meyerweb.com

Skip to: site navigation/presentation
Skip to: Thoughts From Eric

Archive: 'Web' Category

Spinning the Web

Can CSS create art?  That’s a question I set out to explore recently, and I like to think that the answer is yes.  You can judge for yourself: Spinning the Web, a gallery on Flickr.

cnn

To be clear, when I say “Can CSS create art?” I don’t mean that in the sense of wondering if art, or artful designs, can be accomplished with CSS.  I think we all know the answer there, and have known at least since the Zen Garden got rolling.  What I’m doing here is using some basic CSS to generate art, using web sites as the medium.  For the series I linked, I spun all of the elements on a page using transform: rotate() to see what resulted.  Any time I saw something I liked, I took a screenshot.  After I was done, I winnowed the shots down to the best ones.

As some of you old-schoolers will probably have recognized, I’m absolutely following in the footsteps of Joshua Davis here, and in fact my working title for this effort was “Once Upon a Browser”.  I saw Josh speak years ago, and clearly remember his description of how he generated a lot of his art.  My process is almost identical, albeit with a bit less automation and computational complexity.

Because this is me, I built a little commentary joke into the first images in the series.  It’s not terribly subtle, but with luck one or two of you will get the same chuckle I did.

I’m already thinking about variants on this theme, so there may be more series to come.  In the meantime, as I surf around I’ll stop every now and again to spin what I see.  I’ll definitely mention any new additions via Twitter, and new series both there and here.  And of course if you follow me on Flickr, you’ll see new pieces as they go up.

I hope you enjoy them half as much as I enjoyed creating them.  And if anyone wants to use the originals as desktop wallpapers, as Tim proposed, feel free!

Degree of Influence

A brief followup to “A Question of Degree“:  I received the following message from the person who first asked the question:

I just spent the last hour or so reading through the comments and, let me tell you, I can’t express how much they helped me! It is now clearly obvious to me that finishing my CS degree is the way to go. A CS degree can make me a better web developer by teaching me about algorithm design and analysis, performance issues, and just how to think like an engineer. Also, since the web changes constantly, a degree will help me embrace those changes. It will always be there for me to fall back on if the web industry doesn’t work out for me.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the discussion, either in the comments here or elsewhere on the net.  You made a positive difference in this world.  Take pride in that, for it is the most important thing any of us can do.

A Question of Degree

I recently found myself asked for advice, which feels odd even at the best of times, and this was (it seemed to me) of a particularly serious nature.  I’m curious to know what you think is the proper answer.

A few days back, I got e-mail with the following questions:

…in your opinion, how useful is a computer science degree for a career in web development? I’m a second year CS major, and considering dropping out because I don’t see the value in it anymore. It’s just taking away my time from learning and doing what I love most–developing web apps. Will dropping out hurt me later on?

I chewed on it for a day or so and then ended up writing the following in response:

I wish I could give you a definitive answer, but the honest truth is that I’m conflicted.  I’m not the only one, either: a recent survey of 26,000+ web professionals indicated that just over half felt their education had some relevance to what they do (http://aneventapart.com/alasurvey2009/#roe).

To use myself as an example, I got my degree (in History, as it happens), but that was before there was such a thing as a career in web development.  The same is true for a lot of the people I think of as contemporary to me; that is, people about my age.  Almost none of them have CS degrees, and many don’t have degrees at all.  I got my job as webmaster of a respected research school because I worked there already and nobody else had ever heard of the web.  I doubt very much that, were I just now exiting school and entering the market, I could do anything like that.

On the other hand, I will say that in the computer field in general, and web in particular, very few people seem to care what degree you do or don’t have.  But here’s the rub: these days, it might be that having a CS degree is what gets you that first job or two.

On the other other hand, if you build some killer web apps, nobody will care about your schooling.  They’ll care about your portfolio.  I don’t know if that lies in front of you, of course.  Maybe it does.  Or maybe it’s a good idea to finish schooling so that you’ll be paper qualified for jobs that say “Requires CS degree or equivalent” if you need to seek them out.

So, to get back to your original question, “It is unless it isn’t” is about the best I can do.  As someone who values education very highly and knows a degree can be an asset in job-seeking, my instinct is to tell you to finish your degree.  As someone who has a lot of contact with successful people who didn’t do that, my intellect requires me to say it’s not critical.

