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2006-01-27: four things meme

Egads! Derek tagged me, so here we go with some friday meme fun.

Four jobs I've had

  1. Bookseller - three different bookshops, the most fun was SF/Crime specialists Pulp Fiction.
  2. Copywriter
  3. Assistant Web Developer (although there was no Web Developer to assist...)
  4. Web Standards Developer

Four movies I can watch over and over

  1. The Blues Brothers
  2. Good Will Hunting
  3. Ronin
  4. The Birdcage

I don't think I've ever intentionally set out to watch Good Will Hunting or The Birdcage; but if they're on I discover I've sat down just for a minute... There are a few others like Aliens, Blade, The Princess Bride, Go, Gone In 60 Seconds (oh, the cars, drool).

Four places I have lived

  1. *sigh* I generally don't admit... Ipswich. But it was in a heritage-listed sandstone house (open house once a month).
  2. Glamorganvale, a country town near Ipswich. We had a deer farm (as a second business for my parents).
  3. Brisbane, Emmanuel College (that's a residence, if you're American) for two of my university years.
  4. Brisbane, in a succession of share houses and rentals: Ashgrove, Newmarket, The Gap, Indooroopilly, St Lucia, Toowong, Taringa. If you want to sell a house, let me move in. It'll sell.

Four television shows I love to watch

  1. Mythbusters
  2. Rage - bumping Iron Chef after Cam Pegg's post reminded me I cannot leave out the reason I've stayed up half the night on so many occasions.
  3. Top Gear
  4. Red Dwarf

Four places I have been on vacation

  1. Point Lookout, Stradbroke Island (just off the Brisbane coast)
  2. Sydney
  3. Melbourne
  4. Tasmania

Yeah, I really need to get out of the country at some stage.

Four of my favourite dishes

  1. Noodles, thick noodles (like hokkien) in just about any style. Thai in particular or yakisoba from good teppanyaki places.
  2. Spaghetti or simple pastas (eg. proscuitto, tomato, basil, pine nuts and a sprinkle of parmesan)
  3. Beef and Guinness pie. With a pint of Kilkenny and about a week to digest it all.
  4. Steak and chips. Healthy be damned ;)

Four websites I visit daily

  1. Google
  2. Gmail
  3. Blogger
  4. Newsfeeds (particularly for work) and Livejournal syndication (for the vast numbers of people I know with LJs)

Wow, I guess Google really does control my brain. I don't really visit specific websites every day, any more. There are some webcomics without feeds that I visit every couple of days, like The Whiteboard.

Four places I would rather be right now

  1. In the shade on top of the cliffs at Point Lookout, with the breeze and the sound of the sea, watching the turtles swimming in the surf.
  2. London (well actually, the UK would be more accurate - lots of places I want to see)
  3. Berlin (I've no idea why, but one day I just realised I want to go there)
  4. Melbourne or Sydney

Four bloggers I am tagging

  1. Andrew Krespanis
  2. Chaals
  3. Nick Caldwell (although he'll say he doesn't do memes...)
  4. OK, the fourth one is tough. I keep going to tag someone and they're already tagged! So I'm throwing this one open: I met a lot of people at WE05 who didn't have cards (or had run out). The result is I don't have a URL for said people. If you're one of them, and you're reading this, consider yourself tagged :)

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2006-01-23: firefox: the new internet explorer

This feeling has been brewing for a while: Firefox is turning into Internet Explorer. The attitudes surrounding Firefox draw ever closer to those attitudes it was supposed to destroy. Things people hate about IE and Microsoft are appearing in Firefox and the Mozilla Project.

What am I talking about? It mostly boils down to these points:

  • Using one browser's popularity to justify not supporting other browsers
  • Treating users of other browsers as inferior - "just use the popular one"
  • Making up proprietary code which is only supported in one browser

People weren't happy to let IE get away with that crap, so why are they taking it from Firefox?

popularity contest - what is this, high school?

