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Kill Bill

Sometimes, it feels like the whole system is stacked against you and your peace of mind.  (Some would say that’s because it is.)

For example, this evening after dinner I opened up the mail.  One of the envelopes was clearly a hospital bill.  That’s not unusual, despite our having very good insurance, because there are co-pays and so forth.  Even if you regularly go see a specialist who is managing your radiation therapy, say, that’s an office visit.  Co-pay.  So we’re used to getting bills for $30 or $75 or whatever.

Anyway, I opened this one up and it took me a few seconds to find the amount due, because I thought it was yet another opaque identification number and my eyes kept skipping over it.  Once I finally managed to focus on the right spot, using the text labels as a guide, I confirmed that it said we owed the hospital $122,519.95.

Yeah.

Before anyone rushes off to set up a fundraising campaign, let me explain that I believe this is a billing error, and we won’t actually have to pay it.  You see, I was able to track down two entries on my most recent benefits statement from our insurance company that directly relate to this bill.  For a collection of procedures and treatments, the hospital had billed the insurance company a total of $350,057.01.  (Which is a little more than a fifth of the total ‘retail’ cost of treatment to date, as it happens.)  The insurance company indicated that the provider had accepted $227,537.06 as payment in full, and that we were responsible for $0.00.  The difference between the billed (retail) cost and the accepted cost is, surprise surprise, $122,519.95.

So this is most likely some sort of coding error at the hospital’s billing department, and once I talk to them, it’ll be cancelled.  I HOPE.  Because I really would dislike being erroneously sent to collections for a six-figure sum, and my credit rating would probably hate it too.

This has of course added to my stress, because even the faint prospect of having to cough up $122,519.95 is worrisome, and the possibility of being sent to collections due to someone’s screw-up is even more worrisome.  And I can’t even get started on dealing with it until Tuesday morning, because the billing department has very white-collar hours and Monday is President’s Day.  It’s not going to drive me bat-guano crazy, but it is going to annoy me, having that very large figure sit there, unaddressed, for three days.  Three days out of nine, by the way: the due date on the bill is February 23rd.

Oh, but—and this is actually the part where my mouth twisted into an ugly line—if the bill is paid within 30 days of receipt, it qualifies for a 20% “prompt pay” discount.  Because hey, we say it’s due by such-and-so date, but if you pay by a date later than that but still soon, we’ll only make you pay $98,015.96!  Such a bargain!  Act now, before this amazing deal is history!  Because if we can entice you into quickly paying us money that’s not actually owed, we can take our sweet, sweet time giving it back to you when it turns out the bill was wrong.

Assuming it’s wrong, that is.

So come Tuesday morning, I have to call the hospital’s billing department to see if they agree with my assessment and can clear everything up, and if they don’t then I call the advocate at my insurer to see if they can help me out, and probably have to fax document to one or both places, and generally burn time I don’t have to deal with stress I don’t need.  Because why not add more stress to the situation?  It’s not like dealing with potentially life-threatening pediatric cancer wasn’t stressful enough, heavens no.  Why not add the specter of credit ruination and/or bankruptcy to the proceedings?  You know, for the lulz.

Yes, if it turns out that I actually do have to pay this bill, I will indeed set up a fundraising page.  I know there are people ready and willing to help us, and that makes all this a lot easier to cope with.  You can’t even imagine how much that helps mitigate the stress.  But I keep thinking about all the people in similar situations who don’t have that kind of posse at their back, and who can’t afford good (or any) insurance.  What do they do when a bill for $350,057.01 arrives, and they know that it’s all theirs?

Wanted: Layout System

(This is part of the Feedback on ‘WaSP Community CSS3 Feedback 2008′ series.)

Not surprisingly, there was a lot of community feedback asking for better layout mechanisms.  Actually, people were asking for any decent layout mechanism at all, which CSS has historically lacked.  Floats mostly work, but they’re a hack and can be annoyingly fragile even when you ignore old-browser bugs.  Positioning works in limited cases, but does not handle web-oriented layout at all well.

Why do we use floats for layout, anyway?  clear.  That’s pretty much the whole answer.  The unique in-flow/out-of-flow nature of floats means they interact with each other and with the normal flow, which means they can be cleared, which makes them useful.  Because with clear, we can float layout blocks around and then push other non-floated blocks, like footers, below the floats.

