17 December 2007

15 December 2007

Power plant pollution: a few personal thoughts

Over at SciAm’s blog the point is made that coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste. My instinct says that the headline is at least somewhat dishonest — power plant ash can’t undergo runaway reactions and unlike nuclear power generation waste, isn’t likely to find its way into the nooks and crannies of the body if/when it’s released into the environment.

For all that, I’m sympathetic toward the prospect of a resurgence in nuclear power generation, and atmospheric carbon is the least of the reasons why.

Somewhere in the boonies of Missouri…

As regular readers know, I spent eight years living 160 miles’ drive from where I am now, in Columbia, Missouri. I finished high school and undertook my abortive undergraduate studies there, and spent most of that time living within easy walking distance of one of the three coal power stacks in town. As a result, I have a couple of anecdotes.

Pretensions to be Los Angeles

During my first week at HHS, I distinctly recall sitting in my biology class, looking out the window during a brilliantly sunny day… and seeing a layer of smog on the skyline, not unlike whipped-cream frosting slathered between two layers of a cake. That I would see something like this in a town of 70,000 people, located two hours’ drive from the nearest large city, annoyed and mystified me.¹ Since the power plants were, apart from engine emissions, the only sizable sources of atmospheric pollution in town, I can only assume that they were the greater source of the smog I saw.

On the other side of town…

The University of Missouri’s public works are completely separate from those of the surrounding town, so they have two coal stacks of their own. During my time as a student, the conventional wisdom was that living at Twain — the res-hall closest to the power plant, and then the ritziest of the lot — would do one hell of a job on the finish of your car. This begged the question of what power plant emissions were doing to folks’ health.

About two months after I moved to San Diego, the Maneater trotted out the story once again, and not without cause.²


¹ In Portland, which has run for the longest time on hydroelectricity and for fifteen years (ending in 1992) on fission-generated electricity, smog is usually the consequence of layer inversions during the winter, and increased economic activity during the summer. Of course, at the time I moved to Columbia, Portland had a population roughly 20 times greater. Seeing smog in a much small town was, as I said, a shock.

² A quick scan of search results from the Maneater story archive reveals that the prospect of switching the MU power plant to alternative fuels has gained some currency. Also mentioned is Columbia’s unique practice of using power plant waste to clear the roads of snow.

14 December 2007

Opera and Microsoft: whither standards?

…Ummm, what Eric Meyer said.

Notwithstanding the very real progress made by IE7 in the bug resolution department¹, and notwithstanding Bill Gates’ very public declaration that IE.next is every bit the real thing, it would seem that Håkon Lie wants to pile on.

The part of me that’s still pissed off at Microsoft for three years of resting on its laurels — and only being stirred to act after uncounted Web standards advocates began attacking Microsoft publicly — is gleeful, not unlike the Normal Kid who feels some satisfaction after seeing someone stand up to the Class Bully.

However, this complaint misses the point. Forcing Microsoft to ship install binaries of its competitors’ titles (which is what I would do in their place, if ruled against and interested in good faith compliance) is the worst possible subversion of the marketplace. And then there’s what Eric said.

¹ I use conditional comments, but the stylesheets linked therein tend to number in the low dozens of lines (notwithstanding a production style that is generous with vertical whitespace). If I had to name two habits that make testing so easy, they would be box zeroing — i.e. * { margin: 0; padding: 0; } — and an approach that resolves hasLayout issues as a matter of course.

11 December 2007

Note to self: functions of social networking

Christina Wodtke recently posted some presentation slides, two of which describe the “Webb/Butterfield/Smith Model” of social network functions, as follows:

  1. Identity
    • Profile
    • Connections
  2. Presence
    • Availability of profile via search
    • Network design encouraging frequent updates
  3. Relationships
    • Friends
    • Degrees of separation
  4. Reputation
    • Recommendations
    • Positive moderation
  5. Groups
    • Common interests
    • Signalling acquaintance but not friendship
  6. Conversations
    • Comments
    • Forum posts
  7. Sharing
    • Broadcasting talent
    • Creating resources

I’m posting this model because of its value in demarcating the areas of social network and application design — any successful network or application needs to do an extraordinary job of simplifying at least one leg of the model.

For the sake of focus, I reiterate that social networking fulfills the following objectives for those who engage in it:

  • Formation of new relationships
  • Maintenance and reinforcement of existing relationships, particularly those hindered by geographical or time constraints
  • Conduct of asynchronous conversations
  • Reputation/image management
  • Contribution of capital to the “gift economy”
  • Measurement and/or development of support for specific social/political/professional/business goals

Not all networks need to fulfill all goals.

08 December 2007

Doomed to repeat history?

There’s an article on Nature’s site that announces the finding of a gene which, when absent, softens the impact of negative reinforcement. The article goes on to say that those without the gene are constitutionally more intent than others on seeking highs — that is to say, engaging in addictive behaviors.

When reading this, I get another takeaway: that this same “flaw” reduces its carriers’ risk aversion, which is a big boost to successful serial entrepreneurship, the pursuit of applied knowledge, &c.

This leaves another mystery to be solved: why do those same people so often have an aversion trending toward pathology of conceding their mistakes? Is that a consequence of acculturation, or some other genetic flaw?

03 December 2007

So that’s what a pedigree is

When I see the list of the first 100 .com domains ever registered, I note that my stepfather’s two biggest clients are on the list.

Any vestigial doubt as to how I came into my trade has vanished.

Note to self: Windows XP fonts (and reasons why you can’t really uninstall them)

Early last week, I went through a boatload-and-a-half of hassle over font uninstallation.

What I learned

  1. Do not ever attempt to install fonts with a limited user account. Doing so does not leave you with corrupt files, but they will behave as if they’re corrupted.
  2. Always copy your font file(s) to the Fonts folder.
  3. When you uninstall a font, any font, also delete \%WindowsDir\system32\FNTCACHE.DAT immediately thereafter. Failure to do so may cause your font to come back to life unexpectedly.
  4. Immediately after taking the preceding step, reboot your system, Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200. Do not worry about FNTCACHE.DAT, it will be resurrected in an appropriate form. If, however, you skip postpone this step, your system will crash hard — not a mere BSOD-style crash, but more of a scary MacOS-9-style BombIcon crash. When this happened to me, I was forced to fully power-cycle my IDE devices (i.e., open the computer and unplug them from the motherboard) in order to see them again, even in the BIOS. Just sayin’.

Failure to heed all of this advice may result in fonts that are in the appropriate folder, but cannot be used and cannot be uninstalled short of doing a nuke-and-pave on the entire system.

Please, for the love of all that is good, learn from these implied mistakes.

Thoughts on the Kindle

[If you don't know what a Kindle is, use Google to find out.]

Much as I would love to have a widget that can easily store an entire library and spare the hassle of distributing paper, the need for electricity could get pretty annoying, pretty fast. The fact that the Kindle’s fairly useless without a network connection makes it a total non-starter, moreso than its price.

What I like are portability, storage density, and technology that pays for itself, and the Kindle does not appear to offer any of these except perhaps portability (while using the network connection as an opportunity to encourage impulse buying, uh-no-thanks).

