2005-10-25: iTunes Australia - how not to launch an online music store

Australia finally has iTunes (meaning iPods can now feasibly have legal uses*): Apple - iPod + iTunes. Exciting... no, not really. Why not? Because I went and had a look at the site today at work.

I don't have iTunes at work, but I though I'd at least cruise over and have a look at the artists/tracks they've included in their grand opening. Surely they let you find out what's available before making you install software, right? Wrong, apparently.

Once I'd finally found the site (having first hit a 404 - silly me trying to use a .au domain for an Australian service) my first thought was.... hang on, I've gone back to the iPod store. Half the page seems devoted to selling you an iPod. OK, sure, it makes sense; but couldn't they have made the music the feature at least for a week?

I tried to look at their top ten, but all I got was a big empty blue box. By this stage I'm trying different browsers, but it doesn't work anywhere. The site is just busted. In Netscape you can even see the broken SSI hook, An error occurred while processing this.....

Next thought... their search input is busted in Opera, no surprise. But it's probably functional so let's try to search for some music - this is a music store, right?

Whoops. Now I'm on a blank screen which has two buttons: "I have iTunes" and "I Do Not Have iTunes". For a moment I'm back at WE05 - do I have hay or need hay? It's the first instance of good usability! I click the button for I Do Not Have iTunes Now Just Let Me Browse Some Damn Music.

You must download iTunes! No music for you!

That's it. I'm at work - I can't keep wasting time. I thought I'd spend two minutes flicking through the list of artists. All that's happened is I'm wondering how Apple's web developers hold on to their jobs. This thing is broken on launch day!

later that day...

OK, so we dropped in at the supermarket on the way home, to discover the place is full of iTunes posters. Yikes! There are silhouette people guarding the trolleys! Apparently you can buy iTunes Cards, $20 or $50... I guess they're like prepaid mobile phone cards.

So, when we're home my fiancee decides to check out the iTunes Store (she has an iPod, so yes we have iTunes at home). All that happens is.....nothing. Eventually she clicks something which triggers iTunes. That's all the website does, apparently. Which would be fine if the site at least told you that's it's just a gateway to the iTunes software. I could have looked at work, realised the deal and saved it for later.

On the second attempt, we're finally in iTunes.

so is my life changed?

Yep, for sure, I'll never buy another CD! ......hah. At $1.69 per track, albums are no bargain. We happen to look at the range of Cure albums, which are priced from $16.99 up to about $33. What the hell? I can get the albums in stores for the same price - less, in many cases - and I'll be able to take the CD to work and listen there as well. Not to mention you'd burn through those $20 iTunes Cards pretty fast.

If it was dripping with rare music that'd be a different story. But so far it's mostly mainstream.

what's good?

There are some good things. If you do like iTunes then it integrates very nicely with your player. It's easy to get around the categories and preview was quick. There's quite a lot of comedy stuff, even if it is pretty expensive for a download (you'd want a lot of laughs from a $40 download). The categories are mostly pretty good, although some are baffling - "Rock → Adult Alternative", for example. Alternative grew up, got a haircut and a real job?

the comedy

One thing is really great about iTunes though: the mis-filed artists. We found Henry Rollins in Children's Fiction and DJ Shadow in Hair Metal. Now that's funny :)

Footnote: * Australia still has no "Fair Use" provisions in copyright law.

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2005-10-22: web essentials remixed: our conference can totally beat up your conference

John Allsopp has capped the WE05 experience by remixing the podcasts into a couple of soundscapish electronic tracks, one with 'deep' stuff and one with funny stuff. Check it out. dog or higher: WE05 Remixed.

Now people are talking about remixing the remixes.

I think this is a beautiful example of some key concepts discussed by Jeff Veen about relinquishing control of your content. What people are now realising is that people will use your technology and use your content in ways you would never have thought of. Who the hell releases conference podcasts thinking they'll come back as songs?

If you want an illustration of what to expect from Web 2.0, this is it.

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2005-10-20: ieblog: replace your old hacks with a new one!

No doubt you've seen this: IEBlog : Call to action: The demise of CSS hacks and broken pages. Microsoft is telling us to replace CSS hacks with a new, officially-sanctioned hack (yeah, the perfect solution). Instead of fixing the rendering engine in IE7, they're telling us to use conditional comments and write a separate stylesheet all for IE (because it's special).

