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Individuals and Communities

I was quickly skimming through David Brin’s rantblog (because frankly I don’t have the six hours it would take to read through all his very lengthy posts) when I came across a quote that resonated so strongly, I had to reproduce it here.

The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual.  The impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community.

— William James

This almost perfectly captures how I’ve tried to shape css-discuss and other communities in which, over the years, I’ve been deeply involved or had a hand in founding.  It is a very good starting point to understanding my views of society, politics, and more.  I’m literally considering putting up a framed copy on my wall, right next to my print of “Jump Station“.

But that’s me.  What do you think is the best relationship between individual and community?  How should they balance, or not?  What’s the best way to inspire and maximize both?

Thanks Be To Jobs

The big day is finally here.  It’s a day for which so many of us have impatiently waited for so long, almost writhing in anguish as we were denied all but the smallest glimpses of the object of our desires.  It is a day that will demonstrate as never before the possibilities inherent when the relentless march of technological progress is matched with a singular vision and a dedicated team of world-class technoartists.  It is the day that is, in many ways, the culmination of all the magic and wonder that Steve Jobs has brought to the world over the past two decades.

That’s right: Ratatouille opens today.

Oh yeah, and there’s some new cell phone coming out.

Avast!

Nick Finck just pointed me at his latest Flickr contribution—a screenshot of a site that ripped off the design of Digital Web.  I immediately tagged it “piratedsites” in honor of the late, great pirated-sites.com, figuring that doing so had to be a widespread practice.  In fact, no: only one other Flickr image had that tag, and it was a Zeldman original, and it was not a screenshot.

So I hereby propose that anyone who posts a site design ripoff shot on Flickr or a blog tag it “piratedsites”.  The original site may be gone, but the idea can absolutely be reborn using the social tools we already have.  Technorati, for example, would start pulling together screenshots and blog posts using that tag—and there you go.  Or someone could use the Flickr and Technorati APIs to create their own site dedicated to just this sort of thing.  Heck, it might even be a way to get the actual pirated-sites.com back on the air in its original form!

Out the scurvy dogs!  Arrrr!

Diverse Links

  • mezzoblue: Homogeneity?

    There’s really nothing in the post I don’t want to quote, but this bit in particular jumped out at me:

    …as a conference organizer, you tend to be conservative. You need to ensure a speaker list that will fill seats. This isn’t “we want to maximize profit” filling of seats either, this is “holy crap we just signed a contract that would put us out multiple tens of thousands of dollars if we don’t hit certain numbers”. When you book larger venues, you make commitments and really put yourself on the line financially. Those who haven’t run conferences simply can’t understand what a nerve-wracking experience this is.

  • Brian Oberkirch: Identity Is a Mashup

    This is an ongoing debate (as it has to be) though the argumentation tends toward the self-righteous, self-evident mode: look at all these white boys on the roster. What are they thinking? I think we can do better. I think we have to do better.

    On that post, a comment by Derek Powazek

    One of the reasons I got very excited about the internet when I discovered it in the 90s was because, finally, here was a place where race, gender, and religion truly did not matter. Where you could succeed or fail on the strength of your ideas alone – not what color you were or what junk was in your pants.

    I still believe this to be true.

  • Hamm on Wry: Post Gender Preferences

    I don’t see how being male, female, white, black, brown, purple, queer, asexual, cancerous, capricorn or a carrot would matter if you happen to also be a professional in the web-standards-meets-development world. I would, honestly, attend a speech given by a carrot if that carrot was recognized as a leader in the field. That’s what professional speeches are all about.

  • Jason Friesen {dot} ca: Diversity Wars

    To me, this is the key to being race- and gender-neutral — actually not caring about a person’s race or gender, but simply whether they can contribute what is needed in a given situation.

  • Adactio: The diversity division

    I firmly believe that conferences shouldn’t simply be mirrors for the Web business, reflecting whatever is current and accepted. A good conference can act as a force on the industry. Conference organisers have a great opportunity here and I think it’s a shame to see it wasted.