Whatever the case, this is what I would want from an e-book reader:

  • lasts an average of 24 hours between charges for the first 150 charge cycles
  • can be used while charging
  • uses interchangeable/replaceable batteries
  • charges from a wall outlet
  • weighs 500g or less
  • occupies a volume of 650cm³ or less
  • runs (under emulation if necessary) various reader software titles
  • contains a 3- or 4-in-1 card reader including support for two USB jumpdrives)
  • requires little or no backlighting given tolerable ambient light
  • costs €125 or less
  • supports titles typically priced in the €3.50-4.00 range
  • allows imaging of a user’s current library for backup purposes, under fair restrictions
  • none of this wireless nonsense
  • simple controls (on/off, next/previous page, next/previous chapter, set bookmark, hard reset)

You’ll notice that I’ve implied high value on reliablity here: I wouldn’t want to buy something that could die unexpectedly and leave me S.O.L. for reading my books until I actually save up money. The price point is also spelt out from a logical bearing; 125 euros fits nicely inside of the amount of the tax refund check someone working at minimum wage would be likely to receive.

What some people might find interesting is that I dislike the idea of wireless, but want external storage support. In tandem with multiple-platform support — which spares the need for multiple devices — the bottom line is simplification: network support is a pain in the ass to implement, compared to the opportunity cost of tacking on external storage; furthermore, someone is forced to pay for an ongoing network connection.

Done right this could even help out traditional libraries:

  1. The patron checks out a title.
  2. The title is uploaded from a central server (or Web-based service) to the patron’s media and flagged as checked out, in addition to being flagged on the patron’s media as a loaned title. The same scheme could also be used to benefit readers who want to loan out their e-books the same way they can loan out their hard copies.
  3. When the loan expires, the user can get a one-time key via phone, post, or e-mail to renew their loan, or the loan will expire, resulting in lockout of the loaned title.

The best part is that the entire evolution just described could be handled easily by an extended filesystem spec.

Given the right circumstances, the investments libraries would forced to make in physical plant would decrease tremendously, the benefits telescoped by the fact that libraries need to be carefully temperature controlled.

…But the Kindle is none of the things I describe; it is specific to Amazon, it requires a network connection, and it’s more than twice as expensive, meaning that it’s an early-adopter toy.

Update, eight hours later:

it occurs to me that a network connection would be nice to have, but I still firmly believe that it shouldn’t be a necessity. Either way, two USB ports — one for the media to which your book is being uploaded, another for a wireless transceiver — would be required for appropriate operation. My initial thought was that firmware updates and books could first be deposited on media connected to a PC and then transferred via sneakernet to the reader, but it doesn’t take much consideration to realize that this is impractical.

02 December 2007

How many tags can I name?

A quickie online HTML tag quiz has been making the rounds. I got about half of the tags on the first pass, and almost three-quarters on the second — while forgetting many of the elements I listed during the first pass.

For guys like me challenges like this verge in some respects towards irrelevance, because…

When you’re using CSS for your presentation layer, you don’t need that many elements in your markup

Solid knowledge of CSS obviates a lot of elements, leaving the producer with only a few that are essential:

  1. Document structure: html, head, title, and body
  2. Document metadata: link and script
  3. Headings: h1h6
  4. Containers: div, span, and p
  5. Lists: ol, ul, dl, li, dt, and dd
  6. Links: a
  7. Emphasis and de-emphasis: em, strong, big, and small
  8. Forms: form, input, select, option, and textarea

To that producers working on diverse projects might add a few more:

  1. Images: img
  2. Plug-in content: object and param
  3. Quotes and sources: blockquote, q, and cite
  4. Data tables: table, tr, th, td, and col

Once you open the book of document usability and cross-media accessibility, things start to telescope a bit:

  1. Parent element metadata: legend and caption
  2. Form control helpers: fieldset, label, and optgroup
  3. Table containers: thead, tbody, and tfoot
  4. Acronyms and abbreviations: acronym and abbr

…These three lists comprise 50 of the 91 elements officially supported in HTML 4, and the core of the namespace occupies only a third of the total.

What I omitted altogether, and why

  • base and style

    You only truly need these elements if the behavior of your publishing platform encourages or requires it.

  • applet

    The inline-Java train left the station in 1998, boys and girls.

What I relegated to the secondary lists, and why

  • img

    A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it’s been my experience that on most sites, images rarely comprise principal content. Getting full mileage out of the CSS background attributes is often more structurally/semantically appropriate.

  • legend and caption

    If you’re on top of your editorial game, these roles are often (though not always) handled by headings.

  • fieldset

    This is too easily abused … hell, even I abuse it because there’s no easy way to sequester label-control pairs. I’m not convinced that the design oversight doesn’t make div equally applicable.

  • label

    Have you ever noticed that this element is only truly useful if you have a pointer input device? Yeah, me too.

  • optgroup

    Though not actually obscure, the scope of this element is limited to situations in which the best alternative would be to use empty options as separators.

  • Table containers

    As currently implemented, these acquire their greatest usefulness in paginated media — so using them is simply a signal that you’re really on top of your cross-media accessibility game.

  • acronym and abbr

    Between their relative obscurity, their uneven implementation across user agents, and their limited scope, these really cannot be considered part of a core toolset.

The point to this dissertation (other than the fact that I’ve often thought of prettifying it and submitting that prettified version to A List Apart) is that… folks, HTML ain’t rocket science, folks. At least, not by itself.

29 November 2007

Thence the Email Standards Project?

Over the past 24 hours everybody and their first cousin seems to be talking about this e-mail thingy per the title. I'm going to read up on it in a bit, but…

It occurs to me that as a proverbial Neanderthal who still believes HTML has no place in e-mail, I find the whole idea to be a non-starter.

Let them eat attached PDF’s, I say.

Update, 45 minutes later:

I scribbled more (similar) opinions on the subject over at Zeldman’s.

26 November 2007

Thoughts on The Game

I thought I would be happier.

It’s a testimony to how well Lawrence has treated me — all bitching and drama and the fact that I want to move on aside — and how well Columbia didn’t¹, that I of all people would be disappointed to see KU lose the game.

Now I find myself anxious to see MU win its next two games. That’s the only way I can be convinced that KU earned its loss.

I’m not saying that KU was robbed, either, just that KU’s poll position represents three years of hard work by players and coaches, while for MU I figure it’s a lot to do with chemistry-by-chance.

…Or maybe I’m just jaded after spending so damned many years watching MU’s athletics program swing between extremes of sharp dealing and screwing around.

¹I lived in Columbia, I went to MU, I came of age in that place, and hardly a day goes by that I’m not reminded of the person I became while I was there. I even feel touches of nostalgia from time to time. But none of that changes the fact that I left that town with my tail completely between my legs, dammit.

22 November 2007

Thoughts: typesetting print-only pages

Earlier today I posted a comment on Twitter about the habit of some sites in which they set fixed-width columns for their bodycopy on print-specific layouts.

In short, this habit annoys me.

Print-only page audience

Other than printing, there’s one other reason to visit a print-only page: to click to an un-paginated article. I’m a fan of pagination, but not if it requires me to load a series of brand new pages; a solution like the one used for several years on iht.com is far preferable, to a point.

The result is that I, like so many other people, will click over to the print-only page for the benefit of making one single page request more, rather than three or more.

The point is that print-only pages get a lot of online use, because I know I’m not the only person who feels hostile toward excessive pagination.

…Which leaves us with bad and thoughtless typesetting

The practice of producing print-only pages with static column widths and auto-leading is, in short, a bad one.

  • Auto-leading on long pages underscores the best reason for pagination, namely avoiding the discomfort of keeping one’s place in the copy while scrolling.

