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Look Back In Awe

Just in case you haven’t seen it yet, John Allsopp posted a nostalgic note about the early days of CSS.  If you want to know who I hung out with back in the day, John’s got most of the names right there for you, and links to many of them.  There’s even a link to the CSS Samurai page, which I thought was long dead, and was greatly amused to read.

To John’s recollections, I would add Chris Lilley, who’s since been much more involved in SVG and other things; and Susan Lesch, who’s now at the W3C but back then was at  (There’s a reason I didn’t link to that address, by the way.  If you go, make sure you can block popups.)

A more recent event of note is that it was a year ago today that the CSS Zen Garden opened its gates to the world.  Congratulations on an incredible first year, Dave.  I’m honored to have been able to contribute to the Garden in that time, and eternally grateful (and a little jealous) that you created such an awesome resource.  It opened a lot of doors, and a lot more eyes and minds.


April Fools Day has rolled ’round again, and already the confusion is thick in the air.  Doug and Dave have swapped faces for a day (or perhaps longer), much as newspaper comic artists often do.  The WaSP reports that the use of standards has hitherto unsuspected benefits, and Nature is reporting that stronger trade winds have changed the planet’s rotation enough that today should be 2 April, not 1 April.  Global warming is blamed.

Then there are the edge cases.  Google’s announcement of Gmail has now been reported by CNN, The New York Times, c|net, Wired, and more.  It sure seems like an April Fools Day joke on Google’s part, just like Pigeonrank, but heck, it could be real.  Here’s the thing: just because it got reported by major media outlets doesn’t make it true.

I found this out back at the very beginning of 2000.  You all probably remember the Y2K noise leading up to that point; there were reports that vendors had to certify pencils as Y2K compliant in order to sell them.  It got pretty silly.  In the middle of it all, as we went through month after month of analysis and certification of the systems at CWRU, one of the DMS gang said something like, “Are we sure that Aurora [the CWRU Web server] won’t suddenly think it’s January 1900?”  The response was, “I sure hope not, because then it would insist on using a telegraph to connect to the Internet.”  We started riffing on that idea, kicking around what the page design would look like, what kind of news would be there, turn-of-the-century pictures that should show up, and so on.

So we did it.  My co-worker Pam and I went down to the University Archives and found a number of photos that were of the right era and that were clearly allowed to be used (many of them had no known author and so would not pass into the public domain until 2020), and scanned them in.  I created a wood-grain design for the home page, including a modified badge that proclaimed us the “Yahoo! Most Wired College 1899” site.  We had two places  on the page where the year was listed, and I had to deliberately introduce Y2K bugs in order to make them say “January 1, 1900” on that day.  We set up a cron job to roll the old-timey graphics into place at the stroke of midnight on 1 January 2000, and went off to party.

By eight o’clock on the morning of the first, we had several dozen e-mails in the server contact inbox.  They were about evenly divided into people congratulating us on having a sense of humor, and people insulting us for being so stupid as to have suffered a visible Y2K bug on our public Web server.  (I’d like to think that at least some of those were tongue-in-cheek.)  By the end of the day, Wired had reported it as a real Y2K bug, even quoting our message apologizing that the server “believes that it is January of 1900,” and the next day the story was printed more or less verbatim in The Washington Post.  We ended up issuing a press release about it, and the joke design, which was intended to stay in place for a couple of weeks, lasted 33 hours before the administration said, “Yeah, uh-huh, very funny.  Get rid of it.”

As I write this entry, I have no idea if Gmail is an April Fools joke or not.  (Okay, that’s not true.  I have some idea that it’s a joke, but I’m not certain.)  In a way, it’s kind of irrelevant.  The whole situation has simply reminded me that those in the news media can be as easily duped as the rest of us, and that’s something worth remembering in the current political climate.

Ten Years On

It was ten years ago this evening that I marked up my first HTML document.  I know this because I did the whole thing using Microsoft Word on a Mac laptop in the course of a Friday evening at the CWRU Film Society, and I put a “last updated” line on the document.  I never really changed the page after that first burst of effort, because it wasn’t long afterward that I started to get really busy with setting up and running the first Web-only incarnation of and, a short time thereafter, writing the first of three HTML tutorials.