  • Digital Web Magazine: Beyond the A-List, Diversity in the Web Community

    I am going to go out on a limb here and use smart mob mentality here. If you know of a web professional who is talented, has done some remarkable things, and should be speaking at some web design conferences by all means let us know…

  • Meri Williams: Conference Diversity .. the Permathread Returns

    You never know, we might just change the world.

Diverse Reactions

I had most of a followup to yesterday’s post written, all reasonable and spiked with some humor and maybe a little dry, which I suppose is what most people have come to expect from me in general, and then it fell apart in concert with my inner stability.

I’ve definitely incurred a lesson in “post in haste, repent in leisure”.  The internal aftereffects of the post have been extensive and unexpected.  I don’t have them all sorted out yet; it may take months.  I don’t even have names for all the things that have roiled up.  I may be undergoing a drastic phase change in my thinking, or I may just be grieving something I didn’t know I mourned, or perhaps I’m raging against a world I sometimes feel powerless to alter.  I don’t know.  I do know that if I’d known this would be the effect of posting, I’d never have done it—which is one of the best arguments in the world for having done it.

I’ll not mince words: I screwed up pretty badly yesterday.  The real question is how.  I’m not sure I’ll know the answer for a long time.  Was my mistake in speaking honestly?  Was it in how I wrote it all down?  Was it in the rhetorical approach I took?  Was (is) the flaw intrinsic to me?  Am I the very problem I so much want to eliminate?

If I have erred and caused harm by that error I apologize.  I am as ever human, mistakes and all, flaws aplenty, and while that’s an explanation, it’s not an excuse.  It is never, ever an excuse.

I am deeply sorry today, but not for what I was trying to say.  I might be sorry for how I said it, or for a number of other things.  I know I’m sorry for causing hurt in others.  That was the last thing I wanted.  I was trying to make a positive statement, trying to detail what I find to be an empowering concept.  A lot of people were supportive, but a number of people, many of whom I respect and some that I care for and a few that I love, were disappointed by what I had to say.  I disappointed them, some very badly, which means I’ve let them down.  And I really, really hate letting people down.

And here’s the worst part, the absolutely darkest most awful painful part of the entire situation: I let them down by being myself.

That tears.  It rips ragged claws of paradox across my throat, up my jawline, through my brow.

In my head, I know that the recipe for failure is trying to please everyone, but my heart doesn’t buy it.  I’m human, and no matter how impossible the task I want to be what everyone wants me to be.  Which I can’t be.  I can only be myself.  I can only hope to improve myself.  And I can only do that according to what I truly believe, down at my core, because one person’s improvement is another person’s step backward, and changing oneself to meet the expectations of others is a fool’s game at best.

I am who I am, and it will not be to everyone’s liking.  I will never see the world in the ways that everyone wishes me to see it.  This is an essential truth, something that should be obvious to anyone, the sort of thing one should never think of trying to contradict.

And yet.

I know that there were a number of people who understood what I was saying and agreed with me, who in some cases were proud of me, and that they are no less important than those who didn’t understand or who did understand and were disappointed.  I should concentrate on that balance, see the whole mixture, but I’m just not wired that way.  For whatever reason, my genetics or my upbringing or whatever it is, I can’t help but focus on the negatives.  In this case, on those I let down.

There’s no reason for sympathy here.  I knew the third rail was fully electrified, and I chose to tap dance upon it.  The outcomes of that choice will serve to teach me, if I listen—but what I will learn is still very much an unknown.  I only hope that, in the end, it confers a net positive effect on me and the world around me.

Diverse It Gets

This post is probably going to get me burnt to a tiny, mewling crisp, but that’s okay.  I can take it.

I also want to make it very clear that what I write here reflects my personal views.  It does not in any fashion represent the official policy of An Event Apart LLC or its associated conferences.  However, it’s obviously the case that, as a co-founder of the company and an organizer of said conferences, my views influence what happens there.  Just don’t think for an instant that I speak for Jeffrey in this, nor that I am declaring official company policy.  This one’s all me.

So, here it is:  as a conference organizer, I don’t care about diversity.

All right.  Take a minute to reduce the boil in your blood to a bare simmer, and bear with me.  I’m going to explain what I mean, and illustrate as best I can.  I hope that by the end, you’ll better understand my point of view, even if you don’t agree with it.

