Posts from “Thoughts From Eric”

CWRU2K

Published 2 months, 4 weeks ago

Before I tell you this story of January 1st, 2000, I need to back things up a few months into mid-1999.  I was working at Case Western Reserve University as a Hypermedia Systems Specialist, which was the closest the university’s job title patterns could get to my actual job which was, no irony or shade, campus Webmaster.  I was in charge of www.cwru.edu and providing support to departments who wanted a Web presence on our server, among many other things.  My fellow Digital Media Services employees provided similar support for other library and university systems.

So in mid-1999, we were deep in the throes of Y2K certification.  The young’uns in the audience won’t remember this, but to avoid loss of data and services when the year rolled from 1999 to 2000, pretty much the entire computer industry was engaged in a deep audit of every computer and program under our care.  There’s really been nothing quite like it, before or since, but the job got done.  In fact, it got done so well, barely anything adverse happened and some misguided people now think it was all a hoax designed to extract hefty consulting fees, instead of the successful global preventative effort it actually was.

As for us, pretty much everything on the Web side was fine.  And then, in the middle of one of our staff meetings about Y2K certification, John Sully said something to the effect of, “Wouldn’t it be funny if the Web server suddenly thought it was 1900 and you had to use a telegraph to connect to it?”

We all laughed and riffed on the concept for a bit and then went back to Serious Work Topics, but the idea stuck in my head.  What would a 1900-era Web site look like?  Technology issues aside, it wasn’t a complete paradox: the ancestor parts of CWRU, the Case Institute of Technology and the Western Reserve University, had long existed by 1900 (founded 1880 and 1826, respectively).  The campus photos would be black and white rather than color, but there would still be photos.  The visual aesthetic might be different, but…

I decided so make it a reality, and CWRU2K was born.  With the help of the staff at University Archives and a flatbed scanner I hauled across campus on a loading dolly, I scanned a couple dozen photos from the period 1897-1900—basically, all those that were known to be in the public domain, and which depicted the kinds of scenes you might put on a Web site’s home page.

Then I reskinned the home page to look more “old-timey” without completely altering the layout or look.  Instead of university-logo blues and gold, I recolored everything to be wood-grain.  Helvetica was replaced with an “Old West” font in the images, of which there were several, mostly in the form of MM_swapimage-style rollover buttons.  In the process, I actually had to introduce two Y2K bugs to the code we used to generate dates on the page, so that instead of saying 2000 they’d actually say 1899 or 1900.  I altered other things to match the time, like altering the phone number to use two-letters-then-numbers format while still retaining full international dialing information and adding little curlicues to things.  Well before the holidays, everything was ready.

The files were staged, a cron job was set up, and at midnight on January 1st, 2000, the home page seamlessly switched over to its 1900 incarnation.  That’s a static snapshot of the page, so the picture will never change, but I have a gallery of all the pictures that could appear, along with their captions, which I strove to write in that deadpan stating-the-obvious tone the late 19th Century always brings to my mind.  (And take a close look at the team photo of The Rough Riders!)

In hindsight, our mistake was most likely in adding a similarly deadpan note to the home page that read:

Year 2000 Issues

Despite our best efforts at averting Y2K problems, it seems that our Web server now believes that it is January of 1900. Please be advised that we are working diligently on the problem and hope to have it fixed soon.

I say that was a mistake because it was quoted verbatim in stories at Wired and The Washington Post about Y2K glitches.  Where they said we’d actually suffered a real, unintentional Y2K bug, with Wired giving us points for having “guts” in publicly calling “a glitch a glitch”.  After I emailed both reporters to explain the situation and point them to our press release about it, The Washington Post did publish a correction a few days later, buried in a bottom corner of page A16 or something like that.  So far as I know, Wired never acknowledged the error.

CWRU2K lasted a little more than a day.  Although we’d planned to leave it up until the end of January, we were ordered to take it down on January 2nd.  My boss, Ron Ryan, was directed to put a note in my Permanent Record.  The general attitude Ron conveyed to me was along the lines of, “The administration says it’s clever and all, but it’s time to go back to the regular home page.  Next time, we need to ask permission rather than forgiveness.”

What we didn’t know at the time was how close he’d come to being fired.  At Ron’s retirement party last year, the guy who was his boss on January 2nd, 2000, Jim Barker, told Ron that Jim had been summoned that day to a Vice President’s office, read the riot act, and was sent away with instructions to “fire Ron’s ass”.  Fortunately, Jim… didn’t.  And then kept it to himself for almost 20 years.