A lot has happened to me in the last decade.  Did you know I was the project leader for the online conversion of the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History and Dictionary of Cleveland Biography, and that it was the first encyclopedia of urban history to be fully and freely published on the Web?  Or that I worked with some CWRU co-workers to create the Borealis Image Server in 1995, which led to a paper presentation at WWW5 in May 1996, where I saw the CSS presentation that changed my life?  I could do those things because I worked for a university, particularly one as advanced (Internet-wise) as CWRU.  I missed out on the dot-com bubble, I suppose, but it was worth it for the low pressure and intellectual freedom that an academic setting promotes.

Even in the real world, a decade is a long time; in Internet years, it’s practically forever.  So when I get, as I sometimes do, crabby and reactionary, just remind yourself that I’m ancient.  Damn kids and your fancy-schmancy gigahertz chips and gooeys… why, when I was a young buck, we were lucky to have a command-prompt system that would compile PASCAL programs in under an hour, but did we complain?  Hell no!  We felt lucky to have so much computing power!

Sorry, I drifted off there for a second.

So, want to see that first document of mine?  It’s right here, still serving after all these years.  Does it validate?  Oh dear Lord no, not even when you force the validator to use HTML 3.2 and ISO-8859-1 character handling.  That was back in the wild days when I thought (as Bill Amend still does, apparently) that <p> was just a shorthand way of writing <br><br> and you could wrap any element around any other element, like putting a named anchor around a heading instead of inside it.  I’d never even heard of a DOCTYPE, let alone “DOCTYPE switching;” my first exposure to CSS was still two and a half years into my future; and David Seigel had yet to show us how to create “killer” Web sites.

Back then, the killer browser was NCSA Mosaic.  Mosaic Communications Corporation was being formed—it was only later that legal wrangling forced a change of name to Netscape Communications.  I still fondly remember the slowly spinning panes in the upper right-hand corner of the first MCC betas, and I wish they’d just changed the “M” to an “N” and kept the animation.  After the name changed, they replaced that interesting and aesthetic effect with a big ugly “N” that went from outset to inset and back, thus causing a mass coinage of the term “throbber” to describe the little animation that tells you the browser is busy doing something.

I also recall the day I found out that typing about:fishcam in Netscape’s address bar would get you The Amazing Netscape Fish Cam.  When I got to create a redesign for the Fish Cam page early this year, it was like a dream come true.  Okay, not really, but it was a thrill.  To remake a page that I remembered so clearly, that wowed me and intrigued me—that alone would have made taking the job at Netscape worthwhile.  (If you’re interested in seeing one of the camera feeds, you should probably go do that as soon as possible.  There’s no way to know when the Fish Cam, rather like Netscape itself, will suffer a pulled plug.)  A close second was when I ended up taking the lead editorial and design role for DevEdge, another early site that I visited quite a lot.

Now that I look back, it seems like fish have been a recurring theme; after all, Cascading Style Sheets: The Definitive Guide has a pair of fish on its cover.  Not only that, but they’re different fish than were initially marketed, because I apparently pulled off the impossible in persuading O’Reilly’s “Animal Lady” to dump the original design and use my idea instead.  I didn’t know it was impossible before trying it, which is no doubt why I succeeded… but that’s a story for some other day.

You might think that after a decade I’d be sick and tired of the Web, but not so.  I’m gearing up for the next ten with my new consultancy, including some awesome clients that induce the same thrills I had working at Netscape; working on a new forum for bringing detailed and useful information on standards-oriented design to you; contributing to an interesting new social-networking technology; and exploring some ideas for ventures that will build on what I’ve already done.

Professionally, it’s been an amazing ten years, and I’m convinced the next ten will be even better.  However much I might complain about writer’s stress or proprietary solutions or what have you, I still enjoy what I do and look forward to doing it.  I’m not always quite sure how I got to where I am, but believe me, I’m deeply grateful that I’ve had the chance to do what I do, and even more so that so many people have supported me over the years.  Thank you, one and all, and I will do my utmost to continue earning your respect and trust in the years to come.

Out of the Past

Yesterday, I finally cleaned out my old desk, which is now Kat’s desk, so she could make use of the drawers.  More than a decade’s worth of mementoes, knick-knacks, toys, scraps, and other oddities were there to be sifted.  It was like digging back through my own past, a sort of temporal archaeology.  There were even pieces of other men’s lives, like my father’s old Zeiss-Ikon camera, still in perfect working order, lent to me years ago and never reclaimed.  Since the desk itself originally belonged to a great-grandfather of mine, the sense of history surrounding the whole process was even heavier.

