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A New Chapter

Last Wednesday, I stood on the stage at An Event Apart for the first time in almost fifteen months, in front of an audience for the first time in just over a year, and delivered the most important talk of my life.  It wasn’t about CSS, or coding, or even standards.  It was about design and empathy and user experience and my own personal experience and what it taught me.  It was a talk about designing for users who are in the midst of crisis, no matter what kind of content you have, no matter whether you think your users will ever be in crisis when they come to your site.  It was the opening of a new chapter in my career.

To say this is a radical departure is an understatement.  But after the turns my life has taken, it was almost impossible that this would have been anything less.

I don’t know if the audience sensed my anxiety and fear in the moments before I spoke.  I wasn’t afraid of speaking in front of the audience, nor of their reaction to my points.  I was afraid of making my points badly, so that the message was lost in hesitation and stumbling.  I was afraid of fumbling and failing, not because of how I would look in public, but because it would mean doing a disservice to the message I was trying to convey.  And I was a little bit afraid of letting down the team at AEA, who have stood by me and done so much for me.

In the past, I haven’t really rehearsed my talks.  They were all technical, covering territory I knew very well.  The cliché is “Don’t prepare a talk, prepare yourself.”  In other words, know your subject so well that you can just talk about it for an hour.  That’s how I approached all my presentations.  I had high points to hit, slides (or demos) in a certain order, but no actual script.  I didn’t need one.  CSS was so familiar to me, I could mostly improvise what I said.

But this new talk is entirely about territory new to me.  In some cases, it involves things that are new to everyone—ideas I’ve come up with, and techniques I’ve devised, that I’ve never seen before, and nobody I’ve talked to has seen before.  It took no particular act of genius to do this; I just tried to simulate certain frames of mind with software.  The only insight there was to realize that it should be tried at all.

Beyond the topic area, everything about this talk is unusual for me.  I wrote it out as if composing an article, and read the text aloud several times to figure out what had to change.  Once the text was set, I rehearsed more than a dozen times, which partly explains the complete blogging silence of the past month.  I memorized the opening and closing sections of the talk verbatim, going over them in my head before bed, sitting on the plane to Florida, pacing in my hotel room.  On Sunday afternoon before the show opened, I went into the ballroom and essentially gave the talk to myself and the techs putting the lighting and AV together, getting reacquainted with being on stage and throwing my thoughts into the world.

And then, Wednesday morning, after Jeffrey introduced me, I stood center stage, looked out into the audience that held hundreds of my colleagues as well as my sister and parents, paused for a moment… and started talking.

Several people told me they were holding their breath in that pause, wondering if I’d be able to start.  That wasn’t my concern.  My concern was that I would lock up a few minutes in—that I’d stumble, lose my place, and go tharn.  Once I got through the opening and the first screenshots came up, I knew that danger was past.  Whatever else, I’d be able to carry it to the end.  And I did.

As I said before, that talk marked the opening of a new chapter for me.  I’m not abandoning CSS by any stretch, and in fact I’m moving forward on that front as well, but a goodly portion of my energies will be devoted to this new topic.  I think it’s not just important, but vital, and very much overlooked.  I have research to do, ideas to test and further develop, and a lot of thinking ahead of me.  I have this talk to give at An Event Apart throughout 2015.  There will probably be articles, and possibly a book.  Perhaps even more.  I don’t know yet.

What I know is that I’m on a new path now, one I wish I hadn’t come to by this route, but one that I’m determined to follow.  I hope to take what I’ve suffered and forge it into positive, lasting change—not just for me, but for the profession and medium I still love after all these years.

AEA Orlando: Special Edition

Yesterday, the team at An Event Apart unveiled a special addition to our schedule: a Special Edition event, to be held at The Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World this coming October 27-29, 2014.  That’s right: we’ll be there during both the EPCOT International Food & Wine Festival and Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party at the Magic Kingdom.  If you’ve never been to the Halloween Party, you should make it a point to go.  It’s really great.  The Imagineers go all-out to add fun Halloween touches all over the park, perfectly pitched to be spooky while still being, well, not so scary.  And as for the Food & Wine Festival, yum!  It’s actually where I discovered the one form of alcohol I can stand, and there are some great food stalls scattered all around the World Showcase.

But of course, you’ll really want to be there for An Event Apart!  We’re adding a lot of new and interesting enhancements to this show.  In addition to the brand-new Gold Pass, which includes (among other things) a backstage tour of Walt Disney World, AEA Orlando: Special Edition will feature three full days of talks, eighteen speakers in all.  I’m incredibly pleased and excited to say that I’ll be among them, delivering a talk on design.  Yes.

