus change ourselves.

The second part is a lot easier for me, but seems to be harder for some.  It’s very, very rare that I will post confrontationally or abusively.  The few times I’ve done so, I’ve gotten some strong pushback, and no wonder.  The vast majority of the time, the posts conform to the site’s overall Airbag Blog Advisory System warning level of Guarded (“Someone might disagree with you, but only after apologizing for it first”).  Unsurprisingly, the non-spam comments that come in are respectful, helpful, and civil about 99% of the time.  Whether the tone of the site only draws people who are naturally that way or it shepherds all kinds of people in that direction is unknown, and to me wholly irrelevant.

It’s also the case that when the comments and the post match in tone, it’s much more likely that subsequent comments will keep to the same tone; that is, that the commenters help me in setting the tone for the site.  And I always, always appreciate that they do so.  (So thank you!)

The third part can be taken one of three ways.  You can say that I’m like a curator who lovingly tends a growing collection of thoughts and contributions, only excising those that would damage the overall whole; or that I’m a tiny fascist who only lets through comments that meet my personal standards of acceptability.  The thing is, both are true (which is the third way you can take it).

Y’see, this here blog is to me an extension of my home.  In my house, some things are acceptable and others are not.  Nobody is allowed to smoke in my house, for example.  In terms of speech, I’m pretty tolerant of what others have to say, but there are lines and I will enforce them.  Have enforced them, in fact, usually gently—although I once very nearly ejected an out-of-town friend who was staying with us from my house for something that was said.  And no, I won’t tell you who or why.

So as I say, you can take that as abrogation of my visitors’ freedom of speech and an exercise of my right to make my home the kind of place I want it to be.  It really is both.  I don’t see that as a problem.

I treat css-discuss the same way, actually.  It is, and always has been, a benevolent dictatorship, with policies that are enforced.  When people go off-topic, the moderators say so and end the threads.  When people get abusive, they’re warned to stop it, and can and will be ejected from the list.  In fact, I’ve done so twice in the list’s five-year history.  The moderators and I work actively to shape the list, and it has paid off.  The community now mostly polices itself, and the need for moderator intervention is becoming more rare.  Over time, it’s become a very helpful community with a very high signal-to-noise ratio.  Others have observed that it’s spawned one of the few truly useful group-run wikis in the world.  None of that just magically happened.  It required years of effort by me, and then by the moderation team.

(And before someone says that a small mailing list is different than a globally available blog, remember that css-d has over 8,300 subscribers from all over the world.)

The other person who got mentioned in Alastair’s post as having a good-comment home was Roger Johansson, who recently contributed his own thoughts on the topic.  In that post, he hits a lot of the pros and cons of allowing comments: the feedback, the spam, the community, the abuse.  One of the most subtle effects of comments is that it does make you think harder about what you post:

I realized that as I was writing I had started to subconsciously think about what kind of comments a post would trigger. I found it harder and harder to write freely, and to express myself the way I really want to.

It’s the same for me.  The few times I’ve posted things I knew were going to contentious, it was after a lot of thought and consideration.  In fact, almost everything I post goes through some degree of pre-approval based on what kinds of comments I think it will trigger.

Where I would seem to part ways with Roger is that I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  One of the things those opposed to blog comments cite is John Gabriel’s Greater Internet F—wad Theory (warning: contains strong language)—as if it only applied to commenters.  The basic anonymity of the Internet isn’t a case of not knowing names: it springs from the very, very low chance that we’ll ever meet in person.  It applies just as much to those who write blog posts as those who comment on said posts.

Still, that sounds like I’m allowing the community to impose some constraints on me.  Actually, it doesn’t sound like that: it is that.  But I choose to do that, and frankly, I don’t think anything is lost in the bargain.  Quite the contrary.  I think more than a little is gained.

So weirdly enough, I find myself in disagreement with Joel Spolsky when he says:

The important thing to notice here is that Dave [Winer] does not see blog comments as productive to the free exchange of ideas. They are a part of the problem, not the solution. You don’t have a right to post your thoughts at the bottom of someone else’s thoughts. That’s not freedom of expression, that’s an infringement on their freedom of expression.

It’s the last sentence where I disagree, not the rest of it, which is provided for context.  That last sentence is like saying that when I have an in-person conversation, anything the other person says is an infringement on my freedom of speech.  In fact, it’s like saying that my response to his post infringes on his freedom of speech.  Which is just silly.

Neither is my pre-filtering of posts an infringement of my speech.  I am not forced to allow comments, nor to pre-judge my posts based on the expected reaction.  It is something I voluntarily accept as part of having an extended conversation.  If I felt that was becoming too much of a burden, I’d turn off comments.

I don’t have comments here out of obligation to some imagined right.  I have them because they’re invitation to contribute, to enrich, to converse.  Just look at what happened with the reset styles: over the course of a few posts, my original work was built upon and improved.  The same thing happened in the early days of S5.  Without comments, neither of those efforts would have gone as far nor been as well-developed as they eventually were.  No, not even with e-mail, which is one-to-one and so doesn’t allow for the commenters to converse with each other.