    However, I don’t believe that oversight is intended as a disincentive. Someone probably believes that auto-leading will conserve paper, but decreasing leading on magazine articles won’t conserve that much; increase leading by one-sixth of a line and, if you’re using twelve-point type, you reduce the number of words that can fit on a page by 60 or so (15%). Assuming stories of 500-1,000 words and plugging in this metric, auto-leading suggests that most of your stories will print across two or three pages.

    Where does this leave the cutoff?

    Pagination points in words for stories printed with 12-point bodycopy, with and without increased leading
    PageAuto-leading+ 1/6

    The conclusion that can be drawn is that the only common story length likely to cause paper “waste” as a result of an increase in leading is 700-750.

    Unless 750 words is a happy place in your editorial guidelines, why not increase leading on the print-only pages? Your visitors will love you for it.

  • Fixing the column width in pixels is an inconvenience to those who use text zoom rather than page zoom.

    Once Firefox 3 (which will support page zoom) ships, this concern will go away. In the meantime, it’s a pain to see my words-per-line decrease when I increase the type size.

    If ’twere me, I would:

    1. Link a stylesheet of type="print,screen”
    2. Create both @screen and @print blocks in that stylesheet
    3. Emplace width: 50em; in my screen bodycopy rule and no width attribute at all in my print bodycopy rule (which will allow the copy to occupy the full width of the printed page).

    …Why a line length of 50ish ems?

    50ish ems often translates to twelve or thirteen words, which is at the low end for optimizing the legibility of long passages of text. That approach also allows for fully justified margins, which for all but the longest paragraphs convey the idea of higher production values. Especially long pieces should avoid justified margins, however, as the ragged right margin eases place-keeping.

    The alternative is to allow the lines to run completely across the screen in both print and screen media, which at higher pixel pitches will improve readability at the expense of legibility.

This is all rather pie-in-the sky thinking, and when I look at my most recent print-only ruleset I see that I let the bodycopy run across the breadth of the page — you could say that I’m thinking this through for the first time.

18 November 2007

Frameworks: it’s the fidelity, stupid.

Jeff Croft asks:

  1. What is it about CSS frameworks that bothers you so?

    What bothers me about frameworks in general is that they fool inexperienced users into believing that their tool of choice can solve any problem efficiently, when in fact one-size-fits-all tools wind up being so complicated to learn that the student is better off just learning the fundamentals of the underlying technology anyway.

    When I limit the answer to the scope of CSS, the same objections raised by one of my own A List Apart articles rear their proverbial head: by pouring your work product into a framework, you’re building around the abstractions it creates, rather than the objectives and specifications of your project.

  2. Do you want CSS and (X)HTML to be easier for everyone, or would you rather it be a highly-skilled craft that requires the assistance of experts?

    I want Web publishing to be easy for all of those who want to engage in it, a desire which I hope is adequately expressed by the fact that I’m publishing this post on Blogger (of all possible platforms). Ideally this publishing will be done right, and I fart in the general direction of tool developers who are too lazy to ensure that their tool will, in fact, do it right.

    [I am far from convinced that framework developers in general are undeserving of that particular wrath.]

  3. Why is this just coming up now? Why did no one mind when Yahoo released their CSS framework, but people are bothered by Blueprint? What’s the difference?

    …The responsible parties at Yahoo have made a number of good faith efforts to engage with the WebDev community generally and the standards advocacy community in particular, while Google does things their (secretive, paternalistic) way and expects everyone to like it, no matter what. It stands to reason, then, that Google attracts criticism from the people who accommodate Yahoo.

  4. Do you simply oppose the idea of frameworks as a whole? Do you also dislike the JavaScript frameworks that have been so popular recently? Do you also dislike backend frameworks like Django, Rails, and CakePHP? Or is there something specific to CSS that renders it somehow inappropriate for these frameworks?

    Yes, yes, yes, no. See my answer to question [1], and don’t forget that when given a tool that permits laziness, lazy people will take full advantage of that permission. This is partly informed by my own experience: the vast majority of Web application developers I’ve worked with are lazy as hell when it comes to learning client-side fundamentals, and limp along on crap markup unless and until their jobs require them to take things up a notch. To this I can add that during my recent week in the Bay Area, I was surrounded by people who have been going toe-to-toe with just the sort of lazy developers I’m railing about here.

The bottom line of this argument is not about the accessiblity of the technology, but rather about the work habits and professionalism of the people who work with it daily.

Jeff’s post closes with the following:

“…[Top tier CSS experts are] realizing, quite frankly, that their skill set may be less valuable in the future than it has been for the past couple of years.

“I’d love to be proven wrong, but until someone speaks up with some good reason why CSS frameworks shouldn’t be used, instead of simply asserting that they shouldn’t, I’m convinced these folks are just trying to drum up some false job security.”

Congratulations, sir, you’ve just maligned as cowards people whose only wrong was disagreeing with your position. That is not the way to win an argument.

I ask you to win against this argument:

Until adequate compiler-like tools exist that make possible automagic transitions from two- to three-column layouts (to say nothing of more sophisticated evolutions) in the course of (re-) designing a site, frameworks serve the purpose of allowing the lazy to be even lazier, the ignorant to be even more clueless, and the shortsighted to be even more thoughtless toward the poor s.o.b.’s who will be forced to live with the unintended consequences of their implementation decisions. Furthermore, it is unconscionably irresponsible for framework developers to tout their work as broadly useful, even in the hands of inexperienced people who haven’t learned any better.

The good, bad, and indifferent southpaw

“Things Lefties Are maybe Not So Good At!” turned up on StumbleUpon, and I found it whiny. My own take:

  • Public telephones: not a problem. If ya just gotta do the full smash left-handed, you hold the receiver between shoulder and ear and let your fingers do the walking just like anyone else. Working a cellphone keypad right-handed is hell, though.
  • Remote controls: huh? They suck, end of story. See also my comments about cellphones.
  • Tone arms: again — huh?
  • Writing: since this can’t be taught with the mirror method, it takes a lot of practice to get up to speed with one’s right-handed peers... but after controlling for extensive computer use, my printing’s always been spiffy. My cursive is another story entirely. And I never, ever bother with felt-tipped pens for writing, and I would sooner take the time to do a slideshow than attempt a whiteboard presentation; while more time-consuming, the former approach ensures that people will actually be able to read the ideas I’m trying to express.
  • Scissors: like so many items on this list, a non-issue for kids (and consequently adults) who suck it up and go to the effort of catching up.
  • Trousers with one back pocket: again, a non-issue. You get into the habit, and on blue jeans and the like, the left pocket always goes empty.
  • Zippers: not a problem, except that I didn't get the hang of them until I was well past my ninth birthday.
  • Recreation requiring sticks or clubs: now this list starts to make some real sense. I refuse to learn golf because of the hassles that go along with being a left-handed golfer. I’ve never shown any aptitude for hockey or baseball (though I suspect that has more to do with my comparatively poor depth perception), and I struggled through learning billiards, which I shoot right-handed except when forced into shots that other players make behind-the-back.
  • Shoelaces: the mirror method rulez, people. Problem is, no-one figured that out to my benefit until I was seven years old. That was one of my more significant humiliations as a kid.
  • Notebooks: looseleaf paper, sewn/perfect binding, and top-set spirals are da bomb — and chances are on any given day that you can go to a store that sells them.
  • Checkbooks: oh, puh-leeze. Tear the leaf out before you write on it. How hard is that?
  • The chained pens at the bank: oh yes, now you’re cookin’ with gas.
  • ATM machines: huh? The greatest risk for me is losing my card in the older machines that don’t return your card before spitting out your money, because the focus of my attention drifts to the left as a matter of course. Actually operating the things is not any particular challenge, though.
  • Keypads and mice: again, practice makes perfect. I can easily pass ten-key tests aimed at non-experts, have been able to since I was a teenager. And mice pretty much need to be on the right, since the housings of most mice are molded specifically for the right hand. Even a mouse that’s symmetrical on the axis parallel with the direction I’m facing is a pain in the ass to use left-handed, after so many years of right-handed mousing.
  • Duelling elbows in restaurant booths: now, this one I feel with my gut. If I’m out to eat with you, I will insist on sitting on your left, and that will be the end of the conversation.