Positioning, of course, permits total layout freedom in the sense that you can put a layout block anywhere with respect to its containing block.  The downfall is that absolutely positioned elements are entirely out of the normal flow, so they can’t stay out of each others’ way like floats do, and you can’t clear anything with respect to a positioned element.  If there had been a position-clear or its equivalent from the outset, we’d never have bothered with floats.

(And if we can just add position-clear to CSS, that would be completely awesome.  It’s been done with JavaScript and it will most likely be done again and better.  It wouldn’t even be that hard to implement, at least for 99.5% of cases.)

All this is why the old “only use tables for layout” argument keeps coming up over and over: strip away the overheated rhetoric and obvious link-baiting, and you find the core of a real need.  Because as powerful as CSS can be, table cells do certain things very easily that CSS makes very, very hard.  Cells stretch vertically, keeping equal heights as a matter of their intrinsic nature.  They stay out of each others’ way, while still being allowed to sit next to each other and use any sizing dimensions.  They tie their layout to their parent elements, and vice versa.

There are no equivalents in CSS.  There have been various very clever attempts to replicate bits and pieces of those capabilities using CSS.  What CSS does, it does very well: if you don’t need equal-height layout blocks, then no problem.  If you do, it’s a massive pain.  Clever techniques provide substitutes, but can’t replace what tables already do.

And please, let’s put the whole “display: table-cell will grant those abilities through CSS” to rest.  Saying that is just saying “use tables for layout” with different words.  Turning a bunch of divs or list items or whatever into table-role boxes is no better than just using table markup in the first place, and it’s arguably worse.  Using element names other than table and td to create layout tables, and then claiming it’s not using tables for layout, borders on self-deception.

Not to mention doing things that way means you’re doing your layout in a highly source-order-dependent fashion, which was one of the things about table layout we were trying to get away from in the first place.

So how do we get really powerful source-order-independent layout?  I wish I knew.  The Advanced Layout module has been sitting around for a while now, and even if you’re a fan of defining layout as ASCII art—which I find repels and appeals in equal measure, but that’s probably just me—there appears to be close to zero implementor interest.  So how do we get those abilities in a form that implementors will, y’know, implement?  I don’t know.  I don’t care.  We just need it, and have needed it for a good decade or so.  Without it, CSS is a styling language but not a layout language.  We’ve bent it into being something close to a layout language, which is nice but not really ideal.

Maybe CSS isn’t the place for this.  Maybe there needs to be a new layout language that can be defined and implemented without regard to the constraints of the existing CSS syntax rules, without worrying about backwards compatibility.  Maybe that way we can not only get strong layout but also arbitrary shapes, thus leaving behind the rectangular prison that’s defined the web for almost two decades.

I don’t have a concrete idea to propose here, because it’s not up to us any more.  A solution was worked out over the course of several years and then found wanting by the implementors.  Really, it’s up to the implementors to figure it out now.  I personally would like to just lock the browser teams from Microsoft, Mozilla, Opera, and Apple in a room and not let them out until they’ve defined something that works and they’ve all agreed to implement soonest.  I might even supply food and water.

And yes, I just advocated doing this outside the W3C process.  Why wouldn’t I?  The process has, in the last decade, not produced anything even remotely resembling an answer to this problem.  Time to try another path and see if it gets any closer to the goal.

No doubt someone’s going to spin this as “See, even noted standards zealot Eric Meyer now says CSS is flawed!”—only they’ll be wrong because this isn’t a now thing.  I’ve been saying this for years in interviews, in person, and in general.  Any time someone asks me what CSS is missing or should do better, the answer has always been a variant on “a strong layout system”.  I’ve been saying it for at least a decade.  So I’m not saying it now.  I’m saying it again.  And again and again and again and…

If I sound frustrated, it’s because I am, and have been for a good long while.  I’m not the only one.  It rankles to have CSS be, as Winston Churchill would have put it, the worst form of layout except for all the others that have been tried.

Manhattan Problem

It’s not every day I uncover a case involving the botched theft of information about nuclear weapons.

Here’s how it went down: in the infosthetics feed was an entry about a video regarding nuclear stockpiles around the world and the effects of a nuclear explosion in New York City.  The video was produced by Chimp on a Chain for Good Magazine.

