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The Light of Other Days

Every day or three, I upload another batch of photos to Flickr, trying to work my way through the backlog and get caught up with the present.  This is a habit I enforce inconsistently, because I’m bad at maintaining regular habits even at the best of times.  That halfway explains the backlog.  When I do enforce it, my habit is to upload no more than 10 or 15 photos at a time, so that I can properly tag and geolocate them without having to invest hours in the process.  That explains the other half of the backlog.  Right now, as I write this, I’m about six weeks behind.

Which means that yesterday, I uploaded the first half of the pictures from Rebecca’s sixth birthday party.  It’s been over five weeks now since she died, but in the Flickrverse, she still has six days to live.  She’s still tired but essentially herself, riding the Rocket Car and eating mini-donuts and chasing bubbles and hula hooping and blowing out the candles on her half of the enormous Frozen-themed cake shared with Ruth, her best friend in the whole world, the girl who shares her initials and whose birthday is only a few days apart from hers.

She still doesn’t know, none of us know, that the experimental medicine has failed and the tumor has been growing unchecked for weeks, compressing normal brain matter and now only days away from killing her.  Just two days after her birthday party, an MRI will reveal the horrible truth, but in the Flickrverse, that day has not yet come.

Flickr and my laptop combine to become a digital slow glass, bathing me in the light of days past.  I look at those pictures, tag them, adorn them with metadata, sort some into albums, and all the while I remember how we felt that day.  We were worried, Kat and I, but we still had hope.  Everyone there still hoped that she’d find a way to survive, and that hope was not unreasonable.

And so the party was not a wake for a still-living child, but a joyful celebration of her life and the simple fact that she’d lived long enough and well enough to enjoy the party.  There had been times in the previous few weeks that we’d thought she wouldn’t make it that far.  Had we held the party six days later, on her actual birthday, as originally planned, she wouldn’t have.

We didn’t know that then, but I know that now.  As I witness those days past, trying to taste some trace of what life was like then, I also have the horrible foreknowledge of what will happen in the days to come.  I know without question that the MRI will happen, that the news will be dire.  That she will sink into herself and lose so much of what we fought so hard to preserve, and that it will be lost quickly, in the span of a few days.  That we will believe she is leaving us the day before she actually does, and be surprised when she wakes and has a semi-normal evening, believing when that happens that she has a week or two left.  That the next day, the week will end with her actual birthday, the day that shatters us, the day she dies.

Today or tomorrow, I’ll upload the second half of the party photos, and her birthday party will once more be over and that final week will once more begin.  I could stop there, just walk away from uploading forever, and a large part of me cries out to do exactly that—but doing so would arrest more than just the glacially slow expansion of my Flickr account.  If I allow myself to stop there, arrested in the days when we could still feel hope, it will be that much harder to reconcile the past and present.  Without that reconciliation, it is very likely I will never feel hope again.

For myself and my future, the future we were unable to bring her into but must inhabit anyway, I have to keep going.  I have to upload the photos of that last week, relive the horror and anguish, the moments I captured as well as the moments I didn’t but will never be able to forget.  I have to let her go again.

And so the light keeps coming through the slow glass we’ve built, emerging from distributed panes aglow with the light of other days, pushing closer and closer to the unwelcome present.

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?

Resurrected Landmarks

It was just last week, at the end of April, that CERN announced the rebirth of The Very First URL, in all its responsive and completely presentable glory.  If you hit the root level of the server, you get some wonderful information about the Web’s infancy and the extraordinary thing CERN did in releasing it, unencumbered by patent or licensing restrictions, into the world, twenty years ago.

That’s not at all minor point.  I don’t believe it overstates the case to say that if CERN hadn’t made the web free and open to all, it wouldn’t have taken over the net.  Like previous attempts at hypertext and similar information systems, it would have languished in a niche and eventually withered away.  There were other things that had to happen for the web to really take off, but none of them would have mattered without this one simple, foundational decision.

I would go even further and argue that this act infused the web, defining the culture that was built on top of it.  Because the medium was free and open, as was often the case in academic and hacker circles before it, the aesthetic of sharing freely became central to the web community.  The dynamic of using ideas and resources freely shared by others, and then freely sharing your own resources and ideas in return, was strongly encouraged by the open nature of the web.  It was an implicit encouragement, but no less strong for that.  As always, the environment shapes those who live within it.

It was in that very spirit that Dave Shea launched the CSS Zen Garden ten years ago this week.  After letting it lie fallow for the last few years, Dave has re-opened the site to submissions that make use of all the modern capabilities we have now.

It might be hard to understand this now, but the Zen Garden is one of the defining moments in the history of web design, and is truly critical to understanding the state of CSS before and after it debuted.  When histories of web design are written—and there will be—there will be a chapters titled things like “Wired, ESPN, and the Zen Garden: Why CSS Ended Up In Everything”.

