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On Writing

Our situation, and my posts, have been the cause of sleepless nights and fallen tears for a great many people.  In some ways I feel bad about that; it occasionally feels like I’m forcing our pain onto other people, which isn’t exactly a friendly thing to do.  But I know you’re here because you want to be here for us, and here, words are how we commune.

But why, I am occasionally asked and occasionally ask myself, am I writing about Rebecca’s cancer instead of doing other things?  There are a number of reasons.

Part of it is that I’m creating a precisely timestamped chronicle for later, the historian in me asserting itself.  This is where a lot of my tweets come from, as well: the desire to record something at the moment, so that later I’ll be able to say whether X happened before or after Y or how many days apart two events actually were.

But it’s also for Joshua, if he wants to know more about his sister and what happened to her, when he’s older; and for Carolyn, if she ever wants to revisit this time or see it from my perspective, to compare against her memories.  And perhaps for others, if I ever decide to collect these fragments into some sort of longer work.

More importantly, writing about what’s happening and how I feel about it allows me to organize my thoughts and give some structure to what’s happening.  In a situation where so much is beyond our ability to do anything at all, this is something I can shape directly.  It allows me to feel some small measure of influence.  It lets me face my fears by naming them.  It helps me get a handle on a few shards of this overwhelming thing that defies any real understanding.

And of course I’m grieving online.  I do that here so that I can put it away elsewhere, so to speak.  When I’m with the kids, I can be there for them as the father I’ve always been and hope to keep being, rather than the hollowed-out ruin I sometimes feel like.  Grieving here, through the words that come to me, makes that easier to do.  So I write and tweet.  A little bit of pressure release.

But most of all, I am sharing Rebecca with you, with anyone who will listen.  We’ve always felt it’s up to our kids to become themselves and then bring themselves to the world in their own way, to meaningfully affect it and be affected by it.  In the words of Khalil Gibran:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

We’ve always meant for our children to fly free of their own accord, on the arc of their choosing, when they were ready.  Rebecca will almost certainly not have that opportunity.

So now we are her archers.  In the Web, I have a bow that can send her arrow all the way around the world.  If her flight is to be short, then let it be far, a trail of purest fire etched across every sky, more beautiful and wondrous than any comet could ever hope to be.

Guidepost

As a followup to the recent public-speaking post, I want to talk about what’s happening with CSS: The Definitive Guide, 4th Edition.  So I will!

As many of you know, O’Reilly and I have been trying a new serial publication approach in which pieces of the book are released as they’re finished, generally at the ratio of one chapter per “pre-book”.  There are now five such books covering the first six chapters of the final book:

  • CSS and Documents, which covers the raw basics of how CSS is associated with HTML, including some of the more obscure ways of strapping external styles to the document as well as media query syntax.  It’s free to download in any of the various formats O’Reilly offers.
  • Selectors, Specificity, and the Cascade, which combines two chapters to cover all of the various Level 3 selector patterns as well as the inner details of how specificity, inheritance, and cascade.  It’s $4.99 to download, $9.99 to get on paper, and $10.99 to get both.
  • Values, Units and Colors, which covers all the various ways you can label numbers as well as use strings.  It also takes advantage of the new cheapness of color printing to use a bunch of nice color-value figures that aren’t forced to be all in grayscale.  $2.99 to download, $7.99 to print, $8.79 for both.
  • CSS Fonts, which dives into the gory details of @font-face and how it can deeply affect the use of font-related properties, both those we use widely as well as many that are quickly gaining browser support.  $5.99 to download, $7.99 to print, $8.79 for both.
  • CSS Text, which covers all the text styles that aren’t concerned with setting the font face—stuff like indenting, decoration, drop shadows, white-space handling, and so on.  $3.99 to download, $4.99 to print, $5.49 for both.

If you’re curious to know what other people think of these pre-books, all of the above except for “CSS Documents” and “CSS Fonts” have some customer reviews; “CSS Fonts” was recently reviewed by Virginia DeBolt.  If anyone who already has one wants to leave a review here in the comments, that’s fine too, though I’ll probably ask you to submit said reviews over at O’Reilly.

Given that all those are out, what’s next?  If I were to go by final-book-table-of-contents order, the next chapter would be “Basic Visual Formatting”, but I’m not going to do that, which is one of the big advantages of this approach.  Instead, my next topics are going to be transforms, transitions, and animations, and then flexbox.  Of course, all such plans are subject to change, but those are the topics I really want to do next, and they’re probably the most relevant topics to be talking about right now.