A day past when I sent it, I still don’t feel any less torn.  (And in re-reading what I wrote, I can see my indecision in the writing: scattered, whipping from one side to the other.  Man, did that one ever need an editor!)  I don’t really need to know what people think of what I said, but I’m really curious to know what you would advise this young person.  Leave your thoughts in the comments, if you please, and I’ll make sure word of your input gets passed along to the student who wrote me.  Thanks!

Addendum 12 Nov 10: please see “Degree of Influence” to see how things turned out.

Memetic Epidemiology

I had planned to spend yesterday goofing off, as is my tradition for the day after I return from a conference and don’t have anything immediately pressing on my plate.  Instead I watched and documented, as best I could, a case of memetic epidemiology happen in realtime.

The meme was the Cooks Source story, which I stumbled across relatively early in the day.  I won’t recap the story here, as the original LiveJournal post by Monica Gaudio and Edward Champion’s very well-researched article do a much better job of that.  The latter piece is particularly commendable if you’re new to the story, as it not only explains the genesis of the incident but also lays bare a number of other things that were discovered as the story went ballistic.

I’m not sure exactly where I first came across the story—probably a retweet of Adam Banks by a friend of mine—but at the time the meme was really just getting started.  At that point there were quite a few people posting on the Cooks Source Facebook Wall to chastise the editor, and the rate of posting was accelerating.  I threw in my own tweet on the topic and kept watching the Wall to see if there would be a response, if the Facebook page would be deleted, or something else.  At the same time, I was seeing more and more tweets and retweets of the story, and based on just what I could see, it seemed primed to go crazy.  I was rewteeted by swissmiss, who has four times as many followers as me (and way more influential followers than me), and it was hitting the feeds of more and more people I follow.

When it showed up on John Scalzi’s tweet stream, I actually got a little dizzy.  This was the moment where I felt like the scientist at the beginning of a viral-apocalypse movie, staring at a monitor showing the sites of reported infection in red.  Then, in a burst of tense, ominous music, the dots show up in New York City and around JFK.  Game over.

I got that feeling because I knew that not only is Mr. Scalzi followed by both Neil Gaiman (1.5 million followers) and Wil Wheaton (1.7 million followers), but he is respected and therefore paid attention to by both.  Furthermore, both, as net-savvy content creators like Mr. Scalzi, are exquisitely sensitive to such stories.  It was only a matter of time before one of them passed the story on to their followers.  And sure enough, within minutes, Neil Gaiman did so.

At that point, it seemed only a matter of time before traditional media channels took interest, and though it took a little while, many did.  It literally became an international news story.

Throughout the day, I tracked the situation and tweeted about it as new developments happened.  I almost couldn’t help myself; I was completely captivated by watching a meme unfold and spread in realtime.  Eventually I hit on a crude measurement of the story’s reach, which I dubbed the Speed of Chastisement (SoC).  This was measured by loading the Cooks Source Wall and then scrolling to the bottom of the page, down to the “Older posts” button.  The time elapsed since the last of the Wall posts was the SoC.  When I started looking at it, it was measurable in minutes, but as the day went on the interval dropped.  At one point, it was as low as 34 seconds, and may well have dropped lower when I wasn’t looking.

I wish I could’ve automatically captured that number, say, every minute, because the timeline graph I could make with that data would be fascinating—especially if mapped against various developments, like Neil Gaiman’s retweet of John Scalzi or the time of various article publications.

One of the things I found most fascinating was how the outraged mob used Cooks Source’s own digital presence against it.  I don’t actually mean all the Wall posts, which served as an emotional outlet but otherwise only indicated the story’s memetic velocity (the SoC I mentioned earlier).  What people did was start new threads in the Discussions tab of Cooks Source’s own Facebook page to document the original sources of Cooks Source articles and to compile the contact information for all of the advertisers in Cooks Source.  The speed at which the crowd operated was awesome in the older sense of that word as inspiring of awe, which is itself defined as power to inspire fear or reverence.  As I told a friend, I was fascinated in the same way I’d be fascinated watching, from a distance, a predator hunting down its prey.  Awe-struck.  It was almost frightening to watch how fast people tracked down the various text and image sources, uncovering more and more evidence of bad behavior at full-bore, redlined Internet speed.