That’s a long-standing area of interest for me, so I watched it.  When I got to the New York City portion, something started to bother me beyond the obvious horror of the scenario.  The point of detonation, the explosive yield, the elapsed-time intervals, the radius distances—all seemed very familiar, like I’d seen them somewhere before.  And I had.

They were nearly all taken verbatim from the New York City scenario found at the Atomic Archive.  I could find only two differences.  The first is that the total death toll given in the video is slightly higher than that in the Atomic Archive’s scenario.  Otherwise, all the numbers matched up.

The second difference is really a major error on the part of the video’s makers: they dramatically under-represent the areas of damage.  For example, the ten-second ring’s (found at 2:33 in the movie) radius is labeled with the correct distance (2.5 miles) but the circle placed on the map is much, much too small to be 2.5 miles in radius.  The circle doesn’t even cover the breadth of Manhattan Island, whereas an accurate plot would have it stretch across the Hudson River on both sides into New Jersey and Long Island.  You can see this in part 5 of the Atomic Archive’s scenario, or on a HYDEsim plot of the same scenario.

The video seriously misrepresents the area of damage that would result from such an incident, making it appear much smaller than it would be, and I just can’t fathom how or why they would get that so wrong.  Even assuming they mixed up the meanings of “radius” and “diameter” doesn’t appear to explain it.  The ring distances shown correspond to a three-kiloton explosion at most, not to 150KT.

That’s the botched part.  So where’s the theft?  There is no credit whatsoever given in the video for the material’s source.  There is a reference to the Archive on the video’s page at Good in the “Resources” box, but the material in the video has been used without permission—I checked this with the custodian of the Archive—as required by the site’s policy.  Even if one could argue this is a case of not needing permission on non-profit grounds, attribution is still required.

It would almost be worth subscribing to Good so that 100% of my payment could go to the non-profit of my choice, as the site promises, except I’m limited to their choices of non-profits and none of them appear to be charged with educating magazine publishers or video artists about the niceties of copyright law, intellectual property rights, or even just plain common courtesy.

The Veteran’s Charge

“This page best viewed in…”

If that phrase doesn’t provoke a shudder of horror and loathing, it should.  It’s the battle cry of the Browser Wars, those terrible and ultimately futile years at the end of the last milennium.  It’s the rallying cry of those who would take the open ubiquity of the web and fragment it into a collection of gated communities, where entrance to each is predicated on running a specific browser.

“Your browser is not compatible and must be upgraded…”

All too often, because developers are too fearful or prideful or just plain lazy, they put up unnecessary barriers to entrance.  They prevent people from using their sites based on choice of browser.  Of course there are situations where the experience will be different—nobody expects Netscape 4 users to be able to see all 2007′s pretty CSS effects, just like table-based sites look beyond bizarre in Mosaic.  That’s no excuse for sites that intentionally lock users out just because their choice of browser doesn’t line up with the developer’s expectations.  It’s regressive, short-sighted, and just plain unprofessional.

“This site is for iPhone users only.”

STOP IT.  Stop it right now.

The fact that optimizing pages for an iPhone makes the development of such specialized pages attractive in no way excuses lockout of other users.  I might be willing to entertain the argument if the iPhone’s browser were some specialized non-web contraption.  It’s not.  It’s a full-fledged XHTML+CSS+DOM browser that happens to lag a bit in some implementation areas and won’t run some plugins.

Besides, if you’ve developed a version of your site (or application or whatever) that works well on the iPhone, then why in the name of Tim Berners-Lee would you deny other people that optimized experience?  You might find that they prefer to interact with the site that way no matter what platform they’re using.  You might find that you don’t need a separate iPhone version after all.  The iPhoned version might be the only version you need.

Designers will argue that pages optimized for the iPhone screen will look bad on a desktop browser.  Maybe, and maybe not, but stop preventing your users from making that decision for themselves.  Nobody says you have to convert your whole site to be iPhoney.  But your lockout of non-iPhone users is worse than rude.  It’s stupid.

We finally learned, after much sweat and a fair number of tears, that “best viewed in” is a fool’s errand.  Are we so eager to rush back into that morass and fight the war all over again?

Please.  Just stop.

American Express Limited After All

Anyone remember the American Express commercial where a guy talks about how he was at a big client dinner and his credit card got declined?  “I was so embarrassed,” the voice actor moans, and then goes on to relate how his father told him to get an American Express.  With no pre-set spending limit, he informs us, he’ll never have to worry about being declined again.