As regular readers know, I’ve had to withdraw from almost all travel and speaking this year, including for An Event Apart, and it’s been tough to be away.  I love what Jeffrey and I have created.  I love being there to hang out with other members of the tribe.  I love being able to learn from the best and share a piece of what I know.  It was absolutely the right decision to stay home with my family in this time, but still.  I miss being there, and I can’t wait to return.

And when I do, I’ll be presenting not about CSS, but about design and how to do it better.  Specifically, the talk is called “Designing for Crisis”, which draws on my experiences of the past seven months to illustrate how design can let people down when they most need its help, show examples of design that does help people in crisis, and explore ways to approach design in order to not let those people down.  Because if you’re helping people in crisis, you’ll be helping those who aren’t in crisis as well.

It’s a big departure for me.  For many a year now, I’ve been the guy who geeks out onstage over trippy selectors and obscure browser bugs.  You know, a CSS nerd.  But as I considered whether I had anything to say in Orlando (and at Rustbelt Refresh, which invited me to speak around the same time), I slowly realized that this talk was in my head and that I was incredibly passionate about getting it out.  I could see the narrative, the lessons I could underscore with it, and the advice I would give to designers.  I haven’t been this consumed by a talk in quite a while.

I hope you’ll be there to see and hear it, but even if that doesn’t sound entirely like your cup of tea, there are seventeen other amazing speakers filling up all three days—Karen McGrane, Mike Monteiro, Jenn Lukas, Luke Wroblewski, Jaimee Newberry, Scott Berkun, and so many more.  We have the complete schedule up now, so go, bathe in the awesome and make your plans to join us!

(P.S.  If it will take you a while to get approval, better start the ball rolling now.  We’ve already had a number of registrations in the 30 hours since we made the surprise announcement, and this event being as new and different as it is, we honestly don’t know long tickets will last.)

On Stage and Off

We now (sort of) interrupt the stream of Rebecca updates for a professional update.

Given the situation with Rebecca, I’ve obviously had to make some serious adjustments to my speaking and travel schedule.  I had to cancel my appearance at the CSS Dev Conference later this month, which is a bit of a shame since I was looking forward to taking the hotel elevator at night, soaking up the CSS genius from all the other speakers, and connecting with some college friends I haven’t seen in almost 20 years.  I also had to withdraw from the CERN Line-Mode Browser Dev Days, which was a real letdown for me as an amateur web historian as well as a high-energy physics fanboy.

I also had to drop myself from the remaining An Event Aparts of 2013, as well as first few of 2014.  The reason for the extended withdrawal from the AEA stage is that in the event the cancer treatments fail and the cancer returns, the odds are very high that it will do so in the first year after diagnosis.  That first year is also the period in which Rebecca will be getting some fairly strong chemotherapy, and is likely to be in and out of the hospital on a semi-random basis.  It would be unfair to pretty much everyone I can think of for me to commit to a bunch of speaking and then cancel some of it at the last minute.  I’m sorry to be absent at my own show, but life can be like that sometimes.  Like now.

I am, on some level, sorry that I had to cancel so many events.  Not that I feel like I made any choices for which I have to apologize, of course.  I’m just sad about the way life turned, and wistful for the missed connections-that-would-have-been.

This doesn’t quite mean that I’ll be total hermit, though: I have two talks happening this month, one in Philadelphia and the other in Cleveland.

The first is an evening talk at Drexel University in Philadelphia on Wednesday, 23 October.  This will be a modified version of the talk I gave at AEA earlier in 2013, tuned for the web design students who will be in the audience but of interest to anyone (who hasn’t already heard it).  It’s now called “<strong> Layout Systems”, and we’ll be kicking things off at 7:00pm, with a completely open-topic Q&A immediately after the presentation.  The event is free and open to the general public, so if you feel like dropping by the Drexel campus that night, I’d love to say hi!

A few days after that, I’ll be speaking at the CWRU ACM chapter’s Link-State 2013 conference, October 26-27.  My topic will be CSS fonts and the crazy, crazy things you can (or can’t) do with them in current browsers.  The prices are pretty great—free for CWRU students, $10 for everyone else—so if you feel like dropping by the CWRU campus the weekend before Halloween, I’d love to say hi!

Basically, I’d love to say hi.

Next up should be an update on the writing side of my professional life, including what’s next (and what’s already available!) for CSS: The Definitive Guide, 4th Edition.

Events Sold Out and Coming Up

Just before noon (Eastern U.S. time) today, An Event Apart Minneapolis sold its last available seat.  That’s three events so far in 2010 and three sell-outs.  If you were hoping to join us in Minneapolis but hadn’t registered yet, we’re sorry we won’t see you there!  You can contact our Event Manager to get put on the waiting list, or you can join us for one of the remaining two shows of the year: Washington DC and San Diego.