On a related point, I was very impressed by the quality of reporting in Edward Champion’s article about the story.  Alone of all the articles I’ve seen (beyond the first couple of LJ posts), his laid out specific examples of repurposed content, and furthermore he had talked to people involved and gotten their perspective and to people at some of the sites and companies whose material had been re-used.  Read the article, if you didn’t already follow one of the links.  It is investigative journalism done far better than any reporter has yet done for any traditional, or even “new media”, news outlet.

I could write about all this for much longer, but I’m going to hold off.  My day wasn’t all just observation and tweets, though.  A few questions kept hovering in the back of my mind.

  • What if the mob had been wrong?

    Imagine with me for a moment that a small crocheting magazine is accused of copyright violation by an author.  The editor, knowing this to be false, sends a dismissive or even sarcastic letter (we’ve all done it).  The author posts their side of the story and excerpts of the letter to their blog, people notice, and suddenly the Flash Mob of Righteousness is back in business.

    What then?  Is it possible, once the rope is out and being tied into a noose, to put it away again?

  • Did Cooks Source actually win?

    As I write this, about 24 hours after the story really blew up, the Cooks Source Facebook page has gone from 110 people who “Like This” to almost 3,400.  Most of those are because in order to comment on the Wall, you have to Like the page, and a whole lot of people hit “Like”, commented, and then hit “Unlike”.  Some of them are still listed because they’re still posting.  Still, assume that by the time it’s all over, between people who want to keep harassing Cooks Source and people who just forgot to hit “Unlike”, they’ll have well over a thousand people listed.  That’s a full order of magnitude jump in claimed like.

    Is that a measure of success?  Will it, in fact, end up a net positive for Cooks Source as it tries to entice advertisers for future issues?  Of course, that assumes the magazine survives the attention of lawyers from Disney, Paula Deen Enterprises, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, the Food Network, Sunset, National Public Radio, and so on and so on.

  • What about Gene Simmons?

    A few weeks back, Gene Simmons (of KISS fame) said that anyone who illegally shares files should be “sued off the face of the earth” and that bands should be litigious about people copying their music.  In response, his web site was cracked and a good deal of derision was directed his way.

    Interesting.  In one case, a content creator who calls for vigorous defense of copyright is attacked for it.  In another, a violator of copyright is attacked.  How many of the people who Wall-bombed Cooks Source’s Facebook page were also cheering the anonymous crackers who harassed Gene Simmons?  Why the disconnect?

    There are many reasons we could cite, and I think the most likely factor is that in both cases, the targets of attack were publicly arrogant and uncompromising about their positions.  That, however, is absolutely no excuse.  If you were outraged by Cooks Source, shouldn’t you cheer Gene Simmons’ stance?  If you rolled your eyes Gene Simmons, shouldn’t you be on the side of Cooks Source?

    I imagine there are people who did one or the other of those things.  But not many.  The contrast says something about how we collectively view intellectual property, and it may not be something we want to face.

This isn’t the first time someone will set off an outrage swarm, and it won’t be the last.  There is much to think about here, about both ourselves and the medium we inhabit.

The Survey, 2010

I TOOK IT! And so should you—THe Survey For People Who Make Websites, 2010

It’s that time again: the 2010 edition of The Survey For People Who Make Websites is open and taking your input.  If you’re someone who creates web sites,  whether all the time or some of the time or even just occasionally, please take just a little bit of your day (as I write this, the average time-to-completion is just over 10 minutes) to let us know about you.  Furthermore, please spread the word to any groups to which you belong—local SIGs, mailing lists, newsgroups, forums, message boards, and so on.  I truly believe it’s important to the profession as a whole to have as many web folks as possible participate.

I was asked a little while back why we do the survey, and my answer surprised me not just for its content but also for how much passion I felt.  I said:

I think it’s a vital investigation, a look into our profession that nobody else is even attempting and is… essential if we’re going to be taken at all seriously by anyone other than ourselves.

And even more vital than that, it tells us who we are, collectively speaking. We’re scattered. Many of us are solo. We don’t even know what kind of community we’ve joined. The Survey, though limited and imperfect, tells us something profound and essential about us.

That’s why I’ve wholeheartedly supported this effort from its very outset, putting in hours upon hours of thought and effort into its operation and approving the use of [funds] to pay for professional analysis. This matters.