Given everything happening in my family’s life right now, I’m not going to try to commit to a specific schedule, because I might have to drop everything at next to notice at random.  All I can say is that I’ll be getting them out as soon as I can.

Pricing ‘CSS:The Definitive Guide’

When I announced the serial publication of CSS: The Definitive Guide, Fourth Edition, I failed to address the question how pricing will work.  Well, more decided to break it out into its own post, really.  As it turns out, there are two components to the answer.

First component is the pricing of the pre-books.  Roughly speaking, each pre-book will be priced according to its length.  The assumed base for the electronic version is $2.99, and $7.99 for the print version, with significantly longer pre-books (say, one where two chapters are combined) priced somewhat higher.  How much higher depends on the length.  It’s possible that prices will drift a bit over time as production or printing costs change, but there’s no way to guarantee that.  We’re basically pricing them as they come out.

At the end of the process, when all the chapters are written and bundled into an omnibus book edition, there will be discounts tied to the chapters you’ve already purchased.  The more chapters you bought ahead, the deeper the discount.  If you bought the pre-books direct from O’Reilly, then you’ll automatically get a discount code tailored to the number of pre-book you’ve already bought.  If you bought them elsewhere, then O’Reilly’s customer service will work to create a comparable discount, though that will obviously be a slower process.

The second component is: how much will the codes cut the price of the final, complete book?  That I cannot say.  The reason is that I don’t know (nor does anyone) what minimum price O’Reilly will need to charge to cover its costs while taking into account the money already paid.  I’m hopeful that if you bought all of the pre-books, then the electronic version of the final book will be very close to free, but again, we have to see where things stand once we reach that point.  It might be that the production costs of the complete book mean that it’s still a couple of bucks even at the deepest discount, but we’ll see!  One of the exciting things about this experiment is that even my editor and I don’t know exactly how it will all turn out.  We really are forging a new trail here, one that I hope will benefit other authors—and, by direct extension, readers—in the future.

‘CSS: The Definitive Guide’, Fourth Edition

I’m really excited to announce that CSS: The Definitive Guide, Fourth Edition, is being released one piece at a time.

As announced last week on the O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing blog, the next edition of CSS:TDG will be released chapter by chapter.  As each one is finished, it will go into production right away instead of waiting for the entire omnibus book to be completed.  You’ll be able to get each standalone as an e-book, a print-on-demand paper copy, or even as both if that’s how you roll.  I’ve taken to calling these “pre-books”, which I hope isn’t too confusing or inaccurate.

There are a lot of advantages to this, which I wrote about in some detail for the TOC post.  Boiled down, they are: accuracy, agility, and à la carte.  If you have the e-book version, then updates can be downloaded for free as errata are corrected or rewrites are triggered by changes to CSS itself.  And, of course, you can only buy the pre-books that interest you, if you don’t feel like you need the whole thing.

I should clarify that not every pre-book is a single chapter; occasionally, more than one chapter of the final product will be bundled together into a single pre-book.  For example, Selectors, Specificity, and the Cascade is actually chapters 2 and 3 of the final book combined.  It just made no sense to sell them separately, so we didn’t.  “Values, Units, and Colors”. on the other hand, is Chapter 4 all by itself.  (So if anyone was wondering about the pricing differences between those two pre-books, there’s your explanation.)

If you want to see what the e-book versions are like, CSS and Documents (otherwise known as Chapter 1) has been given the low, low price of $0.00.  Give it a whirl, see if you like the way the pre-books work as bits.

My current plan is to work through the chapters sequentially, but I’m always willing to depart from that plan if it seems like a good idea.  What amuses me about all this is the way the writing of CSS: The Definitive Guide has come to mirror CSS itself—split up into modules that can be tackled independently of the others, and eventually collected into a snapshot tome that reflects a point in time instead of an overarching version number.

Every pre-book is a significantly updated version of their third-edition counterparts, though of course a great deal of material has stayed the same.  In some cases I rewrote or rearranged existing sections for greater clarity, and in all but “CSS and Documents” I’ve added a fair amount of new material.  I think they’re just as useful today as the older editions were in their day, and I hope you’ll agree.

