22 January 2008

Meta tag mishmash

This will make no sense unless you’ve read the following:

If you know what all of these places are, care what they have to say, and haven’t read them, do so now. I’ll still be here when you come back.

This approach amounts to, “require Web operators to opt-in if they intend to stick to the latest and greatest.” Five years out, this is going to result in a lot of rendering engine bloat and the bugs that go along with that, but Microsoft has plenty incentive to avoid that without badgering from standards advocate. They probably also have some insitutional memory with respect to solving that problem (though the question of whether or not they put it to use is another matter entirely).

Who wins, who loses

This situation begs a game analysis.

  • Good for Microsoft: customers don’t yell so much, and are more likely to accept version upgrades of IE (along with their security benefits)
  • Bad for Microsoft: improperly used, the recommended change in practice ultimately leaves Microsoft open to the same charges of deliberate somnolence they faced as a result of letting IE6 rot outright for something like four years: why improve your browser if no-one’s using its features? Given Microsoft’s track record, the possibility of this outcome needs to be taken seriously.
  • Good for professionals: there will be a mechanism by which developers can avoid passing on sudden and gratuitously fortuitous labor charges because oops! IE was updated and changes were made to the rendering engine
  • Bad for professionals: it becomes necessary to keep track of which sites are tethered to which versions of Internet Explorer, which is very close to the outcome WaSP was founded to avoid
  • Good for users: version upgrades will no longer result in the entire Web experience going wonky all of a sudden one morning
  • Bad for users: sitebuilders and their sponsors now have a perfect crutch for keeping their sites in the Stone Age

Is the good worth the bad?

In the long run, I believe so… especially if guys like me step up to the plate and keep on educating people.

21 January 2008

Autobiography: stapling and car parts

I just finished reading an article about poor handshakes, which brought me back to a couple of handshaking lessons I was taught when I was kid.

The apple didn’t fall far from the tree

The thing is, Dad’s always had a handshake on the weak side. Anymore, it comes from professional and social habit, but at the bottom line the closest he gets to being the garrulous good ol’ boy is his atypically generous support for a broad interpretation of the Second Amendment (itself complicated).

The point is that when I was a kid, I didn’t know how to shake hands worth a damn.


The first clue toward a different way of shaking hands came from Poppa Joe, who tapped me for some DIY tedium six weeks before my tenth birthday. He was over at the apartment to ask us if I could spend my weekend with them — never a problem since I loved staying over there, and in any event their house was only a few miles away from the apartment. I could’ve walked over there with ease anytime I had an invitation (though at the time I was just getting into the habit of hoofin’ it at length).

The point to the request was to put me to honest work the following day, as my grandmother had leased a new space and was due to move into it in just over a month. Since the merchandise at issue was yarn and thread, the entire south wall of the store was due to be covered in several hundred cubic-foot display boxes — all folded and stapled into shape by hand.

[My mother’s parents are the sort who achieve inner calm by making things with their hands; I take after my parents, for whom writing has been the path to the same result.]

Preparatory to this, Grandpa wanted to know hard I could squeeze, which is a valid question when you’re only nine years old and being called upon to spend an entire Saturday with a heavy-duty stapler in hand.

…So he takes my right hand and tells me to give him the firmest handshake that I can. I comply. He frowns.

“I don’t know if your hands are strong enough.”

I start feeling a bit crestfallen, then realize why I’m feeling the impulse to giggle.

“Uh, Grandpa? I’m left-handed.

As I recall the next day’s work was tedious as hell, but went well enough.

Eight months later, beside a classic Chevy pickup

The school year following the shop’s move to a new space, I started at a new school. I wouldn’t develop social grace around my contemporaries for another four or five years, and I didn’t relish the thought of coming back to an empty house, so often I would stay on the school grounds for another hour or so after school let out, reading in the library or shooting basketball. Because of this, and because I was no stranger to the principal’s office, I became well-liked by Mrs. Anderson, the school’s lead admin assistant. One of the afternoons I stuck around, her husband dropped in to take her home; she’d christened her own car the “Navy Blue Lemon” because it spent so much time in the shop despite the fact that it was a late model.

Mr. Anderson had a project car, a classic ’57 Chevy with white paint but no finish. I very nearly became a gearhead at first sight. After I was done ooh-ing and aah-ing over the truck, and after he threw around the obligatory atta-boys, he asked for a handshake.

I game him one.

“Ben, you can do better than that.”

I gave him another handshake. The reply I got to that was…

“You’re like an Oldsmobile.”

Given my ignorance of cars, I was mystified — and feeling more than a little snappy, because I knew it wasn’t a compliment, even if I had no idea why. “How’s that?

“…No clutch!” And he looked me in the eyes with a smile running from ear to ear. I was turning a bright shade of red, but even I couldn’t help but laugh.

I gave him a third handshake, and really put myself into it.

That one turned out with bit more success, and I’ve given deliberately firm handshakes ever since.

…To everyone but Dad.