Other professions have it easy: they require certification or degrees or membership in a professional organization before you can take part.  Because of that, they can often estimate to a reasonable degree, or even count directly, how many of them there are.  They can go to their membership rolls and survey a few thousand randomly picked members to find out their age, location, experience, salary, and anything else that seems interesting to know.

We who build the web don’t have that luxury.  Our profession, just like the medium it serves, has no gatekeepers, no central organization, no clear boundaries.  The Survey is our attempt to disambiguate ourselves.

So please, if you’re someone who makes web sites, take ten minutes to tell us about yourself.  If you know people who make web sites, please point them to the survey and ask them the same.  Thank you.

Vendor Prefix Lists

At the prompting of an inquiry from a respected software vendor, I asked The Twitters for pointers to “canonical” lists of vendor-prefixed properties, values, and selectors.  Here’s what the crowd sourced at me:

Lists more than just prefixed properties, values, and so on.

While there’s no guarantee of completeness or accuracy, these are at least what the vendors themselves provide and so we can cling to some hope of both.  I was also pointed to the following third-party lists:

If you know of great vendor-prefix lists that aren’t listed here, particularly anything from the vendors themselves, please let us know in the comments!

Somewhat if not obviously related: does anyone know of a way to add full Textile support to BBEdit 9.x?  Having it be a Unix filter is fine.  I know BBEdit already supports Markdown, but since Basecamp uses Textile and lots of people I work with use Basecamp, I’d like stick to one syntax rather than confuse myself trying to switch between two similar syntaxes.

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.

App Shopping

While I agree with Neven Mrgan’s Walled Gardens, I feel like the whole imagery of walled gardens is a bit of a metaphorical stretch—not because it’s inaccurate, but because it’s fundamentally unnecessary.  We don’t need metaphors here.

That’s because the iTunes App Store is just what its name states: it is a store.  That has a fairly specific and intentional meaning in the world of commerce.  It means that the stock is not infinite and that someone has screened it.

Think of visiting a store in the real world.  Not a small shop, but a store.  Something large (or at least largish) with lots of things to buy.  Macy’s.  Target.  Wal-Mart.  Or even the local hardware and general store in a small town, where there’s more than just tools and nails and bags of cement mix.

You go there to buy things because it’s a central location for buying a lot of things.  But inherent in the experience is that what you find on the shelves has been selected and vetted by the person or people running the store.  That doesn’t just mean favoring one brand of soap over another, but also deciding what to carry at all.  Your hardware store doesn’t sell flat-panel HDTVs.  Macy’s doesn’t stock six-inch PVC pipe.  Target doesn’t offer porn.  They have all selected some things to carry and rejected, if only implicitly, others.  Certain brands are not carried because their quality didn’t meet the proprietor’s standards, didn’t fit the store’s audience and brand, or weren’t sufficiently profitable to claim valuable shelf space.

This is an assumption about stores that we hardly notice except when it’s clearly not so.  If you’ve ever stepped into a store where it’s fairly obvious that everything, and I mean everything, the owner has ever come across in their life has been thrown onto the shelves on the theory that hell, it might look like junk but you never know what might be valuable to somebody, and you know what I mean.  We subconsciously expect that a store will offer wares which have been screened for quality and price, all conveniently collected in one place for our purchase.

So it is with the App Store.  It’s a central location for iPhone and iPad owners to go shop for apps.  The stock is large—too large for any physical store to handle—but it is still screened.  You may not like the screening criteria, just as you may not like the screening criteria exercised at Wal-Mart, but it exists nonetheless.

In the desktop computing world, of course, no such control exists.  There you find and collect applications wherever you find them, whether in a store or somewhere on the internet.  This is much the same as doing your shopping by driving around to garage sales and flea markets.  Taken as an aggregate, there’s no quality control, no screening, no organization.  It’s catch as catch can.

There’s room in the world for both models, of course.  Some people avoid stores in favor of flea markets and yard sales and the like because that’s what they prefer.  Others go to stores and avoid garage sales because they prefer the more controlled experience.  In fact, think about everyone you know.  How many prefer store shopping, and how many prefer flea market shopping?  In that light, the iTunes Store’s success is really no mystery.  It’s not just curated computing, which some have derided.  It’s curated shopping, a model which has already proven wildly popular.  More than that, it’s simple and cheap curated shopping, which is approximately the square of two wildly popular models.