There were a number of other consequences.  We got a quite a bit of email about it, some in on the joke, others taking it as seriously as Wired.  There’s a particularly lovely note partway down that page from the widow of a Professor Emeritus, and have to admit that I still smile over the props we got from folks on the NANOG mailing list.  I took an offer to join a startup a couple of months later, and while I was probably ready to move on in any case, the CWRU2K episode—or rather, the administration’s reaction to it—helped push me to make the jump.  I was probably being a little juvenile and over-reacting, but I guess you do that when you’re younger.  (And I probably would have left the next year regardless, when I got the offer to join Netscape as a Standards Evangelist.  Actual job title!)

So, that’s the story of how Y2K affected me.  There are some things I probably would have done differently if I had it to do over, but I’m 100% glad we did it.


Running Code Over Time

Published 3 months ago

I’m posting this on the last day of 2019.  As I write it, the second post I ever made on meyerweb says it was published “20 years, 6 days ago”.  It was published on the second-to-last day of 1999, which was 20 years and one day ago.

Up top, the date when I wrote this post.  Down below, a five-day error.

What I realized, once the discrepancy was pointed out to me (hat tip: Eric Portis), is the five-day error is there because in the two decades since I posted it, there have been five leap days.  When I wrote the code to construct those relative-time strings, I either didn’t think about leap days, or if I did, I decided a day or two here and there wouldn’t matter all that much.

Which is to say, I failed to think about the consequences of my code running over long periods of time.  Maybe a day or two of error isn’t all that big a deal, in human-friendly relative-time output.  If a post was six years and two days ago but the code says 6 and 1, well, nobody will really care that much even if they notice.  But five days is noticeable, and what’s more, it’s a little human-unfriendly.  It’s noticeable.  It jars.

I think a lot of us tend not to think about running code over long time periods.  I don’t even mean long time periods in “Web years”, though I could—the Web is now just about three decades old, depending on when you reckon the start date.  (Births of the web are like standards—there are so many to choose from!)  I mean human-scale long periods of time, code that is old enough to have been running before your children were born, or maybe even you yourself.  Code that might still be running long after you die, or your children do.

The Web often seems ephemeral.  Trends shift, technologies advance, frameworks flare and fade.  There’s always so much new shiny stuff to try, new things to learn, that it seems like nothing will last.  We say “the Internet never forgets” (even though it does so all the time) but it’s lip service at this point.  And yet, the first Web pages are still online and accessible.

Which means the code that underpins them, from the HTML to the HTTP, is all still running and viable after 30 years.  The foresight that went into those technologies, and the bedrock commitment to consistency over long time frames, is frankly incredible.  It’s inspiring.  Compatibility both forwards and backwards in time, over decades and perhaps eventually centuries, is a remarkable achievement.

As I write this, I have yet to fix my relative-time code.  It’s on my list now, and I plan to get to it soon.  I presume the folks creating Intl.RelativeTimeFormat (hat tip: Amelia Bellamy-Royds) put a lot more thought into their code than I did mine, because they know they’re writing for long time frames.

What I need to do is adopt that same mindset.  I think we all do.  We should think of our code, even our designs, as running for decades, and alter our work to match.  I don’t necessarily know what that means, but we’ll never find out unless we try.


Twenty Years (and Days) Later

Published 3 months, 5 days ago

Twenty years and twenty days ago, I published the first blog post on meyerweb.com.  It wasn’t my first blog post; I’d been putting blog-style updates on my CWRU home page since at least 1997, and probably a year or so earlier, albeit without the kind of archiving that would later come to define blogging.  Regardless, December 6th, 1999, is the moment this site effectively came online.

In those days, I just hand-modified the HTML of the site’s home page, copy-and-pasting the least recent entry on the home page to an manually-managed archive page.  A year or so into that, I decided to rework things to automate the process.  Näturally, the solution was to write my posts as XML files, jam them through some hand-authored XSLT, and get HTML out the other side.  Most of which, in fairness, was auto-generated.  My C and V keys breathed small sighs of relief.  It was a few years after that when I migrated to WordPress, doing so primarily to get support for comments on posts, a feature I maintain to this day.