20 January 2008

Oh, how the issue of quotes refuses to die

Every once in a while I will encounter someone, whether online or off, wondering how much it costs to get a site built.

The most accurate answer is, “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” At least, not if it’s going to be any good and more than a weblog.

I’ve already talked about the thought that goes into estimating. Lacking the answers to those very basic questions, I usually answer “$1500 and up.” [It used to be $1200, but inflation, ya know.]

…So I will say it one more time: tell me what you actually want, and I will tell you how much it will cost, mkaythxbai. If you don’t know what you want, expect to pay more for the time I will spend helping you figure it out.

Update, 3 hours later

Ross has a much pithier reply to the question at hand.

18 January 2008

Reflections on a month of MacBook experience

I received my first Mac ever on 17th December.

This past month does not represent the first time I’ve used a Mac regularly; when I was in school and working on academic Web projects, I relied for the most part on Macs (generally Quadras running 6 & 7, if anyone’s curious). Since then, I’ve used Macs from time to time onsite, and on a few occasions borrowed at length from friends. To make a long story short, I’m no stranger to the Mac platform, and I’ve always been fond of it.

(Mostly pleasant) surprises

  • I don’t typically use my mouse, even at home.

    This is due in large part to the fact that I haven’t yet gotten Photoshop installed on the MacBook, but even so you would think that with all the tabbed browsing I do, I would be lost without a mouse. This is oddly not so.

  • I *heart* Exposé.

    Simon Willison took the time to show it off for my benefit back in 2004, and I thought of it at the time as a neat toy. However, the past month has taught me its usefulness, especially because there's no easier way to jump between running windows within a single application (while Windows puts all taskbar items into the Alt-Tab pane).

  • There’s not nearly as much benefit in collapsing windows in OSX as in the Classic GUI; in fact, doing so actually creates hassles.

    This has been the hardest adjustment for me to make in the process of unhinging myself from the One Microsoft Way.

  • The magnetic AC adapter plug is an instance of sheer genius.

    Every laptop should have this feature; the need to re-solder AC adapter connectors would become an historical artifact.

  • …So that’s what it’s like to have a real notebook battery.

    My Windows notebook only weighs four pounds, and the battery could only manage about two hours brand new. The ability to play DVD’s for three hours or more is refreshing, to say the least.

  • Perhaps only because I’m a cheap bastard who hasn’t owned a decent hi-fi rig since he was twenty-one years old, I find myself impressed by the sound card.

    I’m no fan of iTunes, but I find myself neglecting the speakers connected to the Windows desktop, in preference to listening to my music over headphones connected to the MacBook.


  • The finish on everything has an unbelievable affinity for crud.

    Apparently, the sole prerequisite for display smudges is that I merely need to think about touching the damn thing. I have a bad and entrenched habit of doing more than just thinking about it. The keycaps, bezel, and case finish (both inside and out) suffer similarly; household dust adheres to the outside case in much the same way as gauge blocks.

  • Two. Mouse. Buttons. Please.

    …Especially now that Boot Camp is part of the factory install.

  • The “lock” in System Preferences is a pain in the ass.

    The Cat Frob won’t change the settings on accident, so what’s the deal here?

  • iTunes doesn’t offer alternate key bindings, unless you want to set them up one-by-one in System Prefences.

    For those of us who’ve been faithful Winamp users for eight years (like meee), the adjustment is brutal. [I’ve already sent a lengthy feedback message to the appropriate authorities on this very subject.]

…I could go on a bit, but hence we get into some heavy duty minutiae. I’ll skip that.

The enigma that is Safari

I find that I don’t object to using Safari as my primary browser on the Mac, relegating Firefox to development and testing. The reason I did this originally was that the rig was purchased for testing purposes, which means that I have multiple Firefox installs, thus multiple profiles, thus an extra step when I start up Firefox. However… I discovered that Safari is hypersonic next to its brethren, and apart from intermittent hangs on server replies, I have every reason to suspect that Safari’s network interface can’t be beat. It doesn’t drive like a yacht with respect to RAM, either.

My *ahem* most-favoritest feature of Safari is that Flash objects in unfocussed tabs do not start loading or playing until the tab is brought into focus; I cannot understate how intently I wish that feature was present in Firefox.

I also bear witness to a number of boogers:

  • no direct keyboard shortcut for Search
  • Contrarian tab layout (argh!)
  • no visual cues indicating the load status of off-window tabs
  • Alt-click saves a link, notwithstanding the fact that Cmd-click opens it in a new tab (WTF?!)
  • there's a full-screen mode in every other Mac app and every other browsing title, but nooo, not Safari
  • target="_new" opens by default in a new window, not a new tab, and this behavior can’t be altered near as I can tell
  • no version-and-title-specific CSS filters (more of a Work Gripe than anything to do with being a user, but still)

…And that, for now, is that.

17 January 2008

Geekery: the march of progress

[The following was copied over from a post I wrote on a different blog back in December 2006.]

