Posts from March 2003

Rockin’ WiFi

Published 21 years, 4 months past

So here I am, sitting in Rockin’ Java in the upper Haight, surfing on the free wifi.  All kinds of cool people are (and have been) here, including Matt Haughey, Tantek Çelik, Erika Hall, Scott Andrew, Doug Bowman, Michael Leung, and Merlin.  Some other people have drifted through but I didn’t catch their names.  Sooner or later I ought to buy something.  Or not.

As is always the case for San Francisco, the weather is beautiful and the driving horrendous.  Tight parking I can handle, but the restrictions on turning, one-way streets, and general vehicular topography are a nightmare.  It makes Cleveland Heights look like nothing.  I can well understand the impulse to be a biker in this city, and I’d almost certainly be one if I lived here.

Regardless, it’s a thrill to be sitting with smart folks and talking about whatever comes to mind.  I’m looking forward to more of the same over the next few days.

Through Another Pair of Eyes

Published 21 years, 4 months past

This week on Netscape DevEdge is part one of a two-part interview with Mike Davidson of ESPN, who talks in depth about their curent redesign efforts.  On the ESPN home page they’re currently using CSS positioning to lay everything out.  That means they’ve dropped tables as a layout mechanism and, in the process, about 50KB of page weight.  Mike has some very strong opinions, and I imagine they’ll be controversial in certain circles, but he speaks from the perspective of a designer in charge of a commercial site that serves close to a billion page views every month.  His is a thoroughly practical point of view, and he’s not shy about it.  I highly recommend it, and not just because I wrote the questions.

Through the O’Reilly Network, I came across a link to an English-language blog called Where Is Raed?, written by a resident of Baghdad.  This past Sunday, he posted a rant against war and for democracy that should be read by anyone who wants to get insight into how the events of the past year and decade are viewed by those who had to pay the price.  A tiny exceprt:

how could “support democracy in Iraq” become to mean “bomb the hell out of Iraq”? why did it end up that democracy won’t happen unless we go thru war? Nobody minded an un-democratic Iraq for a very long time, now people have decided to bomb us to democracy? Well, thank you! how thoughtful.

Before you dismiss this as obvious propaganda, go read the piece in its entirety.

Note to those in the San Francisco area: I’ll be hanging out with some very cool people (like Doug and Tantek) at Rockin’ Java this Sunday at 2:00pm.  All are welcome for discussion, open wifi, and caffeinated drinks.  Be there or be, um, elsewhere.

AAAAA! My Eyes!

Published 21 years, 4 months past

Thanks to Tantek, I found out that Christine accused CSS of making her eyes bleed while at SxSW.  I can’t say that’s ever happened to me, although maybe it has to Joshua Davis.  (After all, we only have his word about the red food coloring.)  Also thanks to Tantek, I read that the subtle evilness of CSS gives Natalie headaches, and in surfing further onward I found that it apparently also makes Dave’s head explode.  I’m sure there are similarly colorful stories of CSS-inspired pain and suffering out there.  I wonder if anyone’s accused it of giving them some horrible disease.

Between amused chuckles, I feel a touch of concern.  There seems to have been a real failure to communicate with developers the benefits and perils of CSS; or at least, that’s what I assume is causing all the pain.  After all, from my point of view, it’s font tags and nested tables with three hundred shim GIFs that inspire eye-bleeding.  If there’s evil in design, it’s needing more markup than content to create a layout, as was the case for years.  Compared to all that old-school HTML design crap, CSS is like the breeze off a mountain pasture filled with blossoming wild flowers on the first warm day of spring.

It does require something of a conceptual leap to use CSS well, there’s no question.  But it seems that there’s a more important question, which is this: why do people find working with CSS to be so painful?  Is it simply because it’s new, or is there something more critical happening here?

I’ll freely admit that I’ve had times where trying to understand aspects of CSS made the veins in my forehead throb.  In fact, the worst such period was when I was trying (with a great deal of help) to decipher the line box model.  I spent a week of evenings wanting to drive my head through the monitor because it just didn’t make sense—but then, when I finally got it, everything seemed very clear.  (Not that my summary document does anything to reflect that clarity.)  I still think the line box model is flawed in certain important ways, largely because it works well to replicate legacy behaviors, and of course I’ve already complained about the deplorable state of typographic styling.