There are strong reasons to prefer either one.  In Washington DC, we’ll have our second-ever A Day Apart, a full day of in-depth learning with Jeremy Keith and Ethan Marcotte taking on the topics of HTML5 and CSS3, respectively.  We ran A Day Apart in Seattle earlier this year as something of an experiment, and it was such a huge hit that we immediately decided to add it to a future show.  We settled on Washington DC for a variety of reasons, not least of which was that the hotel had the space available to add a third day.  So far as we know it’s the last time we’ll do A Day Apart in 2010, so if you’re interested, it’s the place to be.

San Diego, on the other hand… well, it’s San Diego!  In November!  It’s also the last chance to see our 2010 lineup of speakers, who’ve been consistently hitting it out of the park with insightful thinking and bold challenges to the status quo.  We may never again see this particular combination of pure smarts and talent, so if you can’t make it to DC (or you’d rather just hit the beach in advance of Thanksgiving) then come on down.

From mobile design to advanced CSS to the latest in HTML5 to smart content to wonderful design, the sessions at AEA this year have been outstanding.  The audience feedback has been really incredible, almost overwhelming.  If you haven’t seen this year’s lineup, you should really consider checking it out.  We’d love to see you there!

(P.S. Want to hear more about An Event Apart’s origin story, growth, vision, and future?  Tune in to The Big Web Show this Thursday at 1pm Eastern U.S.!  I’ll be a guest along with Andy McMillan—he of the fabulous Build Conference of Belfast—talking about web conferences and more.  And if you miss the live show, don’t worry; there will be a lovingly edited version up shortly after we’re done taping.)

Web 2.0 Talk: HTML5 vs. Flash

Earlier this week I presented a talk at the Web 2.0 Expo titled “HTML5 vs. Flash: Webpocalypse Now?” which seemed to be pretty well received.  That might be because I did my best to be unbiased about the situation both now and into the future, and also that the audience was very heavily weighted toward web stack practitioners.  Seriously, out of 100-150 audience members, about six raised their hand when I asked who was developing with Flash.

Many people have asked if the slides will be available.  Indeed so:  head on over to the session page, which I encourage attendees of the talk to visit so that you can leave a rating or comment on the session.  The 5.4MB PDF of my Keynote slides is available there whether you attended or not.

While I was at the conference I was also interviewed by Mac Slocum on the topics of the HTML and Flash, and that’s been put up on YouTube along with interviews with Brady Forrest and Ge Wang (both of whom are awesome).  I haven’t watched it so I don’t know how dorky I come off but I’ll bet it’s pretty dorky.

I indulged in a little good-natured ribbing of Adobe at the front of the interview (I kid because I love!) but the rest of it is, as best I recall, a decent distillation of my views.  I’m hoping to get a few more detailed thoughts written and published here in the next week or two.

Many thanks to Brady Forrest and the entire Web 2.0 crew for having me on stage and getting me out to San Francisco.  It’s always a great place to visit.

Better PDF File Size Reduction in OS X

One of the things you discover as a speaker and, especially, a conference organizer is this:  Keynote generates really frickin’ enormous PDFs.  Seriously.  Much like Miles O’Keefe, they’re huge.  We had one speaker last year whose lovingly crafted and beautifully designed 151-slide deck resulted in a 175MB PDF.

Now, hard drives and bandwidth may be cheap, but when you have four hundred plus attendees all trying to download the same 175MB PDF at the same time, the venue’s conference manager will drop by to find out what the bleeding eyestalks your attendees are doing and why it’s taking down the entire outbound pipe.  Not to mention the network will grind to a nearly complete halt.  Whatever you personally may think of net access at conferences, at this point, not providing net access is roughly akin to not providing functioning bathrooms.

So what’s the answer?  ShrinkIt is fine if the slides use lots of vectors and you’re running Snow Leopard.  If the slides use lots of bitmapped images, or you’re not on Snow Leopard, ShrinkIt can’t help you.

If the slides are image-heavy, then you can always load the PDF into Preview and then do a “Save As…” where you select the “Reduce File Size” Quartz filter.  That will indeed drastically shrink the file size—that 175MB PDF goes down to 13MB—but it can also make the slides look thoroughly awful.  That’s because the filter achieves its file size reduction by scaling all the images down by at least 50% and to no more than 512 pixels on a side, plus it uses aggressive JPEG compression.  So not only are the images infested with compression artifacts, they also tend to get that lovely up-scaling blur.  Bleah.