A lot has come out of this site, and most of that is due to its blog.  This is where I worked out my CSS reset in public, with the community’s input; where I announced css/edge (in the days before my blog posts had titles) and An Event Apart; where I commented on the issues of the day as the web evolved; where I complained about browser vendors and standards bodies; and where I chronicled some of the very worst moments of my life.  There are posts in the archive that still get decent traffic today.  Here are the top ten from just this month:

  1. The Constants Gardener (August 31st, 2005) – about CSS, variables, and Shaun Inman.
  2. Un-fixing Fixed Elements with CSS Transforms (September 12th, 2011) – how element transforms establish formatting contexts, and how that interacts with fixed positioning.
  3. Reset Reloaded (May 1st, 2007) – when I finalized CSS Rest 1.0, including the much-regretted :focus {outline: 0;} line that set web accessibility back by years (see point #2 in the post and weep).
  4. Resetting Again (January 15th, 2008) – a small update to Reset 1.0.
  5. Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty (December 24th, 2014) – how good design can lead to very bad outcomes.
  6. Reset Reasoning (April 18th, 2007) – an early explanation for why I was working on a reset at all.
  7. Content Blocking Primer (September 19th, 2015) – written when iOS shipped content blockers, it still feels timely, which depresses me.
  8. JavaScript Will Save Us All (October 22nd, 2008) – an argument you could use in support of Houdini today, and an argument I’m much less certain about the rightness of today.  (Be careful what you wish for, etc.)
  9. Wanted: Layout System (February 17th, 2009) – basically, me begging for Grid years before Grid was a thing (while deriding attempts to get partway there through display trickery, something else I’m less righteous about today).
  10. Formal Weirdness (May 15th, 2007) – why form elements are weird, as a way of understanding why styling them is so restricted and difficult.

Looking over that list, 2007 was a big year for meyerweb, and 2008 wasn’t too shabby either.  Not that 2019 was terrible: the site still gets about 13,000 visits a day, and the blog portion is probably half to two-thirds of that traffic.

I won’t deny that blogging has been harder of late.  There are a few reasons, from social media releasing a lot of the “talk to the world” pressure that drove the original blogs to time available to write to having trouble feeling like what I have to say is of value.  On that last, I need to to remind myself of what I would tell anyone who asked: speaking is valuable, whether or not anyone listens, and what you can’t ever know is who will hear what you have to say at exactly the moment they need to hear it.

And so, in 2020, I’m going to do my best to rededicate myself to posting here, at a minimum of once a month but hopefully closer to once a week.  It will be the same blend I’ve always maintained, mixing technical posts with personal expression at will, sometimes in the same post.

Here’s to another twenty years—if not more—of blogging.


“Flexible Captioned Slanted Images” at 24 ways

Published 3 months, 1 week ago

We have a lot of new layout tools at our disposal these days—flexbox is finally stable and interoperable, and Grid very much the same, with both technologies having well over 90% support coverage. In that light, we might think there’s no place for old tricks like negative margins, but I recently discovered otherwise.

That’s the opening paragraph to my 24ways piece “Flexible Captioned Slanted Images”, which I now realize I should have called “Accessible Flexible Captioned Slanted Images”.  Curse my insufficient title writing!  In just about 2,000 words, I explore a blend of new CSS and old layout tricks to take an accessible markup structure and turn it into the titular slanted images, which are fully flexible across all screen sizes while being non-rectangular.

It’s just my second piece for 24ways, coming a dozen years and a day after the first—and is very possibly my last, as Drew closed out this year by putting 24ways on hiatus.  Fifteen years is a heck of a run for any project, let alone an annual side project, and I salute everyone involved along the way.  Content is hard.  Managing content is harder.  Here’s to everyone who put in the time and energy to make such a valuable resource.  If you’ve never been through the 24 ways archives, now’s your chance.  I promise it will be very much worth your time.


So Full of Fire

Published 9 months, 3 weeks ago

I was recently at a conference where someone thanked me for my openness about Rebecca and grieving, and expressed their condolences.  And then they said, “She was obviously very sweet—” to which I must’ve pulled a face, because they said stumbled to a stop and then said, “No?”

I reflected for a few moments.  Eventually I said something to the effect of her being more sassy than sweet.  I believe the words “a real firecracker” were used.  She was never malicious.  She was usually laughing.  She had her sweet side.  But it was just one of many sides.

I was reminded of this today when I came across a post by Elizabeth K., who has worked for years at the kids’ preschool.

I witnessed [Rebecca’s] defiance more than once.  But especially this one time, when Kat, never losing her temper and never wavering on the rules, amazingly sat calmly on the couch in our office as Becca refused to say “please” for a lollipop.  There were many “NO!s” when countlessly reminded all she needed to do was utter a simple word.  She never gave in.  She left without a lollipop.  She held her ground.  She was three.

You might say that every kid does that sometimes, but with Rebecca, it was pretty common.  She wanted things her way, and she was incredibly tenacious about it, willing to forfeit the thing she wanted rather than yield.  Filled with fire and determination, practically vibrating with the force of her will.  We had occasional fears about what she’d be like as a teenager, never suspecting.  We’d already quarter-jokingly agreed with her best friend’s parents that, when we eventually had to bail the two of them out of juvenile detention, neither of us would blame the others.