It would be far better to just make the rendering engine work properly, so it obeyed the standard rules and ignored the hack rules... you know, just like standards-compliant browsers do. Then we'd just remove the IE6 hacks when IE6 became irrelevant in the marketplace.

But no, MS wants us to edit every single document we have (we have nothing better to do, you see); adding a comment that no other browser needs, to load an extra stylesheet that no other browser needs. A hack, in other words. Bloat, to boot.

If they were going to make up a new hack, couldn't they have at least put it in the CSS? That way we could just wrap the IE-only code in a conditional CSS comment in our existing stylesheet.

I guess it's not going to be a big deal for a lot of people. If you have a decent CMS you should be able to just move your already-written hacks into a new file, then update your templates to add the conditional comments. It is effective, I guess it just irritates me that it's required in the first place.

Some other reactions to the IEBlog post:

  • Eric's Archived Thoughts: IE7 and IE7 ... in short, Eric suggests we could use the IE7 script to make IE6 behave the same as IE7. He also reminds us that we still aren't dealing with the final release of IE7, so we still shouldn't get too emotionally involved.
  • mezzoblue ��� Bye Bye Tan Hack: There’s a good chance that in some cases, you won’t have to change a line of code; the float bug your hack was fixing is no longer broken, so IE7 will simply render the initial rule properly, and not parse whatever corrective rules the hack piles on. IE6 will still behave as expected, and IE7 will treat the code as any other CSS-friendly browser. Hopefully. Maybe. In some cases. I wouldn't go so far as to say a 'good chance'. There's a chance, sure.
  • The Web Standards Project | IEBlog: Clean up your CSS hacks. The wasp crew simply suggest minimising hacks to better prepare for whatever really gets released.
  • Stop using CSS hacks now | 456 Berea Street. Plenty of interesting discussion.

See also: IE7: sane and rational?

2005-10-18: Blackboard takes over WebCT

Blackboard and WebCT Announce Plans to Merge. For those who aren't familiar with the companies, Blackboard and WebCT are two of the best-known LCMS products around. In fact, frankly I can't name any others off the top of my head. There are open-source solutions (which also happen to include the only standards-compliant options), but they have a relatively low takeup rate and basically have Buckley's chance of getting implemented at large universities.

It's pretty clear the Blackboard+WebCT merger is a "merger" in much the same way as Adobe+Macromedia or Oracle+PeopleSoft: one company is being swallowed by the other, with a vague notion of eventually releasing an all-new, all-singing, all-dancing product. From Bb's notes about the merger: Company will remain under the Blackboard brand. ... Over time, Blackboard will incorporate the best features and usability characteristics from the two product lines into a new standards-based product set.

So what does this all mean? Well, in short, Blackboard gets bigger. They pick up more clients and over time they'll phase out WebCT. They'll then release a "new standards-based product set". I wouldn't get too excited by the mention of standards though; the current version isn't at all accessible or standards-compliant despite what they claim. Marketing dross does not mean results, even if it does satisfy the odd manager who is vaguely aware of some problem about blind people.

To be fair, I believe the company genuinely wants to produce something more accessible; even though we won't be seeing the results anytime soon. Just like PeopleSoft, the code base is just too big and too committed to an existing methodology to change it quickly; and that methodology was set down when tag soup was the industry standard. On top of that, they have an entire range of considerations and unsurprisingly web standards are nowhere near the top of the list. Major bug fixes tend to come first.

On the plus side, it does at least show that standards are turning up as a selling point. The merger FAQ includes the question Will the combined company support industry standards?. Unfortunately the answer is more marketing dross: Consistent with each company’s leadership in education industry standards initiatives, the combined company will continue to invest in and support technical standards important to the education community. ...which just means "we'll keep doing exactly what we're doing now".

It just makes it that much more important for Blackboard to improve on standards and accessibility.

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google pagerank and why we shouldn't think about it

Entrepreneur's Journey | PageRank Explained - by Yaro Starak is a quick and easy-to-digest article discussing the ins and outs of Google PageRank.