I Googled around a bit and found “Quality reduced file size in Mac OS X Preview” from early 2006.  There I discovered that anyone can create their own Quartz filters, which was the key I needed.  Thus armed with knowledge, I set about creating a filter that struck, in my estimation, a reasonable balance between image quality and file size reduction.  And I think I’ve found it.  That 175MB PDF gets taken down to 34MB with what I created.

If you’d like to experience this size reduction for yourself (and how’s that for an inversion of common spam tropes?) it’s pretty simple:

  1. Download and unzip Reduce File Size (75%).  Note that the “75%” relates to settings in the filter, not the amount of reduction you’ll get by using it.
  2. Drop the unzipped .qfilter file into ~/Library/Filters in Leopard/Snow Leopard or /Library/PDF Services in Lion.  (Apparently no ~ in Lion.)

Done.  The next time you need to reduce the size of a PDF, load it up in Preview, choose “Save As…”, and save it using the Quartz filter you just installed.

If you’re the hands-on type who’d rather set things up yourself, or you’re a paranoid type who doesn’t trust downloading zipped files from sites you don’t control (and I actually don’t blame you if you are), then you can manually create your own filter like so:

  1. Go to /Applications/Utilities and launch ColorSync Utility.
  2. Select the “Filters” icon in the application’s toolbar.
  3. Find the “Reduce File Size” filter and click on the little downward-arrow-in-gray-circle icon to the right.
  4. Choose “Duplicate Filter” in the menu.
  5. Use the twisty arrow to open the duplicated filter, then open each of “Image Sampling” and “Image Compression”.
  6. Under “Image Sampling”, set “Scale” to 75% and “Max” to 1280.
  7. Under “Image Compression”, move the arrow so it’s halfway between the rightmost marks.  You’ll have to eyeball it (unless you bust out xScope or a similar tool) but you should be able to get it fairly close to the halfway point.
  8. Rename the filter to whatever will help you remember its purpose.

As you can see from the values, the “75%” part of the filter’s name comes from the fact that two of the filter’s values are 75%.  In the original Reduce File Size filter, both are at 50%.  The maximum size of images in my version is also quite a bit bigger than the original’s—1280 versus 512—which means that the file size reductions won’t be the same as the original.

Of course, you now have the knowledge needed to fiddle with the filter to create your own optimal balance of quality and compression, whether you downloaded and installed the zip or set it up manually—either way, ColorSync Utility has what you need.  If anyone comes up with an even better combination of values, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.  In the meantime, share and enjoy!

Translations

Update 2 Aug 11: apparently there have been changes in Lion—here’s an Apple forum discussion of the problem.  There are two workarounds described in the thread: either to open and save files with ColorSync Utility itself, or to copy the filter to another folder in your Library (or install it there in the first place, above).

Update 27 Mar 12: edited the Lion install directory to remove an errant ~ .  Thanks to Brian Christiansen for catching the error!

London CSS/XHTML Workshop

Hey all, and especially those of you in the EU: I’m going to be doing an all-new one-day workshop in London in early March via the offices of Carson Workshops, for whom I’ve done workshops in the past.  Previously I’ve done two-day gigs with a beginner-to-intermediate skill range, but this time we’re trying something different.  I’m going to get down and dirty with some tough topics, and really push hard at the limits of what CSS and semantic markup can do.

You can get the details at the CW site, and note the special price for the first quarter of the seats.  That’s right, this will be a small, intimate workshop, with plenty of chances for questions about and challenges to what I’m saying.  Previous workshops have featured some really great conversations among everyone there, and I expect the same this time around.

I had meant to blog this before life intervened and took me out of my wifi cloud (and more on that soon), so time is a little more of the essence than usual—if you know someone who you think might be interested, pass the word on, willya?  Thanks!

Caught In The Camera Eye

Just when you thought the whole embedded-video thing couldn’t get any worse, here I come with videos featuring, well, me.

The most recent is a short clip from one of my presentations at An Event Apart back in April, debug / reboot, where I comment at my usual pace on the suppression of quotation marks in my reset styles and why I think relying on browser-generated quotation marks is a bad idea.  You also get to see my hair before it got to be the length it is now, which is even longer.  There’s a complete transcription on that page, by the way, courtesy Mr. Z.

Then there’s the vaguely silly one, in which I attempt to debug my clothing while sitting in my living room.  The main takeaway here, I think, is that my speech patterns on stage are just about the same as those in “regular life”.  Pity my family.

So there’s me in the movies.  It’s nowhere near as epic-ly mëtäl as some other folks’ videos, but I suppose we all do what we can.

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