It’s incredible to think what I’d have given to have that experience.  And how angry and unthinkingly ungrateful I’d have been, had that come to pass.

Elizabeth’s post ends:

…I love to visit the Kindergarten classes because many of the students are children who were in our Early Childhood Center and Daycare program the year before.  So I was welcomed with lots of “Lizzy!”s and “Look what I made!”s.  I was looking at Ruthie’s art project when Becca and I caught each other’s eye.  I told Ruthie how great her picture was and then said to Becca “You know what today is?” to which I got the famous side-eye.  “It’s no-hug day.  There are no hugs allowed today.”

She thought about it for a second and then leapt into my arms.  One of those great big hugs.  She loosened her grip, turned her head and whispered into my ear, “You were fooling.”  Sharp as whip.

“Yep.  But I got a hug.”  She gave me another classic Becca face, [smiled], and went back to her friends.

I count myself lucky to have been witness to her spark and her sparkling personality.  To say she will be missed does not cover it – not at all.


Half a Decade

Published 9 months, 3 weeks ago

Rebecca has been dead for half a decade now.

I feel like I’ve run out of words.  How many times, how many ways can I say that nothing is quite right, nor ever will be?  That I miss the girl she would be today, eleven years old?  That I’ve learned to hear around the void she left, but it’s always there in quiet moments, omnipresent, like tinnitus of the soul?

Five years gone.  It will never be okay.  I will never be okay, no matter what I answer when asked how I’m doing.  I lie, all the time, to strangers and friends.  To customer service reps.  Librarians.  Other parents at school.  Myself.

“Hey, how are you?”

“I’m all right.”  Liar.  But better that than dropping a tragedy bomb on an unsuspecting soul.

A cashier asked me this morning how I was doing today, and I didn’t answer, because the words froze in my heart and I doubted that they cared all that much anyway.  I waited a beat or two, silent, and then said, “How ’bout you?”

“Doin’ okay,” they said, as if I’d answered them.  Maybe it was true.  Maybe they were lying.  Or maybe they didn’t have any particular reason to think about what they said and whether or not it was true, or false, or not even wrong.

I’ve said I’m used to it, and that was the truth.  I’m not over it, will never be over it so long as I live, but I’m used to it.

Being used to this hurts, when I think about it.  So I try not to think about it, and that hurts too.  Not like a sword through the heart, not like unending fire, more like a dull ache.  My aging body is starting to produce more and more of those.  I resent it for living years beyond what Rebecca got.  Snarl at reality for offering no way to give my years to her.

I’ve said all these things before, one way or another.

Five years.

No words.


D-Day

Published 9 months, 3 weeks ago

Today was D-Day for our family.  I mean, yes, three generations ago, the Allied invasion of Europe commenced, and that’s a moment of which to take note.

But for us, this was an entirely different D-Day: Driving Day.

Carolyn passed the test and was granted a Learner’s Permit from the State of Ohio.  She is now legally allowed, under certain conditions, to drive on public and private roads.  Just as she’s wanted pretty much since the day she realized driving was a thing she’d be allowed to do someday.  So, a decade or more.

Before anyone asks, no, I am not terrified.  I’ve already done some basic winter-driving lessons with her in parking lots, back when things were icy, and what I observed told me what I’d always expected—that she’ll be a capable, confident driver.  There will always be fear in the back of my brain, but that was going to be true regardless.  More than anything, I’m grateful that she’ll have this opportunity.  I expect dings and dents and scrapes.  I expect she’ll learn quickly, as she usually does.  And I expect that, after a time, I’ll entrust her to drive her little brother to and from his activities.

Just like I expected, and rightly so, that she’d be one of the few people on this Earth with a legitimately good-looking license photo.  It’s a gift.

Happy D-Day to you, Carolyn.  May the road always rise to meet you.


The Broken Physics of “The Umbrella Academy” Finale

Published 11 months, 2 days ago

Not long ago, Kat and I got around to watching The Umbrella Academy’s first season on Netflix.  I thought it was pretty good!  It was a decent mix of good decisions and bad decisions by people in the story, I liked most of the characters and their portrayals, and I thought the narrative arcs came to good places. Not perfect, but good.

Except.  I have to talk about the finale, people.  I have to get into why the ending, the very last few minutes of season one, just didn’t work for me.  And in order to do that, I’m going to deploy, for the first time ever, a WordPress Spoiler Cut™ on this here blog o’ mine, because this post is spoilerrific.  Ready?  Here we go.

Massive, massive spoilers and a fair amount of science ahead!