Some key points:

  • The best thing you can do is focus on creating good content and not think about PageRank much, if at all: The best sites with the highest PageRank never worry about PageRank, they simply keep churning out content that people love to link to.
  • The data in the Google toolbar's Little Green Bar only changes quarterly. The actual rank can change daily. [I'm not sure if live lookup tools get the quarterly value or the latest value.]
  • It will help if other people link to you, but just let it happen naturally. XFN blogrolls, anyone? ;)
  • Write clear, accurate titles.

All of these points are pretty much compatible with my own thoughts on SEO, which still boil down to this: SEO is not rocket science ;)

I can never quite settle on an approach for writing titles. The SEO answer is simple, keyword-inclusive titles; but I've found humans respond pretty well to creative (but not necessarily keyword-compliant) titles. I guess - as in all things - balance is good; and that's about all you can really say.

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2005-10-12: i ♥ unicode

Following on from previous thoughts on unicode, I've found some Windows 2000 voodoo which made a stack of new glyphs appear. I'll say from the outset, I really don't understand what the hell is going on... but stuff is working better so I'm not complaining.

The big trick? Drumroll please... I installed a font. Hey I didn't say it was complex, just weird the way it worked.

Scenario: I'm writing up study notes for a test in my information modelling class (I'm doing some postgrad study in the evenings). Information modelling uses lots of mathematical symbols - duh - so my initial idea about writing them up in XHTML hits a snag (or rather a bunch of broken entity symbols). How I (broken entity) Unicode!

So rather than give up, I tried installing the Code2000 font (shareware, US$5 via Unicode Support in Your Browser). From some reading, I hear that OpenOffice comes bundled with a similar Unicode font; but I haven't looked into that. I'm currently pondering if it's worth braving the horrors of signing up for PayPal to pay for Code2000. Might go oldschool and use a money order. Anyway, I digress.

So - font installed - I added a symbol class to the relevant tds to specify font-family: Code2000, thinking it would be necessary. As an experiment later, I removed the font-family statement from the CSS... yet the entities still displayed. I also noticed the Mezzoblue glyph test worked a whole lot better.

That's kind of weird. I installed a new font... and the system did some kind of mind meld, so even when that font is not specified it finds the glyphs.

Sure, Windows handles fonts in a weird way. A friend of mine once removed every single font from his machine - Windows 98 or 2000 I think - and the machine became unusuable in GUI mode. Windows did not have an extra display font stashed away somewhere. From memory he managed to reinstall Windows off the boot CD, or maybe he managed to get into the command prompt and copy a font back that way.

The point is, Windows uses its display fonts for everything. The Window manipulation widgets can be found in the Marlett font, as another example. The Unicode stuff wasn't working before I installed Code2000; so for Unicode to start working, it must be getting the glyphs from Code2000. But you don't have to specify Code2000 as the display font for Windows to wander off and grab the glyphs. Que?

So anyway, I've got no idea how it worked; but my lecturer asked me to email him a copy of my notes - apparently there's a particular glyph he hadn't been able to find. Meanwhile my classmates muttered darkly about having to "just leave spaces" and fill in the gaps after printing their notes out. They gave me a couple of those special "man, what a geek" looks, but they still thought my notes looked pretty.

Here's hoping I actually passed the test, after all that.

world usability day 2005

Upcoming event in Brisbane: CHISIG | World Usability Day 2005 - Making it easy: Usability and eLearning (3 November, 2005).

Many course developers and educators commonly ask for tools and resources to help them create accessible and usable online learning materials. The aim of the conference is to increase awareness about usability and accessibility tools, methods and principals when creating online learning materials.


  • Keynote: Dr John Eklund - Making elearning work
  • Tania Lang - Creating Usable Online Learning Materials
  • James Newton - Creating Accessible Online Course Materials
  • Janet Brimson - Case study - User centred design in practice

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2005-10-11: simply accessible minisite is live

Derek Featherstone wowed the audience at WE05 with his presentation Designing for Accessibility: Beyond the Basics. Afterwards he was talking about whether he'd make the presentation available or not... in short order the word "minisite" had cropped up. Now Derek has published Simply Accessible. Head on over there and check it out!

In other news, Derek definitely wins the Arsiest Way to Scam NRL Grand Final Tickets Ever award.

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2005-10-09: w3c goes south

...so to speak. The Australian W3C office has moved to the CSIRO in Canberra. I'm slightly ashamed to admit that the office used to be at the DSTC in Brisbane and I'd forgotten.