Moving on from the list on the linked page, the two things that always drive me up the wall are cabinet video games and kitchen setups, which almost universally demand the greatest dexterity from one’s right hand if one is to avoid crossing or switching hands in the course of using them. Bleh.

12 November 2007

In Silicon Valley, oddly enough for the first time

Courtesy of a friend and colleague, I’ve been asked to spend this week in San Jose working for a Company You’ve Probably Heard Of. (…Not the first, but the first I’ll be allowed contractually to claim once the gig’s done.)

Given that today makes the first time since high school that I’ve been in the Bay Area, and given further that the Valley presents something completely different from what I expected, this trip is a little bit like something out of film. (…Less so than I would expect of San Francisco, but enough all the same.)

Give me ’til Friday, and I’ll surely have some thoughts to share… but until then, I must get my lappie back to usable condition (I restored from image immediately before leaving Lawrence) and get my head down so that I can bill some hours and impress the client (which is the whole point of the trip).

07 November 2007

Google as the new Microsoft, and what it might mean

[Much of what follows is speculative and based on my memory of things I’ve read online, mostly in blogs but less frequently in personal communications.]

I should be working, but a thought finally coalesced with respect to Google: they suffer from the same hubris that makes Microsoft so intolerable, similar not only in degree but also in character.

[As if to support my point, this item just turned up on my Twitter stream.]

By all reports Google is a great place to work, and despite its size still retains a hothouse vibe. Their decision to open a data center in the Columbia Gorge warms my native-Oregonian heart. It’s undeniable that some Really Cool S--t is finding its way out of Menlo Park. As it stands, the Web is better for the fact that Google’s in the marketplace.


Google’s recent business moves, their defensive silence toward the community of Web standards advocates, the tone of their press and public relations — not least Eric Schmidt’s conniptions after he was thoroughly made by c|net on the strength of data provided by Google itself — and a small number of personal communications leave me feeling uneasy about the stamp that Google is bound to put on the Web.

Whether they realize it or not, Google’s gone out of their way to convince me that they know what’s best for the Web, doing so in a tone so paternalistic and annoying that my reaction can be best summed up in words of one syllable.

While I may be part of a tiny minority now, I’m certain that I’m not alone — and that I’m likely to be among climbing numbers of distinguished company as time goes on, if current trends remain in place.

A List of Bad Things I Don’t Want: Google Edition

  • A monopoly market in the Web ad brokering space

    Yes, I know that there are other vendors out there, and some of them are doing quite well. I’ve even had one of them as an end client. However, Google stands by silently while the press insinuates that they’re in direct (and hostile) competition with Microsoft and Yahoo for brokerage market share — a silence which speaks quite loudly.

    This is a problem because: as the clear leader in search, and being the only one of those Big Three whom I can count on to really Get It and innovate (sorry, Yahoo, but that’s the writing I see on the wall, hooray for overly-deep orgcharts), I reckon it’s a matter of time before they have a commanding market share. With that outcome supposed, consider further that Wall Street loves revenue, and that Google’s rank and file have a personal interest in the health of their stock holdings. Given this intersection of interests and the lack of transparency about Google’s ad revenue payments to publishers, I’m discouraged by the thought of what might happen over time.

  • Ubiquitous — if not inevitable — single-source toolkits

    For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, Google’s been working overtime to make pretty new toys for us Web developers. Google’s people are smart, and their tools are terrific, but what happens when those tools achieve ubiquity? I would think that all hell will start to break loose, security-wise.

    This is a problem because: monocultures are bad, yet Google seems quite happy to try and create some.

  • Process opacity

    Google refused to yield on privacy issues. They maintain strict silence about details of subjects such as blacklisting and revenue payments to publishers. Despite experience and contacts, I know exactly squat about their application beta test process, and not for lack of keeping in touch. To be honest, when I consider those things I wonder if I’m looking at a company that has a Politburo rather than an executive team.

    This is a problem because: in a future where a single company has its hands into every page request, that company ought to be transparent to a point for the sake of the public good… but Google’s culture militates toward secrecy, a fact which is unlikely ever to change.

  • Horizontal integration and/or presence to the point of absurdity

    Rather than focussing on “killer apps” Google is getting its fingers into every-damn-thing, and they’re not terribly shy about their intention to plaster their name on as much online real estate as possible. Whether we realize it or not, we as users are already forced to deal with Microsoft’s omnipresence on our desks. The last thing I want is for any company, even Google, to homogenize the Web in the spirit of Microsoft’s example.

    This is a problem because: in the long run it will hold the Web back by limiting the avenues along which innovation and creativity can move.

  • Significant privacy-destroying design flaws in critical applications

    This is related to the fear of toolkit ubiquity outlined above, and to a degree my feelings on this matter are due to Google being a victim of its own success. People rely on GMail to conduct business, and in fact I may be cornered into doing the same thing before long. The prospect of Yet Another GMail Hole is the one thing that’s stopped me, though.

    This is a problem because: at the bottom line, it’s the same problem suffered by Microsoft — get enough valuable data or resources in one basket, and some unscrupulous and/or attention-whoring shitbag will go out of his way to ruin the days of several million people… in this case, using Google’s platforms and infrastructure to do it.

  • A market environment in which one company can be coerced by any authority into surrendering personal data by the metric boatload

    Search, GMail, Desktop, Maps, Blogger, Analytics, and AdSense all provide data that in appropriately intelligent and resourceful hands can be used to conduct all manner of surreptitious surveillance. When I consider the attitude toward civil liberties of the sitting Presidential Administration, and further the precedent set by Yahoo when it rolled over for the Chinese government, I am deeply discouraged about Google’s ability — even given the best of intentions, and its public interactions with the U.S. Government to date — to protect its users’ right to privacy.

    This is a problem because: societies without effective safeguards of personal privacy melt down eventually, and Google is going out of its way to be part of the problem — in part because of the market it’s in, but also because of its own strongly-hewn culture of secrecy.

  • “The standards are what we say they are, ’n y’all can just f--k off.”

    Microsoft’s already doing this, and has been for years with its foot-draggin’, platform-embracin’, interface-extendin’, market-assimilatin’, monopoly-havin’ ways. And here’s Google, twisting-spindling-mutilating the Web toolset and screaming from on high that that’s just they way it has to be.

    After more than five years of being called upon to live up to the requirements of being attached to the best-known Web standards advocacy organization on the planet short of the W3C itself, I am here and now calling Google’s position a steaming heap of lies — all the more because in search and ads, they are clinging to lowest-common-denominator implementation methods that actually retard market adoption of up-to-date platforms… in spite of the fact that they have literally hundreds of people in their organization who are far smarter than I ever dreamed of being. If I can make it work, and if I can imagine ways in which it can be made to work in environments I haven’t worked in, why can’t they?

