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The Web At 25

The Web is celebrating its 25th anniversary today, taking as its starting point the March 1989 publication of “Information Management: A Proposal”.  I was honored to contribute a small greeting to the Greetings page over at The Web At 25.  Following on that, I wanted to add a few more words here, mostly about my own Web history, because the Web is nothing if not a vast collection of all of us sharing ourselves.

I was first exposed to the Web in mid- to late 1993 by my friend and (then) co-worker, Jim Nauer, and it instantly caught my imagination.  I’d worked on some hypertext systems before, including a summer spent on a DOS-based hypertext system whose name now escapes me that was used to mark up the Ohio Legal Code on CD-ROM for a publisher named Banks-Baldwin, now a division of Thomson Reuters.  This Web thing, though, this was something altogether different and more powerful.  By late fall I’d gotten my hands on a paper copy of the HTML 2.0 specification and on December 3th, 1993, I finished marking up my first document: the Incomplete Mystery Science Theater 3000 Episode Guide.

At the time, I was a hardware jockey for the Library Information Technologies department at Case Western Reserve University, swapping out bad SIMM chips in online catalog terminals and maintaining a database of equipment serial numbers.  So in my downtime between service calls and database updates, I had the freedom to install Mosaic betas and start surfing around to see what there was to be seen.  My increasing obsession with the Web eventually led me to become Webmaster of CWRU’s first “pure” Web site.  (Before that, there was an HTTP interface to our Gopher server, which was the first www.cwru.edu.)  And as part of that, I published tutorials and compatibility charts and spent a lot of time on Usenet and mailing lists dedicated to this new Web thing.

I do remember the moment that the Web blew me away a second time, and it’s a moment of total coincidence, which is of course why I remember it.  On April 3rd, 1996, I discovered (I forget exactly how) that CNN had a Web site, and I was astonished—a news network taking the Web seriously?  Really?  So I loaded it up, and the top headline was “RON BROWN KILLED IN PLANE CRASH” or words to that effect.  We turned on a radio, and there was nothing about the crash for at least an hour, maybe more, and of course newspapers wouldn’t have anything to say until morning, and I remember thinking: What is wrong with these other channels, that they’re so slow and unresponsive?  That was my first direct glimpse of the future of information velocity, something that permanently altered my instincts.

Over the years, the Web has obviously been good to me, and I’ve tried to be good to it in return.  The original Internet aesthetic of sharing what you know and making use of what others share, one that carried onto the early Web, has always resonated with me, as did the obvious simplicity (and thus robustness) of the Web itself.  As simple as possible, and no simpler; small pieces loosely joined; openness to all—these are principles I held dear and which the Web has always embodied.  Which means that the Web helped me maintain those principles, over these past two decades, by showing that they can and do work.

As I said in my greeting for The Web at 25:

The web is the most human information system we have ever seen and that may ever be, open to anyone with the interest to build something, gargantuan and riotous and everything we are and hope to be. It’s been a privilege just to witness its emergence, let alone play a part in it.

I suppose I could have just posted that here, and skipped the lengthy reminiscing, but what fun would that be?

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.)

An Event Apart 2014 Schedules, Round One

I’ve recently had the odd experience of seeing from the outside something that I usually get to see from the inside: the schedules and workshops for the first three An Event Aparts of 2014 have been announced.  Those shows are:

All the shows feature a great mix of veterans and new faces, all coming together to bring our usual blend of looking to the future while staying firmly grounded in the details of the here-and-now.  The shows include workshops from Luke Wroblewski (in Atlanta or Boston) or Josh Clark (in Seattle) about mobile and touch design.

Ordinarily, at this point I’d say “hope to see you there!” but I can’t be sure that I’ll be able to hold up my side of that.  The same family crisis that forced me to withdraw from the last four AEAs of 2013 has also kept me off the roster for at least the first three shows of 2014, and I don’t know that I’ll be able to travel even to visit.  I’ll continue to be a part of the show, but behind the scenes, at least for now.

And that crisis is why I got to experience the announcements from the outside.  While I was in Philadelphia, I was basically on extended medical leave from AEA, with the team picking up every scrap of my duties they could.  They pretty much soaked up 99%+ of what I do daily, sparing me the worry of day-to-day operations and leaving me free to focus everything I could on my daughter and family during a very difficult period.  I am forever indebted.  I can’t ever thank them enough for what they did for me.  I am beyond fortunate to have had such a strong team of friends and colleagues at my back.

I will say that it was a good thing for me to experience the process from the audience, as it were, gaining a new perspective on what we do and how we do it.  I certainly don’t recommend a major crisis as the best way to gain that perspective, but I have a newfound appreciation for the value of stepping outside of the process as completely as possible.  You might be very surprised by how things look from out there.

But back to the point: the complete agendas are up for the first three AEAs of 2014, so go check them out!  And if you’re at all interested, I wouldn’t wait to register any longer than absolutely necessary.  Every show for the past two or three years has sold out weeks or months in advance, and cancellation rates are low enough that it’s pretty rare for people on the waiting list to get in.  I hope you’ll be there!

Help Us Help Molly

In my last post, I mentioned the joy of being able to help people.  I’d like to ask you to help someone dear to me and important to everyone in the web community.

Molly Holzschlag, who has affected all of us in ways both incredible and subtle, a pioneer not just of the web but also of fighting to make it accessible and available to everyone, is facing a life-threatening medical condition, and along with that a solvency-threatening financial situation.  In addition to the high cost of her treatment, she is unable to work during the course of that treatment, which will be many months long.  So in addition to needing to cover the costs of her medical insurance and any uninsured medical care, she also needs to be able to pay for housing and food and all the stuff that goes along with living.