Wrong.

It turns out that “no pre-set spending limit” does not mean “you can charge as much as you want as long as you pay off the balance on time”.  It means “your monthly spending ability changes based on your spending history”.  You can absolutely have a charge to your AmEx declined.  Even better, since the limit changes continually based on your activity, you have no reasonable way to know when a decline might happen.  It’s the worst of both worlds!

All this, and an annual fee to boot.  Awesome!  Where do I sign?

Of course, when you think about it, you quickly realize that there had to be some kind of limit.  If there weren’t, you could buy a fully armed jet fighter with it.  (Which would of course be awesome.)  What rankles is that the advertising explicitly claims, and the wording “no pre-set spending limit” strongly implies, that declines are a thing of the past with an AmEx—which is completely and utterly false.

Fortunately, it seems that there is a way to handle charges that exceed your spending limit: pre-pay the charge(s) in question.  Of course, I had to think of this and ask someone at AmEx about it; the three people I’d talked to before that hadn’t volunteered the information, or else just didn’t think of it.  I’ve been assured that, having paid in advance, everything will go through without incident, even though what I’m charging is about an order of magnitude greater than the initial spending limit set for the card.  We’ll see how things play out.

I just wish they’d been more open about all this in the first place.  As a result of all this, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that my new card issuer has been lying to me.  That’s not really the way I prefer to start a new relationship.

Anyway, I just thought I’d share this little tidbit for the benefit of anyone interested, including any future Googlers.  Oh, and vent a bit in the process.  That always feels good.

One of Those Weeks

What’s In a Name

I know that you don’t need to be told this, but I’m just going to put this on record for anyone who might be Googling for the information in the future, not to mention the four separate people who got this wrong within the last 24 hours.  It’s like this:

My last name is spelled M-E-Y-E-R.  No trailing “s”; an “e” to each side of the “y”; no “a” anywhere within its bounds.  Got it?  Good!

Also, it’s “Eric” with a “c”, not a “k” or even a “ck”.  ‘kay?

So how does your name get misspelled, and how much does it bother you?

Plutonian Process

As someone who obtained a minor in Astronomy in college, and one of the only people I know who can consistently name the planets in order without having to resort to mnemonics, I’d like to take a moment out from the whole W3C thing to comment on the de-planetization of Pluto.

It’s about time.

Its classification as a planet was never really justifiable, and recent discoveries like 2003 UB313 (Xena) have only served to underscore that fact.

Now, that said, I’m no fan of the “dwarf planet” compromise.  That just smells of committee-think, and it’s got to go.  For that matter, the newly adopted definition for “planet” is pretty terrible.  If it were up to me, I’d go with a definition that was based on orbital characteristics and a minimum surface gravitational acceleration threshold—maybe size and density, too.  But none of this “cleared its orbital path” crap.

Furthermore, I think all this a great illustration of how science works.  Although it’s quite the fashion to talk about “scientific dogma”, what this shows is exactly how science works.  There is no inflexible dogma.  As new evidence emerges and is incorporated into the general body of knowledge, the “orthodoxy” changes.  There are no absolute truths in science—only the best available information.  Once we thought meat transformed directly into maggots; now we know otherwise.  Today we think that no physical object can move faster than the speed of light in a vacuum, but tomorrow (or a hundred years from now, or a thousand) we may find we were wrong.  It doesn’t mean anyone was wrong in their previous understanding.  It means simply that their previous understanding was incomplete.

And that’s fine.  In fact, it’s better than fine: it’s expected and, by and large, welcomed.  I often wonder if the real conflict between religion and science isn’t that science stands in opposition to religion, which it does not, but that science embodies a way of approaching the world that could not be more different than that taught by most religions.  There are no absolutes in science, no final immutable truths, nothing that cannot be supplanted by some new understanding.  Change may happen slowly, and it always happens after there is clear and convincing evidence, but it does happen.

As with Pluto.  At one time, it seemed like it could qualify as a planet.  Now it does not.  As we understand more about the universe, we will be able to formulate better definitions of what is a planet and what is not.  Maybe that will mean one day re-planetizing Pluto, and if so, then fine.  It’s all part of the process—excuse me, the method.

Maybe that’s a lot to hang on a change of classification for a tiny, frozen pile of rock, but it’s true nonetheless.  Or at least it will remain true until someone can convincingly show otherwise.

April 2014
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