Not that it wasn’t fun to dig back into the past!  I threw out a whole bunch of stuff, of course, but all my old Animaniacs fast-food toys went to a good home, and I salvaged a number of wall signs whose origin is murky indeed.  So too I rescued some college-era photos, a box of stationery, assorted shoulder patches, and old conference passes.

The top half of a loose-leaf spiral-bound notebook.  The page contains some simple notes about CSS, including the approximate number of properties and ways to associate CSS with HTML.

And then, in a medium-size blue notepad with the name “Lysa” inexplicably written across its front in thick black marker, I found several pages of handwritten notes regarding HTTP 1.1, HTML 3.2, PICS, and several other technologies.  These were the notes I took sitting in the W3C track at WWW5—and there, in the middle of it all, were the notes I took as I encountered CSS for the very first time.  I checked the agenda for that conference, which was still with the conference pass, and discovered that the date for the presentation “Cascading Style Sheets and HTML” was Wednesday, 8 May 1996.  That was a good seven months before CSS1 was made a full Recommendation.

It’s a distinctly odd feeling to hold this loosely bound collection of paper in my hand and think about all that sprang out of that one, simple little page.  I was also amused to see that my notes, as minimal as they are, don’t validate (can you spot the error?)

There were other things rescued from the desk cleaning yesterday, of course.  There’s a box of memories sitting in a corner of my office now… but this one notebook made the whole experience worthwhile.  Just for a minute, as I flipped to that page, I remembered once more what it felt like to be completely blown away by a new technology and to know, beyond any doubt, that it was going to change my entire life for the better.  At the time, I just thought it would make my Webmastering job both simpler and more interesting, but even then, it was enough.  There was an incredible promise there, and I wanted more than anything to see where it led.

I still want that, even today.  For all that’s been learned, and all the things that have been done to make CSS the important piece of Web design it’s become, there is still a vast amount of uncharted territory.  I haven’t added anything to css/edge in quite some time, but the statement made there is still true.  We haven’t figured out everything CSS can offer us, even today, and as support improves and the specification is enhanced, we’ll be able to do still more.

I can hardly wait to see what’s next!

Voices in the Wilderness

I’m back from Los Alamos and out from under the worst of the e-mail avalanche.  Northern New Mexico is beautiful in its own way, although a touch too barren for my tastes.  But only a touch.  For a landscape junkie like me, the cliffs, river gorges, and mountains were definitely a potent mix.  The far better mix was the conversations with Jeff and Carrie about the Web, the world, and our lives.  Sometimes the best way to discover yourself is by talking to someone else.

The presentations the three of us gave at the Los Alamos National Laboratories seemed to be very well received, and the people there couldn’t be a nicer bunch.  Which seems a little odd, when you think about what they do there.  I subconsciously expected a bunch of white-coated square-jawed men with clipboards and cold eyes talking about the amazing potential of the atom to bring about world peace and the inevitable triumph of American science.  Perhaps I watched a few too many 1950’s-era science fiction movies as a kid.

In a post on Webdesign-L, Karl Dubost has reminded me just how smart Chris Lilley really is.  From a post Chris made to www-html in late May 1994:

As soon as images were allowed inline in HTML documents, the web became a new graphical design medium. Some people will just want to put out text, but some will want to apply graphical design skills and make a document….  If style sheets or similar information are not added to html, the inevitable price will be documents that only look good on a particular browser, at a particular window size, with the default fonts, etc.
—Chris Lilley

Karl’s post arose in the context of a conversation about the concept of “graceful degradation,” which is the idea that a properly created document will be usable in older user agents, even if it doesn’t look quite the same.  (Well, okay, it’s a lot more than that, but in the context of Web design, that’s what most people mean.)  Karl rightly points out that the term needs to be replaced with something that doesn’t sound quite so bad.  Of his suggestions, I think the best is “graceful flexibility,” and it’s a term I intend to start using from now on.

I updated the Color Blender to accept three different CSS color value formats (four if you count shorthand hex as separate from regular hex).  Thanks to Steve Champeon and Holly Marie for spurring me to do so.  I can think of two more things to add to it—a swatch-picker as suggested by Roberto Díez, and a color-wheel type picker—but they probably won’t happen any time soon.

December 2016