I thought we were supposed to be getting away from the days where users with a small marketshare were told "too bad". Sadly an increasing number of sites are appearing which work in IE and Firefox, but not Opera or Safari. Users of these browsers can rant and rave but they are inreasingly being met with blank stares - why won't you just use Firefox and shut up?

Major players lament having to support "niche browsers" and even people who should know better are starting to go live with sites that only work in IE and Firefox:

  • Flickr's "notes" feature only works in Firefox, despite being one of the key features they promote.
  • Blogger actively pushes users into using Firefox since their interface sucks in anything other than IE and Firefox: AOL users, as well as those unaccounted for here (Netscape, Opera, etc.), would be wise to use Mozilla Firefox in order to have the best possible experience using Blogger.
  • Technorati's method of increasing the size of popular tags only works in IE and Firefox (maybe Safari, but I don't have a Mac handy).
  • 37 Signals may be the darlings of the life hacking fraternity, but their products generally don't work in Opera so guess what? I don't use them.

What makes it even more interesting is the way many applications add support for other browsers later on. This indicates that it was entirely possible to support all browsers at go-live, but instead they ran early without bothering to finalise the product. Who cares about a few idiots who don't use IE or Firefox?

Most of this is based on the flawed assumption that browser stats are gospel. For all anybody really knows, Firefox's real marketshare could be a third of that reported in most log files (what with all the pre-fetching).

"quit complaining and just use Firefox"

People ranted at length about being told to "go use IE", yet don't seem to blink when directed to Firefox. Just because Firefox has some open source cool points doesn't mean people should be forced to use it.

What happened to letting the user choose? Did we decide that Microsoft was right after all - everyone should use the exact same software?

Worse still, many people seem to think Firefox is the only alternative browser. Firefox has been pushed so hard, people are treating it like "the other browser" instead of "another browser". Gratingly, articles are appearing with titles like Why You Should Consider Budgeting a Site Redesign for Firefox 1.5 Now (Yes Firefox). Argh! No! Redesign with standards, not "for Firefox"!

proprietary code

There's been quite a bit of noise surrounding the <a ping> feature being proposed for Firefox. Actually, it's not a feature for Firefox so much as a bit of proprietary code for developers to add to their pages. Wow, there's a thought - let's code our pages for just one browser. Let's stick "Best viewed in Firefox!" buttons on our sites and get in the popcorn to watch Browser Wars 2.0 unfold.

Does one feature really mark an entire project? Not really, but have you ever had the feeling you've just seen the thin end of the wedge? The ping attribute isn't even being proposed for a good reason - the justification is that some sites do stupid redirection monkey business in order to track hits. Why a browser maker should get involved is beyond me. Let those sites break if their redirections fail, for all I care. Don't make up new code!

firefox is not perfect

No matter what people say, Firefox is not perfect. It has bugs (table padding problems, anyone?), it has security flaws, it has a memory problem. It may have a larger marketshare than a few other browsers, but it's still a minnow compared with IE.

People should stop acting like it's perfect. Firefox is just another choice. Its marketshare could slip tomorrow - IE7 could take back everything Firefox gained; taking the "it's popular" argument back off Firefox. I'm sure Firefox users would still like to be supported even if that happened.

Unless we want to replace IE with Firefox, the industry needs to remember the original point of web standards: support standards, not browsers. Build once, publish anywhere, let the users choose the UA that's right for them.

2006-01-18: you can't manufacture community

John Allsopp has a great post on the ebb and flow of true community (and creativity): dog or higher: harnessing creative anarchy - an abject lesson.

No matter how much companies are willing to pay for community sites like Flickr and LiveJournal, you cannot buy, bottle or manufacture the creativity of the original user group. Communities have a shared energy, a sort of consensual X factor. When it is strong, great things can happen; particularly when the group governs itself and the members feel content. Impose someone else's rules on a community and that energy usually leaks away, seemingly overnight.