There are also certain behaviors which CSS does not make easy, although that’s more the fault of CSS still being young in terms of development than anything else.  It’s true that the box model doesn’t allow you to make an element stretch around a floated descendant, but that’s because in most cases you don’t want such stretching.  When you do, of course, it becomes very frustrating that there’s no simple solution.  There’s been a property proposed for CSS3 that would give the author the power to choose how such situations are handled.  There are also proposed properties that would let authors choose how line boxes are laid out, how element boxes are sized, and more.

That’s where my concern starts to grow into a certain species of dread.  People are already complaining that CSS is too difficult for them to grasp.  What will happen when, in the name of giving designers the layout control they want, CSS becomes so complex that nobody can learn the whole thing?  What good will it do to have a compact, human-readable styling language if nobody actually understands what it says?  I mean, it would still be an improvement over XSL:FO, which almost nobody can fully understand or read, thanks to its incredibly clumsy syntax.  But not much of an improvement; if you know all the words but can’t speak complete sentences, it’s still hard to ask for directions to the nearest coffee shop with an open wireless network and a customers-only bathroom.  If you catch my drift.

Problem is, I don’t see a way to avoid this over the long term.  It seems like any layout language will, eventually, become too complex to fully grasp.  Perhaps the best we can hope for is to have a language that humans can read, and let people specialize in different areas—Joe becomes an expert in typographic styling, Jane in element layout, Jerry in font descriptors, Jolene in selector construction, and so on.  It saddens me to think this, but there it is anyway.

In the meantime, I wonder what authors most need to know about CSS right now, and how that knowledge can be communicated to them.  How can the pain be eased, if not completely removed?

Close to the Edge

Published 21 years, 4 months past

I’m trying to find out if there’s a country or other region in this world whose annual, monthly, or daily bandwidth consumption is in the vicinity of 700 terabytes (5.6 petabits).  Searches for this type of information have so far come up empty; I was pointed to the Internet Traffic Report but its figures are too abstract to be useful to me, plus they seem to be based on ping times instead of actual bandwidth.  Anyone have a pointer to freely available information along those lines?

Yesterday’s mail contained a copy of the shiny new book Cascading Style Sheets: The Designer’s Edge by Molly Holzschlag.  It’s very, um, red.  It’s also in full color throughout, chock full o’ information, presents some case studies of CSS-driven design, and talks about CSS and design as if they go together, which of course they do.  I did technical editing and wrote the Foreword, where I said:

…CSS is a visual language, one that was meant to be used by designers from the beginning.  Books aimed at that particular audience are long overdue, frankly, and I’m thrilled to see them emerging at long last.  I’m even more thrilled that we’re getting one from Molly Holzschlag.

Personally I think Molly’s a really truly wonderful person and my wife agrees with me, so if you’re particularly worried about bias, there’s mine.  One of them, at any rate.  I also have a fondness for hot chai drinks, in case anyone’s keeping track.

Dear God, but this is just so wrong.  That damn song they sing is still stuck in my head, which I’m sure was the point, but the visuals are even more vividly seared upon my memory.  Requires Flash to actually see the full extent of the wrongness.  Also requires that you not be at work or some other place of propriety, or in the presence of people who are easily offended, or be easily offended yourself.

Then again, far worse things are looming in the real world, and it won’t be cuddly cartoon characters who pay the price when the storm finally breaks.

O Lucky Day

Published 21 years, 4 months past

Kat returns from San Francisco today, five days after we parted ways in Houston.  Then, on Saturday, I leave for… San Francisco (!).  I’ll be speaking at User Interface 7 West with Molly H. (someone totally different than Molly S., who I finally met last week in Austin).  The full-day session we delivered last October got great reviews from its attendees, so we’re doing it again, only with a better pace and less boring stretches.  Our short talk, on the other hand, is new to the UI7 series and is based on some of the stuff I’ve been talking about recently.  You can get more information from my Talks page, or else from the UI7 site itself.