That’s where we, you and me, come into the picture.  You can read about the details on the GoFundMe page set up to assist her by Brian Keith Sullivan, but the upshot is this:  Molly needs the support and love of the community she has supported and loved for so many years.  Please do what you can to help her out.  Thank you.

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.

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.

Ciao, Camino

It’s been obvious for a long time that Camino was withering away, but they’ve formally called an end to the project:

After a decade-long run, Camino is no longer being developed, and we encourage all users to upgrade to a more modern browser. Camino is increasingly lagging behind the fast pace of changes on the web, and more importantly it is not receiving security updates, making it increasingly unsafe to use.

I used Camino for a long time, and only left when it had lagged much too far behind the rest of the browser market.  (Camino used Gecko embedding, which was disabled a couple of years ago.  That change effectively froze Camino’s rendering engine at the level of Firefox 3.6.)

When I migrated away from Camino, I tried a few alternatives and eventually settled on Firefox because its UI was the least unlike Camino’s.  (We like best what we know best.)  There were still some things I sorely missed, though, like simple Flash blocking and whitelisting, the multi-row Bookmarks bar, the keyboard bookmark-activation shortcuts, and the truly great downloads manager.  If you miss those (or would like to experience them) too, here’s how I got them back in Firefox:

  • Flashblock — though its UI isn’t quite as easy as Camino’s Flash preferences, Flashblock works well and allows whitelisting.
  • Multirow Bookmarks Toolbar Plus — the layout of this has gotten a bit wonky under recent Firefox Nightly builds, but still works just fine, and you can even set it to auto-hide itself.
  • Bookmark Shortcut Keys — built for me in Jetpack by Jeff Balogh, this lets you define which keyboard shortcuts trigger the first nine bookmarks in the Bookmarks bar.  I use this all the time, just as I did in Camino.  I’ve defined my shortcuts to be ⌘1 through ⌘9, but you can pick whichever modifier keys you like.  Thanks, Jeff!
  • Download Manage Tweak — adds controls to show a file in the OS, delete the file, remove the file from the list without deleting it, and so on.  As with Flashblock, it isn’t quite as smooth as Camino’s UI, but it does the same job and a bit more besides.

And one more: New Tab Homepage, which makes certain that Firefox loads your Home page, and not the dashboard, whenever you open a new tab.

Oh, all right, one more one more: RSS Icon in Awesombar.  If you still roll that way.

So if you still pine a bit for Camino’s UI features, there’s how you can recreate most of the experience in Firefox.  If you don’t, then peace be with you, as with the entire Camino team.  Thank you all for everything you did to bring OS X a great browser that just felt right.

Collective Editorial: the Plugin

As I was reading an article with a few scattered apostrophe errors, I wished that I could highlight each one, hit a report button, and know that the author had been notified of the errors so that they could fix them.  No requirement to leave a comment chastising them for bad grammar, replete with lots of textual context so they could find the errors—just a quick “hey, I spotted this error, now you know so you can fix it” notice, sent in private to them.

Then I realized that I wanted that for my own site, to let people tell me when I had gaffes in need of repair.  It’s an almost-wiki, where the crowd can flag errors that need to be corrected without having to edit the source themselves—or have the power to edit it themselves, for that matter, which is an open door for abuse.

I haven’t thought this through in tons of detail, but here’s how it feels in my head:

  • Visitors highlight a typo and click a button to report it.  Or else click a button to start reporting, highlight a word, and click again to submit.  This part is kind of fuzzy in my head, and yes, “click” is not the best term here, but it’s one we all understand.
  • Interesting extra feature: the ability to classify the type of error when reporting.  For example: apostrophe, misspelling, parallelism, pronoun trouble.
  • Other interesting extra feature: the ability to inform users of the ground rules before they report.  For example: “This site uses British punctuation rules, the Oxford comma, and American spelling.”  (Which I do.)
  • The author gets notice whenever an error is reported, or else can opt for a daily digest.
  • Each notice lets the author quickly accept or reject the reported error, much as can be done with edits in MS Word and similar programs, along with a link that will jump the author straight to the reported error so they can see it in context.  If rejected, future reports of that word are disabled.  If accepted, the change is made immediately, without requiring a dive into the CMS.
  • When an error is reported, future visitors to the site will see any already-reported errors in highlight.  This keeps them from reporting the same thing over and over, and also acts as incentive to the author to fix errors quickly.  (The highlight style could be customizable.)
  • Reports can only happen at the word level, not the individual letter level.  So reporting an “it’s” error highlights all of “it’s”, not just the offending apostrophe.  Perhaps also for multiple words, though only up to a certain number, like three.  And yes, I’m keenly aware of the challenges of defining a “word” in an internationally-aware manner, but perhaps in ideographic languages you switch to per-symbol.  (Not an expert here, so take that with a few grinders of salt.)
  • The author can optionally limit the number of reports permitted per hour/day/whatever.  This could be enforced globally or on a per-user basis, though globally is a tad more robust.

That’s how I see it working, after a few minutes’ thought.  It seems pretty achievable as a CMS plugin, actually, though I confess that I don’t have anywhere close to the time and coding chops needed to make it happen right now (or any time soon).  The biggest challenge to me seems like the “edit-on-accept-without-CMS-diving” part, since there are so many CMSes and particularly since static sites are staging a comeback.  Still, I think it would be a fun and worthwhile project for someone out there.  If somebody takes it on, I’d love to follow along and see where it ends up, particularly if they do it for WordPress (which is what the blog hereabouts runs on).

April 2014
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