    This is a problem because: the evolution of the Web will only move at a glacial pace (with respect to its potential) until both Microsoft and Google wise up. So, why is a company for which the first standing order is “don’t be evil” being part of the problem, rather than being part of the solution? In all cases save destructive mutation. evolution is a good (i.e., not-evil) thing, yet as part of the problem Google is stunting that evolution. Good job, guys!

  • All of the above, plus willful ignorance of the wisdom of crowds.

    I’ve heard tell of many smart people who’ve been recruited by Google, which should not come as a surprise. What will surprise you is that the potential roles for these prospects were worked out by management before they were ever contacted, to the point that they were told in great detail what they would be doing if hired — not unlike a military officer being sent to a new billet. This speaks for some sort of grand vision on which the public’s not being let in, and that’s the part that really scares me.

    This is a problem because: any company that seems inclined to ignore its customers, preferring instead to follow an analogue of a Five Year Plan, is not a company I want anywhere near the Web that is my living and my link to the outside world. And I don’t give a damn how smart the people at that company are, if that’s how they wanna play it.

And before you cry “Godvinski!”

The more thoughtful among you have probably noticed that I’ve made two archly-put comparisons between Google and the Soviet Union. Part of that editorial position is by way of introducing an additional element of fear into my rhetoric, for sure. More to the point, however, years of private and academic study of post-1812 Russian history make the comparison too easy for me to make. Maybe I’m just seeing Sergey Brin’s stamp on Google’s culture and freaking out¹, but on consideration I see that as a bit of a stretch. There’ve surely been a lot of changes since Google brought aboard professional managers.

However, that Google reminds me of Russia² for any reason should by itself be instructive, even without the quasi-political subtext.


All of the points I outlined above, especially the last, leave me under the inescapable impression that Google thinks it knows what’s good for us, better than we do. Thanks to Microsoft we already deal with one company that’s foisted that view on its market, and we’re all familiar (to a greater or lesser degree) with the manifold consequences of that attitude. The thought that we’re letting it happen all over again is bothersome, to say the least.


¹As cultural traits go, mania for secrecy is pretty well a Russian one. All generalizations, comparisons, and contrasts aside, I really do hope that I’m looking at an absurdly misplaced but mostly harmless cultural artifact, and not some flaw in an important system (Google as a company) that could bring down the full smash to the detriment of the entire Web.

²Yes, I know better than to conflate Russia and the USSR, but in this instance I’m referring to Russia as the latter’s predecessor and successor state. Yeah, that’s me, being pedantic so that you don’t need to. You’re welcome.

06 November 2007

Asus Eee: forward to the past for graphic design on the Web?

Well, it’s not the world per se that’s getting smaller. The Web is another story, because of developments in the ultra-mobile PC space — and I strongly believe that these developments will have far-reaching consequences for best practices of graphic design on the Web, if they take hold in the marketplace.

Think small

Almost two years ago, I tore open a box with a buy.com shipping label and removed my brand-new subnotebook computer, which since then has earned a lot of oohs and aahs — it’s obviously not a Macintosh of any description, and it was somewhat underpowered even when I bought it (1GHz Celeron M CPU, 512MB RAM, 60GB HDD, XP Home), but it’s still a piece of work. I’m a Web guy. I don’t need tons of juice to get my job done.

More to the point, I’ve spent my entire adult life living the car-less lifestyle, so a rig that I could easily carry and shoehorn into small-ish public spaces was (and is) a wonderful thing to own.

Now that it’s been two years, I’ve started looking casually for a replacement… which means that I’ve noticed the announcement of the Asus Eee and its appliance-ish cousins that are already on the market.

I may well buy one, even if I need to get a portable disk drive too; $400 is a hard price to beat for a widget that can support everything I need except graphics, and my professional development is definitely taking a sharp turn toward the programming end of things.

Don’t misunderstand me — the Eee is a 1.5G product at best, and it’s a matter of time before OEM’s concede that keyboards are both necessary and constrained by a hard lower bound on size. Kids and petite women can get mileage from machines like the Eee, and so can folks like me who are smallish-handed and know how to type. As for bigger guys¹, or power users who are tethered to ergonomic keyboards², fuhgeddaboutit… and if you rave on stylus interfaces, expect me to guffaw in your general direction.

My point is that people want small and affordable machines that they can actually use, and I strongly believe that eventually the 7" display, or something close to it, will gain share in the user population.

Necessity is the mother of invention ’n allathat. Touchscreens will improve, or someone will come up with a more-usable yet adequately-simple keyboard design that will fit into that form factor.

If I’m right, that means that the march to 1024w layouts will falter. Ponder that.


¹My best friend in town stands 6'4" and weighs 240#. He runs in terror from the prospect of borrowing my notebook.

²…But I can’t stand ’em. I do not need some smartypants industrial designer telling me how to use my hands; as a sinistral, I have my own way of doing things. I also have a ton of acquaintances who swear by ergos.

Pajamas and production

“Facts and Opinions about Zeldman” is a fair assessment of my own frame of mind as well. It’s just… instructive, I guess, that I can’t claim the high-toned appointment calendar.

I’ve actually given much thought to the matter of dress lately, usually in a spirit of disbelief — “I get paid how much to walk to my desk and make what every day while wearing whatever I please?! You can’t be serious.”

[For those who might be wondering, typically I do don street clothes before putting myself to work each mor^H^H^Hday.]

In the inaugural post of this weblog (which is linked in the sidebar, for those of you visiting Blogspot directly) I hinted at tremendous ennui, and the question of dress is part of that — how much effort and attention to detail does it cost to even out the karma of someone who works in the environment I do, but was brought up to take stock in the Teutonic work ethic?

Over in another corner, you have outposts like Web Worker Daily which fairly glorify the advantages of offsite telecommuting.

So as I flounder — what was my original point going to be, anyway? — I can’t take my mind away from the fact that whatever this laid-back freelancing life can be called, it’s nothing that many people would recognize as a job. Even my once-stepfather, who telecommuted intermittently during the last five years of his long career as a freelance software engineer, promptly retired into circumstances where he was called upon to work long days with his hands. My father spends all of about ten or twelve hours on campus, yet teaches two online courses and thus draws a full package — but worked on mind-blowing schedules when I was a kid.

Oh, hell, I should just stop questioning it, and remember four things:

  1. I’m damn good at this job.
  2. I’m damn lucky to have it.
  3. I certainly could stand to put in more hours, billable or not.
  4. Gratitude is the point, not guilt.

05 November 2007

Scribbles: benefits of Web standards

One of the ongoing discussions in The Biz has to do with the business benefits of {x}. Since I’m formally attached to the Web Standards Project, the {x} on my mind today (as on many days) is Web standards. (Betcha didn’t see that comin’.)

So… there are three ways I can think of to improve a process or deliverable:

  1. make it faster,
  2. make it better, and/or
  3. make it cheaper.

For the sake of note-taking and reading aloud as much as any other, I’m writing to answer the implied questions as they relate to standards-friendly site development.

Web standards are faster because…

…The reduced overhead of standards-friendly markup improves load times — sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.

…That same markup improves the signal-to-noise (i.e., content-to-markup) ratio, resulting in content that’s easier to maintain.

…Given effective project management and sufficiently trained operators, standards-friendly processes and tools allow for narrower specialization by virtue of separation of content, behavior, presentation, and business logic. This in turn makes it possible to throw more people at projects in parallel.

Web standards are better because…

…They make feasible technologies such as Ajax and third party applications which can add depth to the user experience.

…The same separation and cleanliness benefits that can improve time-to-delivery and load times also simplify modularization and thus provide greater facility for extending sites and applications in lieu of redesigning them from the ground up to account for new features.