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why blogger?

I've had some passing comments and discussions lately about why I'm not running Wordpress (or Textpattern, or Movable Type, or something). Some people find it a bit odd that despite having my own domain and the opportunity to install whatever I want, I am still running with Blogger. Well, I do have reasons and I think they highlight some of the issues with choosing a blogging tool.

I will admit that I periodically think about switching to something else; particularly due to things like the poor feed handling and lack of category/tagging features. That said, I really don't have the time to maintain an application. I'm not interested in maintaining an application even if I did have the time :) So realistically before I'll switch I'll have to get really annoyed with Blogger, or really impressed with something else.

So anyway, why am I using Blogger?

why blogger?

I'm not claiming any of this is unique to Blogger, but here are the reasons.

  • Free (albeit with the blogger bar if you host on Blogspot)
  • 100% template control with simple tags.
  • There is some evidence of standards buy-in for the default template options (although Blogger is still far from perfect in terms of standards/accessibility).
  • The application is remote hosted:
    • I don't have to maintain it or worry about security patches.
    • The output can still be hosted on my own domain

    • NOTE: in 2010, Blogger abruptly announced the end of publish-by-FTP support. This means you can no longer host a Blogger-powered blog on your own server, you can only delegate your domain or subdomain to Google to host it for you.

  • Habit - I'll be honest, I've been using Blogger since 2001 and habit plays a fair part in these things.
  • Now owned by Google, so relatively unlikely to disappear overnight.
  • Pretty good uptime and performance - outages are fairly rare and speed is usually fine.
  • Can update with a bookmarklet.

All told, I have a pretty good level of control over the site; it's mostly the finer details that start showing up the limitations of the system.

the downsides to Blogger

  • Free, so you get what you pay for in terms of feature additions and support. That said, I've rarely needed support.
  • The comment system is a little bit clunky and some people think they have to have a Blogger account to leave a comment.
  • Syndication/feed handling is rudimentary and "configured" by other choices/settings. I currently work around some of the issues with a little PHP/XSLT.
  • Feature addition and bugfixes take a long time.
  • They don't support Opera all that well, most bug fixes for Opera are "use Firefox".
  • I suspect Blogger just doesn't have enough geek cool factor, particularly for standardistas. I've often had the impression people think it's one step removed from LiveJournal, which is a journal/social network system and not a blog tool per se. Geek status is an odd beast ;)

Blogger also tend to do some braindead things like release a new feature without writing the support pages for it. For example, the new linkback feature: A Consuming Experience: Blogger: backlinks feature (not quite trackback). If they'd released the details of the blogger tags, I'd probably be running linkback already.

other tools

I've looked at other tools and plenty of them look good. Some have problems with their hosting setups; eg. Wordpress seems to have a lot of maintenance downtime and Textdrive-hosted Textpattern sites seem plagued with availability issues (apparently attributed to 'growing pains'). Obviously these issues aren't really about the blog tool. Plenty of tools have a high "nifty feature" count, even if that does increase the "nifty undocumented feature" count as well.

As yet, however, I can't find any alternatives which are free, remote host the application but publish the content to my own domain... and that's before we even consider standards compliance and the actual application features. Plus I haven't even touched the problem of converting between systems, which is one of those things where I do not believe the vendor hype - I expect the process would be painful and/or produce less-than-desirable results, much like converting between email clients.

So for now I'm sticking with Blogger.

PS. Feel free to comment with your thoughts on what you run and why you chose it!

running to stand still

From time to time it shows that progress is slow for web standards and web usability. While certain areas of the web move forward in leaps and bounds, many others seems to show a lot of activity without much in the way of visible results. we have to keep running just to keep our place.

  • It's that time again... Jakob Nielsen has released his yearly Top Ten Mistakes rundown: Top Ten Web Design Mistakes of 2005 (Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox). Sadly, no real surprises; although the whole fixed vs. fluid thing will probably never be resolved.
  • At WE05, John Allsopp released the results of a survey of major company/government websites; all-too-appropriately titled Are we there yet? Best practices in web development in Australia - a survey (link goes direct to PDF). Essentially it rates 83 sites on the "Allsopp Scale" for measuring how crap a website really is. Even as a cynical standards guy I was a little disappointed to see just how badly most sites fared.
  • I'm not entirely sure why, but somehow the appearance of Dreamweaver 8 is sliding into this post. I think it's something about the claims being the same as last time, along with a page full of "you need javascript and flash" graphics ;) I'll have to play around with it later and give it a fair chance.