Yesterday, Jason Kottke posted the percentage of female speakers at recent and upcoming web conferences.  I note he didn’t include the one-day Event Aparts from last year, where our speaker lists ranged from 0% female (most of them) to 25% female (Austin) to 40% female (Seattle), but that’s okay.  Maybe he was only considering “bigger” conferences.  Early on, he wrote:

Each time this issue is raised, you see conference organizers publicly declare that they tried, that diversity is a very important issue, and that they are going to address it the next time around.

Well, I’m hereby bucking that trend.  In my personal view, diversity is not of itself important, and I don’t feel that I have anything to address next time around.  What’s important is technical expertise, speaking skills, professional stature, brand appropriateness, and marketability.  That’s it.  That’s always been the alpha and omega of my thinking, and it will continue to be so the next time, and time after that, and the time after that.

You’ll note that nowhere in that list do you find gender, race, creed, or any other such parameter.  Those things are completely unimportant to me when organizing a conference.  (Or, really, when I’m doing almost anything.)  Hopefully, you’ll also note that I have not said that speakers should always be white males.  If that’s what you think not caring about diversity means, then sorry, you’re wrong.  At least you’re wrong in my case.  I can’t speak for others.

I will admit that we’ve seen a little bit of pushback on this issue.  The gender imbalance of the upcoming Boston show was pointed out to us by one of the speakers, and I’m sure someone’s eventually going to ask us where the women are in Seattle.

I’ll slightly sidetrack to address Seattle, since it illustrates one aspect of how speaker lists are decided.  With Web Directions North just concluded in Vancouver, we made a tactical decision to try not to repeat any speakers from WDN at our Seattle show.  Retaliation?  Nope; simple marketing.  If our Seattle speaker list looked like even a partial re-run of WDN, then where’s the incentive to go to AEA?  Unfortunately, that left us fairly high and dry with regard to many of the best-known names in our field, including the best-known women.  Nothing against the WDN crew: we’re all friends here; they had the earlier show; and nobody held a gun to our heads and forced us to go to Seattle in June.  That’s just how things turned out.

So that left us four women down in terms of who we could consider inviting to Seattle.  You might say: well, that’s fine, but what about getting other women on stage?

Okay, who?

Before you answer, remember that An Event Apart is a web development best practices conference.  Our brand promises to bring you the biggest names in the field of standards-oriented design and closely related fields, and to have those people talk about what they see next, to push the envelope just a little further out, to show the audience old things in new ways, and so on.  Therefore, it relies on populating the stage with widely known and respected people, on having speakers who are instantly recognizable as relevant to what the attendees do and what they want to learn.

So someone might suggest that we invite, say, Natalie Jeremijenko.  I’d immediately sit bolt upright with interest: I love her stuff.  She’s the kind of artist-engineer-hacker I would want to be if I were to choose that sort of career path.  Her ideas and projects completely fascinate me.  I would love to see her present on what she’s doing and thinking and seeing in the world, and to have the chance to meet her in person and express my deep and abiding admiration.

But then the conference organizer in me would slump back.  She’s not well known in the web design/development field, and she doesn’t really work in that field anyway.  As brilliant and talented and amazing and wonderful and female as she is, she doesn’t belong on our stage.  Other stages, absolutely!  (If MAKE: ever does a conference, they’d be idiots not to invite her.)  But not ours.

Call that decision a manifestation of old-boy clubbiness if you want, but it isn’t.  It’s the natural result of defining a brand and sticking to it.  Should Slipknot be the opening act for a Tim McGraw/Faith Hill tour?  Should Rick Santorum be the opening keynote at the Democratic National Convention?  Should I be a speaker at the Blog Business Summit?  Should men be on stage at BlogHer?

No.

Look at the authors of the best-selling books in the field.  Look at the folks behind the most widely followed web sites.  Look at the names that come up whenever someone asks who are the most respected and influential people in web design and development.  How many are female?

A few.  Not many.  (And most of them spoke in Vancouver.)  So is the gender imbalance in the eye of the organizers, or is it in the very fabric of the industry?