…Well informed use of CSS makes possible layout techniques that table-constrained producers and designers can only dream of.

Web standards are cheaper because…

…The same parallel production approach outlined above can be eschewed in preference to a serial approach involving smaller teams, reducing capital investment in projects down to a manageable rate. (This is one of the more important reasons behind my preference for small teams.)

…Modularization and cleaner production values at the code-and-markup level reduce maintenance requirements.

…Improved load times result in incrementally reduced investment in bandwidth and hardware.

Sounds great, but why the hard sell?

The only reasons these plusses do not make a slam-dunk case for Web standards are:

  • increased testing requirements, and
  • the need to re-train.

The more important of these issues is re-training, which is usually difficult, but not always difficult.

A wealth of resources such as w3schools, the MSDN Library, CSS Zen Garden, and A List Apart (among many) exist to bring along those who are just starting to learn about the current state of Web technology.

For those who need ongoing support in their education, css-discuss and other communities keep the fledgling learner in good company.

The rest of the re-training task is taken up in the course of actually doing, a process which culminates in the production of a site built entirely to the spirit, and quite possibly the letter, of established W3C Recommendations and other recognized best practices… entirely from arbitrary design documents.

Once an operator is properly trained, testing is simplified, because he or she will already have become quite familiar with many of the bugs and other pitfalls faced in the course of undertaking standards-friendly development. The others can — as a rule — be sussed out in community/form threads and, as a last resort, via search engine queries. I can speak for the effectiveness of both of these avenues for avoiding and working around browser bugs.

This leaves the conscientious project sponsor with two questions:

  1. Who bears the cost to train my people?
  2. How can I best make the switch?

The answer to the first question is somewhat academic, in part because your people will learn in the course of applying knowledge to their work on your projects, and elsewise because the added skill will make them more valuable to the marketplace. Either way, operators will rightly expect you to share some of the wealth gained from your improved bottom line. If you do not pay for formal training, you’ll only be putting off raises demanded either by your operators directly, or by the marketplace.

However, the share you give up from the improved bottom line will only be incremental; your organization will still enjoy the lion’s share. This is a fair expectation because among other benefits, your people will experience fewer hassles and less tedium in their jobs (all other factors being equal).

The answer to the second question is more complicated, because you've essentially got two choices: either go cold turkey from one approach to the other, or travel slowly.

Of these the latter offers the least aggravation for all participants. If you can start with some smaller projects — e.g., product marketing microsites and internal applications — you can set up your operators to act on what they’ve been learning, while simultaneously reducing the risk to your bottom line.

The reduced risk does not automatically translate to reduced hassle or delays, but when people are being trained, when is that ever the case?

One other contingency: transitioning from the contract build to ongoing maintenance

Let’s suppose you hire some hotshot hired gun (like, uhhh, meeeeee!) to equip your site with the newest, shiniest standards-friendly bells and whistles. Let’s suppose further that your fulltime Web team can’t tell asses from elbows when it comes to Ajax or CSS. What then?

This scenario requires multiple remedies.

Excellent documentation

Exhaustive explanation of the template, stylesheet, and code structures used during the design of the project is a must-have.

Onsite training

Somebody should come onsite and put your team through an ad hoc boot camp. Alternatively — if your hired gun isn’t especially facile at public speaking — there should be an internal forum or mailing list set up for the benefit of maintainers, along with contractually defined support requirements. This turns your contract team into little more than a glorified helpdesk, and they may choose to refer some other team for the job. The bottom line is that untrained people will have questions — and lots of them. Someone should be on tap to answer those questions.

Effective management

Project and department managers with the communication skills required to successfully track and define problems at the appropriate level — who have a clear idea of the obstacles their people are facing — can make the best use of the time and other resources spent to ensure that the problems are solved.

In short, Web standards adherence is an endeavor that rewards those with initiative. Why not become one of them?

Web pet peeves

[I first posted this on 21 October to Chapel, where I’ve blogged sporadically for quite some time. It belongs here, too. I’ll still be posting the really weeeird stuff over there, because that’s what it’s for.]

I ran into a major Web pet peeve and posted it to Twitter, in the process remembering that I have several others (a few of which I spent all afternoon working around)…

  • Web sources cited by mass media outlet content that don't link directly to them
  • e-commerce sites that break at ANY point when you’re using a browser other than Internet Explorer
  • e-commerce sites that don't create a semi-permalink to a customizable cart item
  • any application that breaks the instant you press the Back button, without warning you in advance of the consequences of doing so
  • failure to provide range selection support (beyond “check all”) for series of checkbox selection inputs (e.g. mail inbox)
  • applications that crash on purportedly tested platforms
  • process-critical services and applications that do not have a System Status resource
  • sites and applications that treat content sections like static search results
  • project sponsors who fancy themselves graphic designers despite a total lack of training and experience
  • ads with sound on otherwise silent sites
  • categorically, ads that talk
  • news and social linking sites that toss resources down the memory hole without consequently returning a 410 (Gone) status code along with the title of the clobbered resource (or at least some indication that something formerly lived there)
  • applications that enforce user behavior by limiting choice in a bizarre way (here’s looking at you, Facebook Status)
  • sites that are only useful if you pay, yet imply otherwise in their create-an-account pitch
  • anyone anywhere in any context asking how to “hide” source markup and things of the like
  • anyone anywhere in any context believing that because their fucking nephew can “make a web page” in twenty minutes, they’re entitled to a full custom e-commerce site for a few hundred bucks…
  • …and contrapositively, anyone who bilks the clueless out of thousands at a time for crap they build in twenty minutes with Flash or Dreamweaver
  • anyone who thinks that just because they’re entitled by the right to free speech to an opinion, they really just ought to share it, despite the stench of banality and/or thoughtlessness it emits
  • anyone who mistakes ignorance for willful malice
  • anyone who mistakes obstinacy for courage
  • anyone who thinks it’s okay to be narrow-minded about the narrow-minded

Aaahhh. Now I’m done.

If you bear any witness to irony, by all means bask in it.

30 October 2007

THAT movie is SCARY? …Ye-ep.

Time labels Bambi one of their “Top 25 Horror Movies,” which may seem incongruous, but really isn’t.

I feel that way because of my own experience, and I have a secret:

The thought of watching E.T. makes me heebed and nightmare-y.

That unfortunate fact is down to an even more unfortunate congruity in my own childhood.

Background: an offer made

In Spring 1981 I was a first grader and an enormous discipline problem in school. My soon-to-be-divorced, brazenly alcoholic mother was made an offer by her then-best-friend: the latter would agree (along with her husband) to be my guardian so that Mom could dry out, on the condition that Mom and Dad made $200 a month in support payments for the duration of the arrangement.

I was never asked for my opinion, presumably because all participants knew that I would scream bloody murder.

Dad agreed to the transfer of guardianship, on the condition that Mom make the near-term support payments on her own, and permanently waive her right to demand child support from him.

[She would break that verbal contract ten years later, at the very instant she learned from me that Dad had secured a tenure-track teaching job… but that’s a different story.]

When the music stopped playing on the evening of 7 June, I was living with the Fergusons in San Antonio… and if you know both San Antonio and Portland well, you probably have difficulty imagining two cities in the United States that could have been any more different at the time.

That dissimilarity, plus two thousand miles’ distance, plus finally the disruption of submitting to the (much stricter) discipline of two people whom I cared about but had a difficult time accepting as authority figures, made me absolutely miserable and lonely.