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2005-10-06: we05 - random informal observations

As Andrew has already noted, a proper rundown of WE05 presentations is yet to come after we compare notes. Still, I have a bunch of things written down which won't be included there yet haven't been posted yet. Hence, random informal observations from WE05. They include some timeline/social stuff and random notes scribbled down between the notes from the presentations.

day zero

  • At early registration, Maxine caught me by surprise when she immediately recognised my name and referred to a comment I'd made on Derek's blog. You mean people read the interweb? :)
  • Head back to the hotel with my WE05 swag and kill some time on the net... very very easy to kill time at 28.8k ;)
  • Andrew arrives and we head out for food, then alcohol and shooting pool...
  • By the time we crash, we've already become obsessed with the saying "Don't be that guy."
  • Did I say crash? HAH! A fire alarm next door to The Vulcan kept some of us awake for hours.

day one

  • Stagger out with only a couple of hours' sleep. Breakfast picks up my spirits with surprisingly good coffee from the Vulcan.
  • The WE05 experience seems to involve noise and fire alarms.... Tantek Çelik's question time was cut off just before I could ask my question, when the building evacuation alarm kicked in. Cue an evacuation out to the driveway in front of the ABC, dust flying everywhere. Turns out a demolition site nearby had kicked up an enormous amount of dust and set off the alarms.
  • A room full of coughing and sneezing geeks (all that dust!) was quickly sorted out by the unflappable WE05 organisers, who sprang into action and supplied water to anyone who needed it. Nice work!
  • Lucky seating on return from the fire alarm had us right at the back of the room, allowing us to bolt for lunch and avoid the huge lines. Spend the rest of the time trying - without success - to get the wifi access to work.
  • During lunch we spot Steve Faulkner doing a remarkable Jeffrey Zeldman impression.
  • Find seats within laptop power cord range. Dive on them like deranged fiends ("my baby needs power!"). Discover the flip up desktops aren't even close to level and experience the joy of typing downhill.
  • Question for the gallery: why are macheads so completely obsessed with making everything look like OSX?
  • I'm having to swap between laptop and paper because I can't keep using either one the entire time...! These presentations are too interesting to stop for a second.
  • At the day one drinks I meet and catch up with a huge number of people. I'll have to collate all the names and URLs later on ;)

day two

  • Considering there are really only three rendering engines in play at the moment, it seems weird that Opera barely gets mentioned. Are we really cross-browser developers, or are many "standards-compliant developers" just infatuated with Firefox? Are people just falling into a new version of an trap - only testing in Firefox instead of only testing in IE?
  • The on campus cafe barista actually knows how to make a decent coffee. I'm shocked!
  • Holy crap, nearly everyone in this room has heard a screen reader!!!!! I have the urge to stand up and yell "I have found my people!" (with a nod to Colin for that line... it's such a perfect way to express the moment).
  • During a presentation, text zoom is used... Firefox scales the radio button, but not the selected widget! Geek hilarity ensues.
  • Here's a modern moment: I post on my blog, Chaals comments on my blog, I run into Dean Jackson in the lunch line and pass on Chaals' "say hello to dino"... :)
  • Dean initially thinks my domain is zoook.com.au... yes, my handwriting really needs work. Plus I need to remember to cross stroke my zeros.
  • We really need some guru to come up with a keyboard replacement for drag and drop.
  • Interface designers... quit labelling buttons B and I and start labelling them STRONG and EM. Especially when they insert STRONG and EM!
  • Cameron Adams just got pwned by his own presentation after he forgot he had disabled javascript....
  • Tantek is so used to WE running behind, he was in his hotel room when the organisers were looking for him before his second presentation.
  • How can we resolve styling tables? I've found you often need to set widths according to each usage across a large site; yet we can't include attributes in the table's tags; and we should avoid style-based classes. Plus it's technically incorrect to insert border="1" even though tables become nearly unreadable without styles.
  • Geeks might care that something is not new, but the users couldn't care less so long as it's easier to download stuff.
  • Ajax/XMLhttprequest.... it's just like little framesets. But they're so damn useful.
  • Web 2.0.... basically harnessing the power of that one geek in Prague who went crazy on a caffeine bender and built something really good. Why the hell would you spend time and money creating it yourself, all over again, if the end result is the same?