Just to reiterate, these are the three pre-books currently available:

  • CSS and Documents (free) — the basics of CSS and how it’s associated with HTML, covering things like link and style as well as obscure topics like HTTP header linking
  • Selectors, Specificity, and the Cascade — including all of the level 3 selectors, examples of use, and how conflicts are resolved
  • Values, Units, and Colors — fairly up to date, including HSL/HSLa/RGBa and the full run of X11-based keywords, and also the newest units except for the very, very latest—and as they firm up and gain support, we’ll add them into an update!

As future pre-books come out, I’ll definitely announce them here and in the usual social spaces.  I really think this is a good move for the book and the topic, and I’m very excited to explore this method of publishing with O’Reilly!

Same As It Ever Was

I recently became re-acquainted with a ghost, and it looked very, very familiar.  In the spring of 1995, just over a year into my first Web gig and still just over a year away from first encountering CSS, I wrote the following:

Writing to the Norm

No, not the fat guy on “Cheers.”  Actually, it’s a fundamental issue every Web author needs to know about and appreciate.

Web browsers are written by different people.  Each person has their own idea about how Web documents should look.  Therefore, any given Web document will be displayed differently by different browsers.  In fact, it will be displayed differently by different copies of the same browser, if the two copies have different preferences set.

Therefore, you need to keep this principle foremost in your mind at all times: you cannot guarantee that your document will appear to other people exactly as it does to you.  In other words, don’t fall into the trap of obsessively re-writing a document just to get it to “fit on one screen,” or so a line of text is exactly “one screen wide.”  This is as pointless as trying to take a picture that will always be one foot wide, no matter how big the projection screen. Changes in font, font size, window size, and so on will all invalidate your attempts.

On the other hand, you want to write documents which look acceptable to most people.  How?  Well, it’s almost an art form in itself, but my recommendation is that you assume that most people will set their browser to display text in a common font such as Times at a point size of somewhere between 10 and 15 points.  While you shouldn’t spend your time trying to precisely engineer page arrangement, you also shouldn’t waste time worrying about how pages will look for someone whose display is set to 27-point Garamond.

That’s from “Chapter 1: Terms and Concepts” of Introduction to HTML, my first publication of note and the first of three tutorials dedicated to teaching HTML in a friendly, interactive manner.  The tutorials were taken down a couple of years ago by their host organization, which made me a bit sad even though I understood why they didn’t want to maintain the pages (and deal with the support e-mail) any longer.

However, thanks to a colleague’s help and generosity I recently came into possession of copies of all three.  I’m still pondering what to do about it.  To put them back on the web would require a bit more work than just tossing them onto a server, and to make the quizzes fully functional would take yet more work, and after all this time some of the material is obsolete or even potentially misleading.  Not to mention the page is laid out using a table (woo 1995!).  On the other hand, they’d make an interesting historical document of sorts, a way to let you young whippersnappers know what it was like in the old days.

Reading through them, now sixteen years later, has been an interesting little trip down memory lane.  What strikes me most, besides the fact that my younger self was a better writer than my current self, is how remarkably stable the Web’s fluidity has been over its lifetime.  Yes, the absence of assuredly-repeatable layout is a core design principle, but it’s also the kind of thing that tends to get engineered away, particularly when designers and the public both get involved.  Its persistence hints that it’s something valuable and even necessary.  If I had to nominate one thing about the Web for the title of “Most Under-appreciated”, I think this would be it.

In Defense of Vendor Prefixes

…that having been the original working title for “Prefix or Posthack“, my latest article for A List Apart.  (Sort of like Return of the Jedi had a working title of Blue Harvest.)  In a fairly quick read, I make the case that vendor prefixes are not only good, they have the potential to be great and to deliver greater interoperability and advancement of CSS.

So far the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, which frankly came as a bit of a surprise.  The annoyance factor of prefixes is undeniable, and it’s been my experience that annoyance dramatically hardens opposition regardless of whether or not there are good reasons to oppose.  I could flatter myself that the agreement is due to the Obvious Rightness of my argument, but I suspect it’s actually that I merely articulated what most people had already instinctively decided for themselves.  Which isn’t a bad place to be.

Anyway, if you haven’t already, feel free to decide for yourself by reading the article—which, I feel like mentioning for no clear reason, is only the fourth piece I’ve ever written for ALA.