Before the Zen Garden, CSS was a thing you used to color text and set fonts, and maybe for a simple design, not for “serious” layout.  CSS design is boxy and boring, and impossible to use for anything interesting, went the conventional wisdom.  (The Wired and ESPN designs were held to be special cases.)  Then Dave opened the gates on the Zen Garden, with its five utterly different designs based on the very same document…and the world turned.

I’m known to be a history buff, and these days a web history buff, so of course I’m super-excited to see both these sites online and actively looked after, but you should be too.  You can see where it all started, and where a major shift in design occurred, right from the comfort of your cutting-edge nightly build of the latest and greatest browsers known to man.  That’s a rare privilege, and a testimony to what CERN set free, two decades back.

The Stinger

(In television, the “stinger” is the clip that plays during or just after the closing credits of a show.)

On Friday, the Web Standards Project announced its own dissolution.  I felt a lot of things upon reading the announcement, once I got over my initial surprise: nostalgia, wistfulness, closure.  And over it all, a deep sense of respect for the Project as a whole, from its inception to its peak to its final act.

In some ways, the announcement was a simple formalization of a longstanding state of affairs, as the Project has gradually grown quieter and quieter over the years, and its initiatives had been passed on to other, more active homes.  It was still impressive to see the group explicitly shut down.  I can’t think of the last time I saw a group that had been so influential and effective recognize that it was time to turn off the lights, and exit with dignity.  As they wrote:

Thanks to the hard work of countless WaSP members and supporters (like you), Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of the web as an open, accessible, and universal community is largely the reality. While there is still work to be done, the sting of the WaSP is no longer necessary. And so it is time for us to close down The Web Standards Project.

I have a long history with the WaSP.  Way, way back, deep in the thick of the browser wars, I was invited to be a member of the CSS Action Committee, better known as the CSS Samurai.  We spent the next couple of years documenting how things worked (or, more often, didn’t) in CSS implementations, and—and this was the clever bit, if you ask me—writing up specific plans of action for browsers.  The standards compliance reviews we published told browsers what they needed to fix first, not just what they were getting wrong.  I can’t claim that our every word was agreed with, let alone acted upon, but I’m pretty confident those reviews helped push browser teams in the right direction.  Or, more likely, helped browser teams push their bosses in the direction the teams already wanted to go.

Succumbing to a wave of nostalgia, I spent a few minutes trawling my archives.  I still have what I think is all the mail from the Samurai’s mailing list, run through Project Cool’s servers, from when it was set up in August 1998 up through June of 2000.  My archive totals 1,716 messages from the group, as well as some of the Steering Committee members (mostly Glenn Davis, though George Olsen was our primary contact during the Microsoft style sheets patent brouhaha of February 1999).  If I’m not reading too much into plain text messages over a decade old, we had a pretty great time.  And then, after a while, we were done.  Unlike the WaSP itself, we never really declared an end.  We didn’t even march off into the sunset having declared that the farmers always win.  We just faded away.

Not that that’s entirely a bad thing.  At a certain point, our work was done, and we moved on.  Still, I look back now and wish we’d made it a little more formal.  Had we done so, we might have said something like the WaSP did:

The job’s not over, but instead of being the work of a small activist group, it’s a job for tens of thousands of developers who care about ensuring that the web remains a free, open, interoperable, and accessible competitor to native apps and closed eco-systems. It’s your job now…

And so it is.  These last years have shown that the job is in very good hands.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” said Margaret Mead.  I see now that the way those small groups truly change the world is by convincing the rest of the world that they are right, thus co-opting the world to their cause.  Done properly, the change makes the group obsolete.  It’s a lesson worth remembering, as we look at the world today.

I’m honored to have been a part of the WaSP, and I offer my deepest samurai bow of respect to its founders, its members, and its leaders.  Thank you all for making the web today what it is.

Sixth Annual Blue Beanie Day

I just recently stumbled across a years-ago post where I said, almost as an aside:

Web design isn’t like chemistry, where the precipitate either forms or it doesn’t. If chemical engineers had to work in conditions equivalent to web developers, they’d have to mix their solutions in several parallel universes, each one with different physical constants, and get the same result in all of them.

While that’s still true, the constants are a lot less divergent these days.  The parallel universes that are web browsers are much closer to unity than once they were.

Remember those days?  When major web sites had a home page with two links: one for Netscape users to enter, the other for IE users?

Madness.

We know better now, of course.  Thanks to early pioneers like the organizers of the Web Standards Project, the path of web development was bent to a much saner course.  We still have little glitches and frustrations, of course, but it could be so unimaginably worse.  We know that it could be, because it was, once.

Along the way, the book cover of my friend and business partner’s book, Designing With Web Standards, gave rise to Blue Beanie Day, the day on which we give visible presence to our solidarity with the idea that web standards make possible the web as we know it.  Pictures go up on Twitter, Instagram, and Flickr with the tag #bbd12, and can be added to the Flickr group if you post there.