I’ve felt worse misery and loneliness from time to time in the years since, but not often, and in all cases because I’d been badly let down.

I look back on that time as a character-building exercise, if only because I was forbidden more than one hour of television a day, plus occasional ballgames … a rule which was enforced with some latitude, but not much.

Enter film

Deprived the anesthesia of television, I was encouraged to read books and newspapers at length, and during the two years my library cards got a lot of mileage. I was also taken to the movies frequently. I may have been miserable and lonely, but I can’t fault the Fergusons for trying to keep my mind and imagination fired up.

Most of the films I’ve forgotten, with the exception of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Star Trek: Wrath of Khan… and E.T., which scared me practically to death.

Yeah, I know.

If you think it through, it should be pretty easy to figure out: a kindhearted young boy stuck thousands of miles from home watches a film about a kindhearted alien stuck billions of miles from home, and all hell breaks loose for the poor alien.

I walked out of that theatre knowing that a Speak & Spell wouldn’t do me a damned a bit of good, choking back tears, scared shitless, and beside myself with a really unpleasant flavor of empathy for that giraffe-necked fictional character.

I had nightmares of abandonment for weeks afterward. Not even Threads sends me into a headspace nearly as bad.

To this day, I still cannot bring myself to watch that film… and I default to Crankypants Mode until I become genuinely familiar with a new place.

whois on the s--t list?

Privacy advocates dislike the openness of whois databases.

That an article like this could be written offends me for two reasons:

  1. There are manifold mechanisms for private individiuals on whois records to protect their privacy. This means that in practice, lockdown of whois info would give even more negotiating strength to domain name speculators than they already possess.
  2. Why is any privacy advocate on life obsessing on this issue when they should be bugging Big Telco about warrantless wiretaps? Jeez.

My personal take on the issue is somewhat informed; when I registered my domains in 2004, I put them into a whois proxy, unaware that Sunflower had screwed the pooch and listed my telephone number against my express wishes. Oddly, however, neither disaster nor hilarity ensued.

…Just sayin’.

Web 2.0, traditional IT, and Chicken Little ledes

LOLWebDevCap image

From InfoWeek by way of Slashdot, there's word that Web 2.0 technologies threaten the control IT has traditionally had over info management in the enterprise. The content’s solid, though the editorial slant’s annoying,

27 October 2007

Preemptive tulips, anyone?

Microsoft has handed 240 million dollars to Facebook in return for an exclusive relationship, and I am mystified as to why. If Facebook has their act together, that sum of money makes Croesus out to be a piker.

[I have long been of the opinion that given clear objectives, five tightly focussed people, and half a million dollars, any site or application that needs building can in fact be built in less than a year. So why on Earth would Facebook need nearly five hundred times that much money, unless their hosting bills are higher by orders of magnitude than I suppose?]

What I beg to understand is, why? What’s in it for Microsoft? I see benefits, but not 240 million dollars’ worth of benefits.

The more I struggle to spin golden knowledge from the straw of this purchase, the more lost I become.

The environment feels altogether too much like that of late 1998, but at least the attendant false hopes are confined to a much smaller place in the public consciousness.

Well, so much for that.

I give up. The music business is going to change, that transition is going to be slow and painful for everybody, there is no silver bullet, and that’s just the way it is.

Or I could be wrong, but in any case my attempts to discuss it have done a terrific job of making me sound like I’m too big for my britches. Go me!

26 October 2007

What will the future sound like?

In my previous post, I defined three constituencies in the music business. None of these seem likely to leave it, since two are requisite and the third — the middle-man, of course — can do things well that content creators typically cannot.

I’ve assigned myself the task of speculating on what those three players in the game can do to maximize their benefit, so...

The consumer gets what he wants through recommendations and listening opportunities. The musician gets what he wants through hard work, good luck, patience, and probably too often a dash of bootlicking.

The record companies get what they want through savvy decisions and an inordinately fortunate position of control over the full smash, to which they are desperately clinging.

As it stands the consumer is in the best position over the long term. The production values of newly available music may fall, but not so precipitously as to make it unpalatable.

Musicians need access to, or possession of, marketing expertise in inversely proportional measure to their attractiveness to listeners — expertise they currently gain from their association with recording labels.

Traditional recording companies need to set up Internet-compatible methods of distribution, or die.

One solution capable of preserving the status quo has been screaming in my face...

Use the full capabilities of the network

It is feasible, if not entirely easy, to accurately meter filesharing traffic. It’s no less feasible to work out who got downloaded, with a workable degree of accuracy.

Ultimately, telcos and ISP’s are the ones best suited to figuring out the winners of the game, passing on the fair cost to their customers, and managing the payouts accordingly, but I am mystified as to the excuses for not having tried.

Encryption and spoofing exist as easily implemented methods for zarking the numbers, and widespread attempts to break the system would create a tragedy of the commons. At the same time, the motivations for such an outcome would result only if listeners:

  • Genuinely felt entitled to get their music for free, or
  • Considered themselves unconscionably abused by the recording industry.

Cogitate on those, kids, because they’re instructive in understanding the current music marketplace.

If the current distro model shatters, whence comes the money?

First, let's not forget that the Compact Disc (or at least optical media) will not go away. Files get clobbered, common formats tend to deliver poor quality even when played through the best amplifiers and speakers, and these days, at least, low-volume pressings are hard to find online.

In addition to this, if we assume that services and tangibles are all that can be obtained at fair value, what can musicians sell from those categories of goods?


This is a no-brainer, folks, even if it's a total forward-to-the-past item.

High quality collateral items (e.g., liner notes, posters)

For all the advances in consumer-grade printing technologies, few listeners will happily invest in fancy offset printing or screenprinting hardware, but given sufficient capital, musicians can contract someone who has. Of course, this only works if listeners are keen on identifying themselves as afficionadoes of a given artist or ensemble... but judging by the t-shirts I see, this happens pretty often.


Superstars everywhere get sponsorships that are often worth more than they make at their day jobs. Can’t this scale?

I suppose that in a world of consumer-friendly, recording-industry-hostile distribution channels a premium would be put on the average contribution to these revenue streams that is far greater than what we see today, but I’m not convinced it’s not feasible.

Another thought that occurs to me is that casual CD purchases may well drop in long run as a matter of course, for the same reasons that photography as a profession has taken a beating: background music will become flatly common, leaving the listeners who really care to fund more and better musicians, instead of swallowing recording industry pablum that allows the mediocre-yet-marketable to become superstars.

...And the record companies?

Middlemen are middlemen, so I don’t worry about how they will keep food on the table. The sharp ones will cut through the marketplace, and the dull ones will be ground down to nothing, end of story.

What happens if the recording industry gets the market protections it’s demanding?

To be honest, I don’t see that outcome having much shelf life even if it does arrive, for the same two reasons listeners already have for ripping them off. Technology will escalate; in the worst case the entire Internet population will be composed of petty criminals and their household-mates. How do you sue them all and get away with it?

Have I offered any sure solutions here?


In the process I’ve confirmed the basis of Matt’s prediction, if not its particulars — I believe that the futures of live performance and niche recording have a much broader and more interesting scope than that offered by public-domain chamber music alone. However, that broadness can only come to life if the middlemen stop trying to shove the lowest common denominator down the throats of their entire market.

What does the present sound like?

Matt Haughey wrote today-ish about his “half-assed” take on The Future of the Music Business, and after reading it I realized that the matter could stand more thought.