One of the tracks on my playlist is of a Canadian guy doing a stand-up routine that parodies an Internet helpdesk call (but not by far). The comedian mentions "a computer with a thousand times the power of the one we used to land on the moon" and prompted by a photo of the 5MB-capacity great-grandaddy of the hard disk in the computer you're using right now, I thought I'd do the math.

IBM 305 RAMAC disk storage unit vs. 1GB SanDisk Cruzer:

The IBM drive has roughly 60 cubic feet of cabinet volume, the jumpdrive roughly three-tenths of a cubic inch. Once the storage capacities of the two systems are factored in, the contemporary gadget enjoys almost two million times the efficiency of its ancestor (though it probably doesn't have nearly its ancestor's service life).

In terms of the volume of the actual storage media the numbers aren't nearly so far apart, as the flash storage on the jumpdrive takes up a significant proportion of the unit's overall volume, while its predecessor's magnetic media only occupied rougly 1/18th of its cabinet (with much of the remainder left over to vacuum tubes and machinery).

...And we won't even get started on the weight difference.

Apple MacBook vs. AGC Block II:

It's harder to compare these two machines, as they have completely different hardware architectures in almost every imaginable respect, designed to wholly different requirements. However, a look at the MacBook's spec page and various pages describing the the Wikipedia entry for the Apollo Guidance Computer yields the following factors of increased performance (bigger = better):

  • ROM: 3⅔x
  • RAM: 280,000x
  • CPU clock speed: 894x
  • Weight: 9x
  • Power consumption: 0.53x (the MacBook uses almost twice the electricty!)

And for the same reasons I didn't go into the subject of weight before, we'll avoid the discussion of the cost difference between these two pieces of hardware, except to point out that the MacBook is possibly something you can still afford even if you need to ask how much it costs.

These huge numbers are the result of a positive feedback loop. Computers are used to design more powerful computers (lather, rinse, repeat…) until the computers grow powerful enough to bump against constraints in the laws of physics (which is what this dual- and quad-core processor nonsense is about).

14 January 2008

Intellectual Property vs. the market

I’ve spent most of the afternoon vetting my iTunes library, which leaves me spurred to comment about a recent post passing through the intertubes in which the RIAA whines again about intellectual property rights.

First off, as a Web guy, I like to think that I’m pretty hip to the upside of intellectual property laws; if my stuff was worth ripping off, I’d probably be pretty steamed if it actually was.


When you’re the RIAA, and you circumscribe what the mass media promote, you’ve just made yourself a gatekeeper of popular culture — part of folks’ common experience. When you heap on the injury of ensuring that your product is partially crap, you encourage your market to cherry pick. You also lose respect — how much over-compressed, lowest-common-denominator-pandering crap do you expect us to take in tandem with the stuff we genuinely like?

Finally, you add insult to injury by treating us like thieves when we assert our rights to protect the embodiment of our licenses from theft and damage.

It’s true that lots of people have lost respect for intellectual property. Meanwhile, it’s been my experience that people pirate music (ooh, scary!) because:

  • their desire to listen to the music outweighs their ability to pay for it;
  • they want to try it before they buy it;
  • they want to encourage others to listen to it;
  • they can download the music more easily than they can rip it from media they already own; and/or
  • they want the gold without the dross.

I’m serious as a heart attack about the last one — seriously, why else would I be vetting a music library composed in great majority of tracks from CD’s I’ve purchased, in many cases more than once?

Respectively, these listeners are:

  • not giving you the money, because they don’t have it;
  • exercising the rights of a conscientious customer;
  • DOING YOUR MARKETING FOR YOU (oh, fercryinoutloud, are you ever STOOPID);
  • taking the path of least resistance to the goal of protecting their investment in their legitimate license of your music; and
  • hinting that y’all oughtta get your shit together.

So, you wanna raise your numbers and regain relevance? Here’s how to do it:

  • Quit insisting on stratospheric margins.
  • Make DRM-free downloads available sooner rather than later.
  • Make free tracks available. Ratchet the bitrates down and bracket them with ads and notices if you feel you must, but make the music available for trial in some format.
  • Quit treating your customers like criminals.
  • For the love of all that is good, stop marketing CD’s that are half-or-more composed of crap tracks, and compressing the whole so extremely that it makes the results physically exhausting to listen to.

When I look at the situation from a perspective of opportunity cost, I come away knowing that I'd rather buy a good CD than download any day. Why?

  • I can’t use P2P networks effectively without leeching and allowing myself to be leeched.
  • I have no way of knowing until the download is finished if I’m getting tracks that were ripped from media in good condition.
  • I may not be able to find the music at an acceptably high bitrate, or for that matter at any bitrate.
  • Chances are that I’ll be forced to rename or re-tag my files, so hell, I might as well rip them my own damn self.
  • Oh. Liner notes?! Buahahaha!!!

On the other hand, it’s altogether satisfying to take the best while throwing the rest away, and giving the mass media a well-deserved virtual middle finger in the process.

Get the memo and the clue already, hmmm???