I laughed pretty hard at some of Perry Hoberman‘s “OK/Cancel” series, but the “Infringement” series made me chuckle uncomfortably before thinking about it.  The series reminded me rather strongly of the Bang Interface Neologue by Natalie Jeremijenko (search her project page for that title if you’re curious).  I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Internet society as compared to physical-world societies, how they influence each other, and how they could improve each other.  In the process, my appreciation for what we have online has increased.  The challenge is in migrating what I see there into the “real” world.

It’s a beautiful day outside, and I have a window open to let in the clean scent of spring.  Birds are cheeping quietly to each other, as if asking in hushed tones if winter is finally over, afraid they’ll jinx it.  This is perhaps my favorite time of year, and one of the reasons I’ve stayed in a region that has a seasonal cycle.  The fresh scent carried on the breezes of spring, still chilled from leftover snow but bursting with life all the same, is one of life’s truest joys.

Multiple Exposures

Published 21 years, 4 months past

Two interviews with me have come out in quick succession:

I think a question got dropped from the UI7 interview text, although the answer is still there; I’m going to go e-mail them about it right now.

This morning I watched a freezing rain turn to snow.  All the tree branches and power lines look like bizarre combs, with ranks upon ranks of small icicles hanging every few inches.  I can’t quite decide if it’s beautiful or not.  Something to contemplate on my way to tonight’s meetup.

Back From SxSW

Published 21 years, 4 months past

After a great breakfast at El Sol y La Luna and a quick chat with Tantek on der cellphonen, I spent most of the day on planes and arrived back in Cleveland this evening sans Kat; we parted ways in Houston as I flew back home and she flew to San Francisco for a conference of her own.  I miss her already.

A quick SxSW Interactive braindump:

  • There was nowhere near enough time for me to talk with everyone I wanted to talk to, let alone spend time on it and really get in-depth.
  • WiFi is a particularly sharp sword of the two-edged variety.  It’s great to be able to check mail and IM while you’re sitting in a session, but it’s also kind of rude.  I sat listening to Bruce Sterling talk, and sort of felt like I was the only one doing so as everyone around me typed furiously.
  • Speaking of which, Tantek posted this journal entry while sitting on the podium during our panel.  While I was talking, in fact.
  • Apparently the panel was very, very well received.  There was a good deal of positive feedback from various people, and I heard a rumor that we scored very high on the audience evaluation cards.
  • If you’re going to have live entertainment in a small space, try not to deafen everyone with too much volume and way too much feedback.  (No, I’m not talking about Fray Café, which was very well mixed.)
  • Now I am talking about Fray Café: Scott Andrew’s bet-winning song is both a hoot and a holler.  Although it was much funnier when Scott performed it.
  • Apparently in Texas they spell it “Austin Geek Party” but pronounce it “Adult Webmasters Party.”  A small group of us found this out by dropping in to talk to the Austin geeks.  Imagine our surprise!
  • If there’s one useful thing I’ve learned about Austin, it’s that you need to either stay downtown or rent a car.  We did neither, to the detriment of our overall experience.
  • Cory Doctorow is a very high-speed guy.

Possibly I’ll have more to say, upon reflection.  For the moment, I’m going to go get some beauty sleep so I’ll be at my best for tomorrow’s Web Design Meetup.

Fun at SxSW

Published 21 years, 4 months past

Jeffrey, Tantek, and I finished up our panel about an hour ago.  Apparently the audience enjoyed it, as only one or two people left during the talk and there seems to be some good buzz among attendees.  Maybe we’ll expand it and take it on the road.  (“Hey, gang, let’s put on a Web talk in my Dad’s old barn!”)

Austin is nice, and SxSW Interactive is quite interesting.  Caught some of Fray Café last night but the cigarette smoke drove me elsewhere, unfortunately.  I’ve been meeting a lot of people whose names I know well, but whose faces were new to me.  That’s the great thing about conferences: they help humanize everything we do, and strengthen intellectual respect into personal appreciation.

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