While I do not approach this subject as a musician aspiring to stardom, I have a number of friends — some of whom I’ve rejected as prospective clients by advising them to start out on MySpace — who are so aspiring. One or two of them have actually come tantalizingly close to notoriety, if not actual fame. (Only in Lawrence, folks.)

I care, and consider myself entitled to share my opinion, because:

  • I like music, to the point of its near-omnipresence in my life; and
  • I may well be one of the professional cohort who help bring about the form into which modern music marketing morphs.

[Say that last one fast ten times.]

What today looks like, from my perspective

You have these BigCorp entertainment companies who find the most marketable musicians, put them into straitjackets also known as “contracts,” and proceed to leverage the hell out of those same properties by recording, advertising, and distributing their creative product in the ways that maximize their return on investment.

[My choice of language is deliberately sterile here, especially when you consider that I haven’t yet mentioned the unfortunate consumers of this music.]

The end result is that traditional record companies — including indies — have the entire market for traditionally marketed music, between them occupying a vast but slowly shrinking majority of the sales graphs.

When I stop to game this out, I see three constituencies with entirely different (but not mutually exclusive) goals:

  • Record companies want to make the greatest possible profit at the smallest possible level of risk.
  • Musicians want to make a good living doing something they love, for wildly varying values of “good” and “love.”
  • Listeners want to get the greatest possible amount of enjoyable music possible per dollar of expenditure.

The way the system works now, most listeners buy Compact Discs with anywhere between six and twenty-plus tracks on each, amounting to a maximum of seventy four minutes of audio recordings. Of these, it’s typical that only half of them are good.

Musicians often wind up playing what they’re told to, of which half is typically crap they can’t stand.

Record companies, meanwhile, operate in a web of legal and political intricacies, which if navigated well result in receipt of the whole profits.

At least, that's what Steve Albini thinks, and he has no good reason to lie about it.

Meanwhile our three constituencies have devolved in parts to the following:

  • “Pirates” sit in one virtual corner, all of them merrily downloading stuff they only pay for as part of their Internet service bills, no portion of which go to the recording industry.
  • The recording industry sits in another corner, raising barriers of entry to music broadcasting in order to maintain control over their most important promotional medium apart from word of mouth. Simultaneously they make grossly negative examples of loyal listeners, forcing Internet service providers to spend on discovery what could just as easily have been handed over to the record companies without a ruckus.
  • Musicians run the gamut. Some whine and others innovate or experiment. Most just sit tight silently and do what they’re told while they wait for the dust to settle.

From all of this the writing on the wall is clear: the music industry as a whole must adapt to rapidly altering modes of distribution, and until it does, revenues will continue to drop.

In the next entry, I’ll discuss where things might go from here. Some of them might even put the lion’s share of the money where it belongs: in the hands of musicians and writers.

25 October 2007

More about what you can expect to find here

As follows, my priorities:

  1. This space is for clients, too.
  2. These posts will be moved over to henick.net and circumscribed.net painstakingly and on a case-by-case basis, once my Mother of All Publishing Platforms (well, that’s what it will feel like to me) is ready to push.
  3. Some of the spelling, grammar, and syntax conventions I follow are anachronistic and/or technically correct yet borrowed from the conventions of languages that aren’t American English. Deal with it.
  4. I’m not a fan of feeling sorry for people. I keep a paper journal for pity and soopa-deep introspection, but I don’t often write in it, because I prefer to work those thoughts out aloud.
  5. I’m not sure yet how I’m going to handle code examples, but I’m sure they’ll crop up eventually.
  6. If I go somewhere to do something, it’ll go on Twitter. If I need to discuss the journey and/or event in some kind of detail, it’ll go here, too.

For the first time in three years, I’m actually blogging under my own banner.

Maybe I’m being impulsive, but what the hell.

It's time for me to start writing again without delay... mostly about Web-related topics, but there are others on my mind, too.

The item at the bottom of my to-do list for the past three years has been a publishing platform far more sophisticated than the one I built for my Illuminati Online site from back in the day (disable JavaScript before going to the actual content, if you’re really that curious), and my intent has been to write it before going back into regular blogging.

Meanwhile, life is — as they say — what happens when you’re not paying attention.

The good news is that I now have a client willing to finance that work in part (I think). The bad news is that my urge to bloviate has overtaken the march of time.

...So here I am.

Where is that, exactly?

First, some background

There was a stretch of about eighteen months where I had my heart ripped out of my chest repeatedly if only proverbially, most significantly by the unexpected death of my mother from cancer.

Nearer to the end of this spell I moved from Portland to the much different (if not necessarily greener) pastures of Lawrence, Kansas, encouraged by a few now-erstwhile friends.

A move away from Portland was something I was already planning when Mom fell ill, though how ill she’d become wasn’t at all understood until a week before she died.

In Portland, memories would be redolent on the air at every turn.

I have a good enough memory that I do not need to be reminded of the stretches of the lower Valley where I spent the years of my childhood that passed before interacting with my mother became an exercise in supreme patience. All I need to do is close my eyes and concentrate. The sights and sounds of memory will return on demand, vividly enough to make me cry.

No less difficult is recall of the sights and sounds of the afternoon during which I travelled to the hospital, trudged up to the ICU, told Mom — by that time so immersed in pain and the drugs meant to manage it that she could no longer see — that I would be okay and that she could let go, and then only moments later watched her do exactly that.

[...And the conversations I had with my grandparents that afternoon were even more poignant. Let’s not go there.]

That I would willfully choose to remove myself to the oh-so-cosmopolitan place known as Kansas was a mystery to practically everyone with an opinion. Everybody asked what my deal was, so to speak, and my response to everyone was if it was good enough for William S. Burroughs to die in, it’s good enough for me to live in for a while.

Apart from the previously mentioned encouragement and personal considerations too private to lay out in detail, there was the fact that at the time of my decision, I had an outside hope of obtaining a job with the online division of the local paper.

Northeast Kansas had (and still has) the virtues of being 1500 miles from my mother’s family, which became far less dysfunctional after her death but still has more issues than I want to deal with.

[...And lest you wonder, yes, I would move back with dispatch — and some ambivalence — if asked to do so.]

I had attended both high school and college in Columbia, Missouri (during and after my father’s graduate study in American history at the latter institution), which gave me insight about the values and virtues of the area. I knew Lawrence quite well by reputation.

To me, the choice seemed like it had possibilities.

The whole point was to get over myself already in a place where I would be able to steer clear of drama.

...And now?

After more than three years, I know I need to gear up and move on. As years go, 2007 has been full of questions and fears in full measure: is this all there is to life? For the sake of my own health, the answer to that question needs to be a resounding NO! If I stay in Lawrence too long, however, that's not the answer I’ll get in practice.

Having an apartment that I can stand to live in by myself has proven to me how far into my proverbial shell I can go, and at the heart of the matter I am neither young nor parochial enough to get the most out of Lawrence.

I need badly to raise my bill rate (or so I’m told). I need to go legit on software and paperwork. I need a car. But most importantly I need to start connecting with people around me, and starting a new blog is part and parcel of that task.

Beyond the demands of maintaining my own good mental health, I am forced to concede that so much has changed in the past three years. RSS and social networking have come into their own, which makes resource collection fractionally as difficult as before. The maturation of production processes for latest-gen browsers has begotten a lot of conversation in which I’d like to take part, and the evolution of Wikipedia has reduced the hassle of link research. All of these things together mean that blogging is a lot more fun and productive than when I was last into it.

So... "Hello, World!"