Even the simple act of buying a community like Flickr can be the ripple which triggers the end. Even if the entire community is operating the same way and the only difference is the knowledge that someone different owns it. Collective consciousness is a hard beast to predict.

Sure, communities can continue on well after such a moment. They may never recapture that original spark, but sometimes new and wonderful flames develop in its place. Other times, it's just tradition or a diluted experience which lasts beyond the departure of the original soul. Some communities have a great will to live and a more developed ability to reinvent themselves.

Perhaps the thing to realise is that a functioning community (or creative outlet) may fall apart if you interfere with it. So don't meddle unless there is a compelling reason to do so.

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2006-01-17: your site gets a split second's chance

news @ nature.com | Web users judge sites in the blink of an eye - Potential readers can make snap decisions in just 50 milliseconds.. Ouch.

If only people would learn to love this bit of advice: So what are the key ingredients of a good-looking website? Caudron suggests that the amount of graphics on the page should be strictly limited, perhaps to a single eye-catching image. 'It's not about getting as much stuff on the page as possible,' he says.

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limitations of rel="tag" microformat

I've been investigating the rel-tag microformat - tags, basically. I've realised there are two fairly obvious problems with the spec (I imagine I'm not the first to pick up on these, of course).

My scenario: an existing application hosts articles which are to be tagged. The intended tag space (target of the tag link) is to be a page listing all documents in the application with that tag (so users can read more on the same site).

So, what are the limitations of the spec (and some ideas to alleviate the problems)?

URLs

Tag URLs must end with a directory named /tagname. Nothing else will do, to meet the spec. In the real world, this is too strict a requirement - in the scenario I am investigating, I don't control the URLs produced by the application nor did I choose the server environment.

The app produces tag listings using an argument, something like ?tag=tagname at the end of the URL. The environment does not allow me to set up a rewrite/.htaccess to forward the spec-format URL to the app-format URLs. So I'm out of luck there.

So I can just use Technorati tag links, right? Well, depends if the client goes for that, which they probably won't since internal grouping is a higher priority. Plus, in context the user's natural expectation would be to click the tag link and find a listing of posts with that tag on the host site. If we send users off to another site we're losing a key benefit of using tags in the first place.

The rub is that we're not doing anything which goes against the spirit of the spec, we're just not meeting the very specific file system structure it's asking for. Microcontent driving the entire server's directory layout? I'm not sure our admin guys are going to buy that.

I can see why URL parsing is a way to push for some level of tag/link relevancy; but I don't really see why http://www.server.com/scriptname.ext?tag=tagname should not be acceptable as a tag URL (not saying there's no reason, just that it's not immediately obvious to me...). The last portion of the URL is still the tag; and plenty of applications out there use the syntax for categories.

Perhaps the motivation is to make a single way of extracting the tag from the URL. This is a little more tricky, but surely it's not impossible to cater to both path segments and argument value? eg. look for ?tag=tagname at the end of the string; if ?=tag is not found, look for /tag/tagname

If that's too vague/complex, then a class attribute could be used to specify argument format or path format. eg. class="tag-argument" and class="tag-path" to differentiate between the two formats.

visible meta-data?

The spec states: Making tag hyperlinks visible has the additional benefit of making it more obvious to readers if a page is abusing tag links, and thus providing more peer pressure for better behavior.

Well, no, actually it's not visible at all. The meta-data is taken from the URL (the tag is extracted from the href contents), which is not visible. The visible link text can be anything at all, which means you can create <a href="http://technorati.com/tag/nice+worksafe+stuff" rel="tag">nasty nwsf stuff</a> ...a tag index will think the post is about nice worksafe stuff. People are in for a surprise if they click through to the actual page and find it's quite accurately nasty nsfw stuff.