In this rapidly unfolding age of multiple device platforms and web access experiences, standards are more important than ever, even as they come under renewed pressure.  There will always be those who proclaim that standards are a failed process, an obstruction, an anachronism.  The desire to go faster and be shinier will always tempt developers to run down proprietary box canyons.

But so too will there always be those of us who remember the madness that lies that way.  Come November 30th, thousands of us will don our blue beanies.  I hope you’ll be among us.

Image © Kevin Cornell.  Used with permission.

The Web Behind #1

Last Thursday was the first episode of The Web Behind, which was also episode #35 of The Web Ahead, and I couldn’t really have been much happier with it.  John Allsopp made it brilliant by being brilliant, as always.  To spend 80 minutes talking with someone with so much experience and insight will always be an act of pure joy. and we were beyond thrilled that he used the occasion to announce his Web History Timeline Project—a web-based timline which anyone can enrich by easily adding milestones.

The episode is up on 5by5, where there are a whole bunch of links to things that came up in the conversation; as well as on iTunes—so pick your favorite channel and listen away!  If you are an iTunes listener, Jen and I would be deeply grateful if you could give the show a quick review and rating, but please don’t feel that you’re somehow obligated to do so in order to listen!  We’ll be more than happy if people simply find all this as interesting as we do, and happier still if you find the shows interesting enough to subscribe via RSS or iTunes.

Guests are lining up for the next few shows, which will come about once every other week.  Jen is preparing a standalone web site where we’ll be able to talk about new and upcoming episodes, have a show archive, provide show information and wiki pages, and much more.  Great stories and perspectives are being uncovered.  Exciting times!

John Allsopp to Inaugurate ‘The Web Behind’

Jen Simmons and I are very pleased to announce that our first guest on The Web Behind will be none other than John Allsopp.

Hailing from Sydney, Australia, John by himself has seen and done more on the web than most web teams put together.  First encountering the web in the early 1990s, he built one of the very first CSS tools, Style Master, and a number of other web development tools; published a wealth of information like support charts and free courses; wrote the deeply insightful and far-seeing article “A Dao of Web Design”; influenced the course of the Web Standards Project; and founded a successful international conference series that continues to this day.

We’re incredibly excited to have John as our inaugural guest, and hope you’ll join us for the live recording this Thursday, September 20th at 6pm Eastern/3pm Pacific.  That’s also Friday, September 21st at 8am Sydney time, and 2200 UTC if you want to calculate your own local offsets.  The time zone dance is the reason we’re recording the first show at that particular time.  Moving forward, the plan is to record on Wednesdays, usually mid-afternoon (US Eastern) but sometimes in the morning—again, depending on the time zones of our guests.

Be able to say you were there when it all started:  please join us for the live recording, and subscribe to get the finished podcasts as they’re released.  We already have some great guests lined up for subsequent shows—more on that as we firm up dates and times—and some interesting plans for the future.  We really hope you’ll be there with us!

The Web Behind

Whenever I meet a new person and we get to talking about our personal lives, one of the things that seems to surprise people the most, besides the fact that I live in Cleveland and not in New York City or San Francisco, is that I have a Bachelor’s of Art in History.  The closest I came to Computer Science was a minor concentration in Artifical Intelligence, and in all honesty it was more of a philosophical study.

To me, history is vital.  As a species, we’ve made a plethora of mistakes and done myriad things right, and the record (and outcomes) of those successes and failures can tell us a great deal about how we got to where we are as well as where we might go.  (Also, from a narrative standpoint, history is the greatest and most authentic story we’ve ever told—even the parts that are untrue.)  The combination of that interest and my ongoing passion for the web is what led me to join the W3C’s recently formed Web History Community Group, where efforts to preserve (digital) historical artifacts are slowly coalescing.

But even more importantly, it’s what has led me to establish a new web history podcast in association with Jen Simmons of The Web Ahead.  The goal of this podcast, which is a subset of The Web Ahead, is to interview people who made the web today possible.  The guests will be authors, programmers, designers, vendors, toolmakers, hobbyists, academics: some whose names you’ll instantly recognize, and others who you’ve never heard of even though they helped shape everything we do.  We want to bring you their stories, get their insights and perspectives, and find out what they’ve been doing of late.  The Mac community has folklore.org; I hope that this podcast will help start to build an similar archive for the web.  You can hear us talk about it a bit on The Web Ahead #34, where we announce our first guest as well as the date and time for our first show!  (Semi-spoiler: it’s next week.)

Jen and I have took to calling this project The Web Behind in our emails, and the name stuck.  It really is a subset of The Web Ahead, so if you’re already subscribed to The Web Ahead, then episodes of The Web Behind will come to you automatically!  If not, and you’re interested, then please subscribe!  We already have some great guests lined up, and will announce the first few very soon.

I haven’t been this excited about a new project in quite some time, so I very much hope you’ll join Jen and me (and be patient as I relearn my radio chops) for a look back that will help to illuminate both our present and our future.

August 2014
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