PS. Yes, in case you're wondering, I do plan to eventually return to non-WE05 content ;) Give me a break, I'm on holidays! :)

2005-10-02: we05 day two - quick post

Another quick post in an attempt to talk about day two. Realistically, I can't do it justice while full of pizza and alcohol (I highly recommend Zia Pina pizzeria at The Rocks); but I don't want to wait another day before posting :)

day two quotable quotes

  • Eric Meyer
    • Tip: [When trying to get design signoff,] schedule the meeting right before lunch, you'll get a decision!
    • Anyone support IE6.0? (Hands go up) Anyone not want to support IE6.0? (Hands stay up) Ahh, my people!
    • [Gives crap to Dave Winer] Oh, this is podcast! ... He's in America and I'm in Australia - can get asylum?
    • [Typos "right" into "roight") Border roight... I'm localising!
  • Steve Faulkner
    • Day to day, what I do is criticise other peoples' work...
  • John Allsopp
    • Introducting Tantek Celik: Tantek is so busy he makes me feel like a sloth!
    • After showing the sad state of corporate websites: Keep fighting the good fight!
  • Tantek Çelik
    • On the box model hack: I didn't think it was a big deal...
    • On meta-data like 'keywords': Invisible meta-data doesn't work! (I nearly cheered. Now I can go back to my organisation with some hope they'll listen to me on this point ;)
  • Cameron Adams
    • Coolness is overrated. ... Now the first real reason to do this...

Not a big deal, Tantek? :) Let's visit that in a little more detail. (Note that this is more paraphrased than quoted - I'll get into the podcast and quote it properly once I am back home with broadband. Still, I hope this is a reasonable re-telling of the tale...)

I happened to have the ear, or email, of Jeffrey Zeldman. Jeffrey was saying he couldn't stop using tables for layout because of this bug... he mused that it would be great if he could send a different rule to two different browsers.

I said "Is that all? That'll be easy!"

"He looked at me... well he didn't really since it was email... and said 'easy'?"

So, using a test suite, I set out to find an error that screwed up in exactly where he needed it. After a short time hacking around I got back to him with this hack.

Suddenly Jeffrey decided he could move to using CSS instead of tables.

So what would be a big deal? :)

day two notable moments

  • Molly referred to Instant Messaging, blogs etc as the traditional ways of communicating.
  • A show of hands during Eric's session revealed that very few people are working to a formal browser support profile!
  • Derek Featherstone casually asking the crowd whether anyone could find him a ticket to the NRL Grand Final. Certainly a novel approach to the "sold out game" issue...
  • The Mac freaking out at the end of Derek's presentation, allowing me to goob the old "get a Mac!" advert. "Get a PC!" ...I was probably lucky to get out alive.
  • Cameron Adams managed to explain the DOM in a way that makes it seem almost trivially simple to understand. Why didn't anyone just tell me it just makes a tree out of your document? :)
  • Andrew's observation is definitely correct: Cam Adams wins Most Smartarse Jokes Slipped Into A Presentation. Just wait until Russ hears about the "snoozefest" comment. It'll might look like the Eric vs. Doug animation....
  • What is it with crazed mac heads? Cam Adams has reproduced the OSX desktop within a browser. If viewed on a mac, would it create a singularity? Your machine might reach some kind of Apple event horizon and turn into an iPod.
  • Tantek managed to use the word "folksonomies" without making me want to scream.
  • Jeff Veen reminded us that Your web site is a tiny piece of a much larger experience.
  • Jeff also introduced us to the term and formalised concept of the Culture of Generosity; which explains many of the web's current success stories. Give plenty, maybe take just a little, everyone benefits.

I also think it's kind of a notable moment - or at least very cool - that my non-geek fiance came to the after-party and didn't get driven insane by geek talk :) Maybe we're not quite as bad as we think we are ;)

See also: we05 day one - quick post, eric meyer on mobile computing (that photo :)), we05 - random informal observations and all over, bar the shouting.

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