The visible meta-data was accurate, but the actual meta-data was not. Oddly enough, this abuse of the spec conforms to the spec. A more robust form of accuracy enforcement would be to require the visible link text to match the tag from the URL. The differences in spaces/encoded spaces shouldn't be too hard to cover since there are only two allowable encoding forms.

summary

Under the current draft, tags and relevant tagspaces are potentially hard to create; and it's still easy to abuse the system. Humans can still be tricked and so can the machines. It's a great spec if you happen to have a compliant directory structure, but if your site doesn't match then you either recreate your entire system... or, more likely, you sadly advise the client that tags aren't happening.

2006-01-13: griffith phonebook adds hCard and vCard

Griffith University staff phonebook listings now include hCards in the markup and an option to save vCards. Check out "Find a staff member" at www.griffith.edu.au/find/.

It's the most comprehensive usage of hCard that I've seen so far - most hCards I've seen were personal contacts, which tend to include less fields. The vCard format has a few shortcomings, which obviously flow through to hCard. For example, there's no way to type a URL; so you can only enter one URL and some vCard readers default it to 'personal'.

The implementation is now listed at hcard - new examples (microformats.org).

[Disclosure: I work for Griffith and this was a project of mine, together with Colin Morris. We proposed the hCard/vCard implementation as part of an internal innovation grant scheme but it got funded outright before shortlisting was completed :)]

[Disclaimer: The University has nothing to do with this page; and vice-versa.]

2006-01-04: opera, goopera and IEpera...

A timely interview with the Opera CEO can at least stop a few rumours: Slashdot | Opera CEO Jon von Tetzchner Answers Your Questions. Although the questions could have been chosen a little more carefully, it's still an interesting read.

Meanwhile Opera Watch had some fun thinking up the next companies which might buy Opera; and the names they'd have for the browser. Opera Watch: Next company to acquire Opera? | Opera Browser Blog. Yahoopera? Appera? Actually I think Apple would call it iPera.

2006-01-03: it's a slightly braver new world: no more ie for mac

We knew it was coming, now the time has officially arrived. IE5 for the Mac is no more. Internet Explorer 5 for Mac: Microsoft will end support for Internet Explorer for Mac on December 31st, 2005, and will provide no further security or performance updates. ... It is recommended that Macintosh users migrate to more recent web browsing technologies such as Apple's Safari.

Please listen, IE/Mac users: even Microsoft is recommending Safari. Please, stop using IE. It may have been a leader once, but those days are long gone. It's old and very, very busted. Let it rest now. OK?

google, microsoft and yahoo: still anti-standards

WSJ.com - The Men Who Came To Dinner, and What They Said About Email. The email (ie. webmail) project leaders for Google, Microsoft and Yahoo got together for a friendly dinner. What did they agree on? Well, Gmail is the clear leader of the beta-version pack; but also they just wish that everyone would use IE and stop hassling them: The men reported similar pressures: cranky users of Web browsers with tiny market shares demanding that their browsers be supported, while not appreciating how much work is involved.

Here's the thing - some of us do understand how much work is involved... and we still think they should get it right. Remember that we're talking about products and companies with massive budgets and massive userbases. All three companies consider email to be a key factor in obtaining and retaining customers - yet they're unwilling to let those users make a simple choice like which browser to use.

It's an odd aspect to the IT industry... major companies willing to cut out whole segments of their market, just because it's "Too Hard" to cater to them. Applied to another industry it'd look ridiculous - imagine a petrol station turning away anyone who isn't driving a Toyota Camry!

So anyway, it's clear even from a brief paraphrase that these three companies (or at least their email teams) are not keen on standards and resent expectations of cross-browser support. In fact, they look like classic Angry, Acceptance-Averse Application Administrators to me. Old school "it works in my browser so what's the problem" guys. No surprise, of course.

I think it's also about time we started calling companies about this "permanent beta" thing. It's too convenient an excuse - "hey, it's just a beta product, what do you expect?". Sure, but beta for years?

But hey, maybe I'm being too harsh and the final release of Gmail will actually work properly across the board. After all, it's just beta...

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