Of course, not everyone wants to have a conversation right on their site, which is fine as well.  I don’t think Daring Fireball is lessened for its not having comments.  But part of the reason I think that is that John, being a strongly opinionated sort, would probably get the same kinds of comments in return; the bread you cast upon the waters will be returned to you tenfold.  And the fact that much of his posting is about Mac and Windows wouldn’t help much, either.  Nothing invites comment incoherency faster than having a blog about a contentious issue.  (See also: political blogs.)

As well, there’s nothing that says one must have comments always on, or always off.  It’s generally the case that I don’t open comments on the most personal of my posts, particularly those about Carolyn.  In those cases, I close comments because I’m writing them for me and to share those moments with the world, and don’t want positive or negative feedback.  They’re not meant to be conversations, in my view.  They’re snapshots.

(I’ll admit that I may be influenced by the fact that it was a Carolyn-related post that earned me one of the most vitriolic personal attacks that I’ve allowed to stand.)

It is absolutely the case that having good comments is hard work.  It requires leading by example and a willingness to curate/censor the comments that do come in.  And I absolutely think that anyone unwilling or unable to do that work should disable comments.  Because when a site’s comments devolve into “Useless noise[;] Thoughtless drivel written by some anonymous non-entity“, that’s as much the responsibility of the site’s author as of the commenters themselves.

Thus, for meyerweb, I hold to the inverse of Jeremy’s corollary of Sturgeon’s law: here, comments should be enabled 90% of the time.  I would not think to apply either rule to the world at large, of course.  For many sites, comments probably should be off by default.  But not for mine.

Torna A Surriento

Ma nun me lassà, Nun darme stu turmiento!

Luciano Pavarotti died last night of pancreatic cancer at the age of 71.

Among my “classical” recordings, the original Three Tenors concert holds a special place, one that has survived nearly every iPod reorganization I’ve undergone.  What I find most fascinating about that recording is the marked contrast between the three stars, and just how much Pavarotti stands out.  I’ve thought about the reasons why that is, and I think it comes down to his restraint in the use of vibrato.  Whenever I hear a singer whose long notes are more warble than tone, I wince.  I recognize the physical skill that goes into producing the sound, but the result is actually uncomfortable to me.  This is why there’s hardly a soprano I can stand; they all seem to exist solely to find long notes to strangle.

Pavarotti, in contrast, used vibrato as a shading on his notes.  At their core, they were long and pure and steady.  Yes, at times he went for all-out vibrato, but it always seemed to make sense when he did.  He wasn’t warbling to show that he could do it; he did it when and how it was right.  That, coupled with the sheer power of his voice, creates an emotional punch that I’m powerless to comprehend but joyful to behold.

I listened to some Pavarotti this morning, and though his heartbreaking renditions of “Nessun Dorma” and “Torna A Surriento” have always misted me up a little, this time there was an extra tightness in my throat.

Part of me hopes that nobody is asked to sing at his memorial services; or, if anyone is, that they turn down the invitation.  Nobody could do the job as well as he would have.

E noi dovrem, ahimè, morir, morir!

Contrived Conflicts

CSS Sculptor got a very nice write-up from King Z over at The Daily Report, for which I thank him profusely.  I think he’s pegged the tool pretty well in terms of its intent and target audience(s).

What mystified me was the turn the comments took: suddenly they went from giggling over the splashimation and exhortations to port Sculptor to other environments (Coda got several mentions) to an multi-party argument over which was better, Sculptor or Project VII‘s CSS Layout Magic.

Um, why?

As Al Sparber, creator of Magic, stated quite accurately, “They are two very different tools conceived in very different ways”—nothing to add to that, really.  But even if we were to imagine a world where they were very similar tools that operated in very similar ways, I still don’t see why it would have to be a “battle” situation.  It’s not like our world is so small that there’s only room for one of any given thing.

I mean, take a step back and look at the wider development landscape.  There are a whole bunch of web development environments out there (Dreamweaver, Expression, Coda, Firefox with extensions, etc.).  All of them serve the community, each in its own way.  Each is used by a community of people, many of whom gather to help each other improve their skills.  Why try to create conflict between those communities?  What useful purpose could that possibly serve?  We’d be as well served to start a Mac vs. Windows vs. Linux debate.  Which is to say, not at all.

And so it is with the artificial conflict that so mystifies me, that of Sculptor vs. Magic.  Project VII has very loyal customers, and rightly so: they put out great stuff.  I hope that we’ll also have loyal customers, because that will mean we also created something great.  (Obviously, I already think we did, but then I would, wouldn’t I?)  It seems kind of obvious to me that these two communities have way more in common than they do differences.  My usual reaction on encountering someone who’s a huge fan of a web site or a piece of software is to smile and nod knowingly, like we’re part of a secret club or something.  Because in a sense, we are.  We get fired up by the same kinds of things.  We’re our kind of people.

I admit this is veering dangerously close to plaintive “can’t we all just get along?” territory, but c’mon, folks.  There’s already more than enough tension and conflict in the world.  Let’s try not to add to it, yeah?  Now everybody throw the hörns!  Seriously, throw ‘em, and put in a little “ROCK!” just for me.  You’ll be amazed at how much better you feel.

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