Allow me to illustrate by way of digression.  A couple of years back, I was asked to do a book project that I couldn’t take on.  So I posted here, asking people what recognized names in the industry they’d recommend to write such a book.  I got over one hundred responses before I closed the comments.  Know how many women’s names I got?  Six out of fifty-six; that’s about 10.7%.  Two of those women landed in the top ten, and the rest got a mention or two.  (Anne van Kesteren doesn’t count, since he’s male; he’s also Dutch.)

Still, we might take that list and assume that of the most respected names in the CSS field, 11% are women.  You might conclude, then, that any CSS-centric conference (which AEA is not, but bear with me) should never have less than 11% female speakers.  Fine.  So that also means that no CSS-centric conference should have less than 89% male speakers, right?

Hey, how come the room got so suddenly quiet?  And why all the pitchforks?

For me, when it comes to planning an A-list conference, I look for A-list speakers, by which I mean speakers who will be regarded as A-list by our audience—the same audience that came up with a list of 56 people, 10.7% of which were female and 89.3% of which were male.

For that matter, it’s very important that our speakers be good public speakers.  Bobby or Bobbi Speaker could be the very top name in their area of expertise, but if they’re a train wreck on stage, then no thanks.  In our internal discussions, we’ve rejected some names because they are known to be poor speakers.  (They were all men, as if that matters.)  We’ve also pursued some speakers who we know are simply fantastic on stage.  (From both sexes, as if that matters.)

So, like I said before, when I’m thinking about a speaker list, I care about expertise, speaking skills, stature, appropriateness, and marketability.  I’m just not interested in a person’s plumbing.  I care about what they know, how they’re perceived in the industry, how well they fit the conference’s brand, and how well they do on stage.

Now, here’s where you get to show me my blind spots:  let me know who has been overlooked by conferences in general, female or otherwise, and why they shouldn’t be overlooked any more.  As an organizer, I’m interested for the usual business and brand reasons; personally, I want to know because I always want to learn new things and hear from new voices.  I’ll absolutely give consideration to any name you mention for AEA speakership—but everyone will be considered using the same set of criteria, and their plumbing isn’t part of that set.

Addendum 24 Feb 07: my poor use of language created a massive ambiguity which has left many with the wrong impression.  I used “diversity” to mean mostly “gender diversity”, as it was used in the piece to which I was responding.  I did not say, nor did I mean to leave the impression I was saying, that I am uninterested in conceptual diversity, diversity of thought.  It seems that I did leave that impression, and for misleading others, I very much apologize.  (That the misleading was unintentional is beside the point.)

Being Professionals

Looks like the idea of a professional organization for web designers is back in the feeds.  Mark Boulton, after listening to the Hot Topics panel from @media 2006, had quite a bit to say about the idea.  Richard Rutter followed up with thoughts of his own, and then D. Keith Robinson chimed in.  There are probably more posts out there by more people, because this is one of those topics that just spreads like a virus, infecting host after host with a copy of itself.  (If you have one, feel free to drop a link in the comments.)

Since Mark started things off by mentioning my comments about education being behind the times (but didn’t actually link to me like he did everyone else; where’s the love, Mark?), I’ll start there.  I still hold that certification is much too premature for our field.  Even if we could wave a wand and create a good set of certification criteria in the next week, it would be out of date within a year.  Anything that wouldn’t go out of date that quickly would be so basic as to make a mockery of the whole idea of certifying someone as competent in the field.

I’ll concede that if a relatively well-funded organization took on the task of creating and (more crucially) keeping up to date the criteria, they could be kept useful.  Hey, maybe an independent W3C!  Well, it’s a thought.

The deeper problem is in deciding what constitutes professional competence.  Does using AJAX get you bonus points, or automatically disqualified?  Does absolutely everything a developer produces have to validate, even if that breaks layout or interactive features in one or more browsers?  Web design isn’t like chemistry, where the precipitate either forms or it doesn’t.  If chemical engineers had to work in conditions equivalent to web developers, they’d have to mix their solutions in several parallel universes, each one with different physical constants, and get the same result in all of them.