You may say that there’s a significant difference between the physical world and the iTunes App Store.  If the real world were like iPhone/iPad ecosystem, there would only be one store in the whole world.  Everyone would have to shop there, and any merchant who couldn’t get in would be out of business for lack of customers.  In the real world, we can go to any store we like:  each is curated, but we can shop at the stores that offer what we like (read: that curate in a manner we find pleasing) and not the ones that don’t.  The App Store is the only place to shop.

But that’s only true if you believe that the iPhone/iPad is the only mobile ecosystem in town, which is an assumption a weirdly large number of Apple’s critics seem to make.  In fact, you’re perfectly free to join other ecosystems and shop at other stores.  Android has one, for example.  There are others.  If you don’t like what Apple offers you, then you can shop somewhere else, as many people do.

But let’s assume that you’re personally invested in the iPhone/iPad ecosystem and can’t for some reason avoid or leave it.  In that case, you’re stuck with that one single store, the App Store.

Except that’s only true because until now, nobody has launched an alternate store that offers web stack applications (WSAs).  Maybe that’s because nobody is really building WSAs yet, at least not in numbers large enough to justify building a store to sell them.  But then, maybe developers aren’t building WSAs because there’s no central place to sell them.  The centralization of stores is at least as attractive to sellers as to shoppers.  That’s a driver behind the recent announcements from Google and Mozilla, though as yet they’re just announcements.

A WSA store organized along lines similar to the App Store could do very, very well.  It would need to make the shopping and, more importantly, purchasing experiences as frictionless as possible; this is something the iTunes Store has definitely gotten right.  But suppose someone built a great WSA store and sold WSAs on a 20% commission.  How many developers might look at that and figure that the extra 10% was worth making a shift?

It certainly wouldn’t be as easy as just setting up a store and building a Scrooge McDuck vault; no, there would be many challenges, but nothing truly insurmountable.  Of that I am certain.  And the great thing is that, just like in the physical world, there’s room for multiple stores—boutique app shops, if you like.  Maybe one specializes in games; another in parent- and kid-centric apps; another in productivity apps; yet another in the “naughty” apps Apple booted out of its ecosystem a while back.  (I call them “fapps” for obvious reasons.)  Maybe these are app shops instead of app stores, but then, any large population can support a whole lot of shops.  They can coexist with any number of other stores, including those from Apple and Google and Mozilla and anyone else.

None of these WSA stores and shops would be able to sell native apps, but that’s less of an obstacle than many seem to think.  The window between native app behavior and WSA behavior has narrowed at an astonishing rate recently, and will continue to do so.  I’m not saying that you can do absolutely anything with a WSA that you can do in native code, of course, but a lot of native apps could have been done as WSAs.  Could still be done that way, in fact.

That points to the other advantage of a WSA store: it’s not limited to the iPhone/iPad ecosystem.  A well-written WSA can run in multiple ecosystems.  Being based on web technologies, they can (for the most part) go where the web goes.  The market is suddenly much bigger than the iTunes Store, much bigger than people carrying around Apple devices.  Much bigger than the people carrying around Droids, for that matter.  With WSAs, developers can sell in multiple ecosystems at once, using the most successful cross-platform technology since ones and zeros.

Besides which, in a very real sense, WSAs are not cross-platform apps.  They’re web platform apps that run in a native app that provides a window from a mobile ecosystem into the web.  We call that app a web browser, but it’s becoming more than that, and faster than many would have credited even six months ago.  The opportunities are beyond enormous.

For starters, imagine this: you have bought a number of apps at your favorite WSA store and installed them on your iPhone.  Then you find out you can finally get the hell off AT&T and move to a Verizon iPhone.  When you do that, the WSA store lets you install the apps you’ve already bought on your new ViPhone.  If it’s sufficiently smart, it will even migrate their data for you by way of the store itself.  Then, two years later, you decide you’ve had enough of Apple and want to move to another smartphone.  Once again, your apps and data go with you.

This is what the web stack makes possible.  If you thought mobile number portability was cool, imagine what you’ll think of mobile app portability.

April 2014
SMTWTFS
March  
 12345
6789101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
27282930  

Archives

Feeds

Extras