Into the Fray

I am now a Fray Contributor.  Official, for real, badge and everything—check the sidebar on the home page.  My completely and in many ways unbelievably true story of beginnings around an ending, “A Death of Coincidence”, appears in Issue 3: Sex & Death.

This is a huge deal for me.  I still have a little trouble believing it.

For a long time—as in, for more than a decade—I’ve had “participate in Fray” as one of those little deferred dreams we all carry around in the background.  I certainly could’ve submitted pieces all along, either for the original site or one of the live events, and might even have been accepted.  The thing is, I wasn’t dreaming of simply getting a piece accepted and checking an internal to-do box.  I wanted to participate the right way, by my own internal reckoning.  That meant not only vying for inclusion, but doing so with a worthy story, one that felt right.

When Fray relaunched as a themed quarterly, I took notice.  I often work better when I have something to work against; constraints energize me more than they chafe.  The first issue‘s theme, “Busted!”, called to mind a few childhood incidents, but nothing really coalesced.  There was nothing that said, “I’m a Fray piece; write me.”  The second issue‘s theme, “Geek”, left me with far too many options.  I couldn’t hook onto anything with the right vibe.

Then issue 3‘s theme was announced, and I knew exactly what I was going to submit.  No rumination of possible narratives, no idle exploring my past for ideas, no doubt at all.  I knew, and it was right.

In fact, it was a piece I’d already written, except for the ending.  The ending I had used was certainly good enough, and was certainly the right ending for the time and place I wrote and performed it.  But there had always been a different, nearly unbelievable ending to that story and I’d always held it back, kept close to myself, never quite sure why.  Now I know why.  It was the piece that made that story a Fray story.

If you want to read it, you’ll need to pick up Issue 3 of Fray, which you can of course do very easily.  You can pick up issues 1 and 3 together for a great price, or become a subscriber and get issue 3 as your first.  Any of those would be awesome.  Or, I suppose, you can wait until the piece is published for free on the Fray site, though I should tell you that it could be a long while until that happens.

I can’t thank Frayer-in-Chief Derek Powazek enough for including me in Fray.  I am quite literally as proud as I was when my first book was published.  I’ve passed a personal and professional milestone, and far from just ticking off a checkbox on some internal to-do list, I’m basking in the glow of a dream fully and properly fulfilled.

Targeted

You probably don’t need me to tell you about today’s issue of A List Apart, but just in case you hit this entry in your feed reader before reaching the ALA feed, head on over.  If you have anything to do with web development, there’s news of a coming change that you absolutely need to read.

I know there will be many people who disagree with my take on version targeting.  As did I, at first.  Originally I wasn’t even going to be part of this ALA issue but as I argued with Aaron about it on the ALA editorial board and started to shift my perspective, we realized that having someone document that thinking process would be valuable.  So I did.

Already I’ve seen a lot of negative reactions to the idea, and they remind me of my initial reactions.  That’s not to say that my views are more advanced, nor that everyone will eventually come to the same way of thinking.  It’s entirely possible that after due rational consideration, many people will come to the conclusion exactly opposite my own.  I still thought it might be useful to share my thoughts on the matter as someone who has been concerned about browser compatibility and standards advancement for a very long time now.

Comments are closed here, but discussion is open at ALA.

Update: I wanted to point to some other material about this topic.  I’ll probably keep updating this as time goes on.

  • Compatibility and IE8 — a post by Chris Wilson about the challenges faced by browsers when advancing standards, and the particular situation experienced in the IE7 deployment.  You don’t have to agree with the conclusions, but understanding the problem is important.

  • The versioning switch is not a browser detect — this is vitally important to any hope of useful debate on this topic.  I tried to clearly make the same point in my ALA article, but reiteration doesn’t hurt.

  • Broken — Jeremy objects to the default behavior.  I actually agree with him, and made that case at length with a member of the IE team.  I couldn’t make what I wanted square with their requirements, and came to see that I couldn’t, and was deeply saddened by it.  I sincerely hope that Jeremy, or indeed anyone, can succeed where I failed.

  • That Red-headed Monster Next to You? Yeah, that’s Anger — no, I didn’t link this because of the hair-color reference.  I’ve been deeply disheartened by the overall tenor of the reaction.  Disagreement is fine, in fact welcomed; but the level of vitriol, name-calling, and outright personal attacks came as a rude and unwelcome surprise.

April 2014
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