Richard’s take is that certification could be based on relevant education and cross-discipline experience.  Well, that leaves me out: my degree in History isn’t likely to be considered relevant.  Then again, I’m not actually a web designer, so maybe Richard’s organization isn’t for me.  I might be considered a developer, but on the other hand, maybe I’m just a technology writer and need to go apply for membership in their club.

Richard’s approach doesn’t really seem to make the “what qualifies” problem go away so much as it abstract it into a non-issue.  You just have to have experience in a discipline.  Nobody says it has to be particularly good or bad—though evaluating that would, apparently, be up to the peers who review your application.  This introduces an interesting subjective element, one that I think may feel foreign to those of us who like to work with computers.  In any organization composed of humans, of course, you’re not going to get away from subjectivity.

In all this, though, the people who are interested in creating a professionals’ organization will have to answer a fairly tough question.  Given that both the World Organization of Webmasters and HTML Writers Guild already exist and offer certification, why aren’t they more widely known or highly regarded, and how will any proposed organization do better?  What will make it better or more influential?

Of everyone, I think Keith’s got the best idea with his proposed professionals’ network.  It’s probably game-able, but heck, so is entrance into a professional society.  I know I’d be very interested in participating in such a network, especially one that let people indicate who they’ve worked with, and on what.  Analyzing those link patterns could be endlessly fascinating.  If it includes community features similar to those of the original MeetUp, thus encouraging physical meetings of members, as well as the endorsement and networking features of LinkedIn, I’d be there in a hot second.

So… who wants to start forming the team to make that network come alive?

High-Profile Cooking

Kat and I were watching “Good Eats” the other night, and as Alton slid a dish into a nice toasty warm 350-degree oven, I suddenly sat bolt upright.

“Hey, that’s our oven!” I blurted out.

Kat and I (okay, mostly Kat) recently decided that enough was enough, and that our old oven had to go.  It was a Jenn-Air that came with the house, and frankly, it was either not very good in the first place or else had just been beat all to hell.  Cramped, dark, and uncalibrated—and with an unreadably worn set of control dials to boot—it was time for the warhorse to go.

After a good deal of research, Kat settled on a GE JK955 electric double oven, which we were relieved to find fit almost exactly into the space where the old oven was, once we removed a couple of drawers.  It’s got all kinds of toys and features that would send any food-porn addict straight into overdrive, including a built-in probe thermometer.  It even has a nice warm proofing function, which is one of the reasons Kat picked it.

There is one thing about it that cracks me right up, and that’s the Sabbath mode.  Seriously.  When you put it into Sabbath mode (the display reads “SAb bATh” when you do so), it will help you observe Orthodox Jewish law as regards the Sabbath.  Really!  See, you’re not allowed to do any work on the Sabbath, which includes things like turning lights on and off.  Ovens fall under that restriction as well, which makes cooking dinner a bit tough.  However—and here’s the funky part—you get off the hook if you don’t directly cause the work to occur.  If the work happens indirectly, then you’re okay.

So when the oven is in Sabbath mode, you input the temperature and cook time you want.  Then you press start, and for a random amount of time that ranges from 30 seconds to a minute, nothing happens.  Then the oven kicks on.  Ta-daaa!  Indirect action!  Sure, you pressed all those buttons, but the random time delay is enough to get around your religion’s restrictions on Sabbath work.  It’s all, pardon the term, kosher.  Check out the Wired article about the man responsible for Sabbath mode, if you don’t believe me.

I’m still trying to decide if this letter-of-the-law approach lessens my respect for Orthodox Jews’ conception of religion, or if I have more respect for their pragmatic willingness to hack the problem.  I think it’s the latter.  Apparently there’s still no progress on a molecular screen that will prevent the insertion of porcine products into the oven, so I guess some things are still up to the individual.

So not only do we have a frum oven, but without realizing it we had settled on the same model that A.B. himself uses, which is about as weighty an endorsement as we can imagine.  (Of course, his is the larger unit, but that’s okay—ours fills its space very nicely, thank you.)  The degree to which this makes us feel all smug and superior is probably cause for alarm.  If you hear our friends are getting ready to stage an intervention, well, that’s probably why.

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