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.