Archives » July, 2003

July 24, 2003

Queer Eye

Be sure to catch Queer Eye For the Straight Guy on NBC tonight. It’s normally shown on Bravo on Tuesdays, but its debut last week drew such high ratings that NBC picked it up to try pairing it with Will & Grace on Thursdays. Normally I hate makeover shows. Double-H Hate. But I caught the premiere last week, and I was pulled in instantly. Five gay guys taking on a straight slob as a “project” — what’s not to like? Well, there’s a lot of ways they could have done it wrong and screwed up the whole show. People who hear the premise without seeing the show hate it. “They’re unfairly promoting stereotypes”, they say. Well, I answer, it’s television. It’s meant to be entertainment. Unless you’re the History Channel, you have to play it broad or else it’s not interesting to watch. Besides, almost everybody who actually watches the show loves it. I think that’s because they pulled it off so well. They cast guys who know how to be snarky without being catty, to be funny without being mean. Besides, it’s just the phase television is in right now. Once gays were taboo on television, and then they were shocking. In the future they’ll be normal. But right now, in 2003, gays are funny. The popularity of Will & Grace speaks to that more than I ever could. And this show just rides that train all the way to the bank. Watch it and see for yourself. When one of the guys, seeing the redecorated house for the first time, squeals “You put a living room where the crack den used to be!”, you’ll find yourself getting hooked too.

Chaos Kitty

I stumbled across this pretty impressive collection of Flash audio and video players at chaoskitty. Most of them are album previews, that work in your browser just like a CD player. Click on the song title, and it streams at pretty close to CD quality. Most excellent technology, and good music too!

July 23, 2003

Nerds Arise

Paul Graham: Why Nerds are Unpopular

There was something else I wanted more: to be smart. Not simply to do well in school, though that counted for something, but to design beautiful rockets, or to write well, or to understand how to program computers. In general, to make great things.

Hat tip: Doc Searls.

Electricity’s in the air

The power keeps cutting in and out because of the thunderstorm that’s passing by. The computers, of course, have no UPSes. That’s a special privilege reserved for the servers. So every couple of minutes I lose whatever I haven’t saved yet. Then I have to fumble around in the dark, because they built our basement without any windows. And then, when the power comes back on, I have to wait for a reboot. I think that’s my cue to head home.

Of course, looking at how bright these lightning flashes are, I might just want to stay indoors until it passes. I like not having grey streaks in my hair, thank you.

You’ve Got More Blogs

As a follow-up to yesterday’s mini-review of AOL Journals, I’ve started writing a three-part article offering a somewhat in-depth look at the new AOL service. Part One is now online. It covers the blog setup routine, and points out a few of the nice, and not-so-nice, features. Give it a read! It has pretty pictures!

July 22, 2003

You’ve Got Blogs!

In order to bring the highest level of quality reporting to you, the gentle reader, I am constantly pushing the edge so you don’t have to. And to that end, today I started up an AOL Journal. AOL Journals are the queer little beasts that are really weblogs, but AOL’s not calling them blogs because “many users found the word ‘blog’ confusing”. Oh well, whatever. They still use the word blog in several places, so they’re probably just trying to ease people into using it.

Anyway, we have an AOL account that we use for dial-up on our laptop, and that my mother-in-law uses as her primary internet connection. Mostly the account just gathers dust and draws money out of my bank account, but every now and then I get to use it to keep up with what AOL is offering to the world. I sat down with it today to go through the process of starting an AOL Journal and giving the service a quick test drive. I think it’s fair to say that I was more impressed than dismayed. It runs about as smoothly as you’d expect from AOL. Very basic, very easy-to-use, very lean on features. You can change a couple of the items on the screen, including a blog description, a paragraph about yourself, and links to other blogs and sites. You also get to choose a color for your site and whether you want one, two or three columns. And you can choose from three templates how you want your posts laid out. Aside from that, the look and feel of your page is dictated by AOL, resulting in all the blogs looking about the same. I don’t fault them for that, though. They know that anyone who has the least bit of advanced knowledge about blogs is going to be using Movable Type, or even Blogger, where you have full control over your templates. AOL Journals is for people who just want to write, and not have to get mired in any of the technical details. Which is fine. That’s a huge audience, that’s the constiuency they’ve gone after for over ten years now, so more power to them.

Dave Winer tried to create a Journal, and he made the shocking(!) discovery that you need to be an AOL member to create an AOL Journal. Well, yeah. You have to buy Radio to start a Radio weblog, too, so what’s the point? Then he bemoans the $24 per month price tag. “That’s pretty hefty considering that all I want to do is run a weblog.” Well, how many people are going to sign up to AOL just so they can create a Journal? I’d estimate that number to be exactly zero. AOL is targeting its existing customers here, and aside from AIM, they haven’t been in the business of opening their services up to non-members. This is basically what Michael Gartenberg says, far more eloquently than I could put it.

I’ll have more soon, including an in-depth report on the dirty details for those who aren’t AOL subscribers. At least, that is, if I ever get around to it. I have at least a dozen unfinished “in-depth” projects floating around in my head.

For now you can see the new journal at http://journals.aol.com/yinandyangtwins/AOLComputerVet/. But I don’t think I’ll ever ditch this weblog for AOL.

Fooey to FUI

I think this will be a good lawsuit to follow. We’ve all seen those banner ads on websites that are mocked up to look like Windows dialog boxes. You know, it says, “Your Internet connection is not optimized”, or “Your PC may be infected!” And they usually have the red X or yellow exclamation point, and a button that says OK. Most of us are able to tell they’re just images in the web browser, and if we click them we’ll be taken to some site trying to sell us “Internet Boost” software or some other such snake oil. But a lot of people are being tricked, novice computer users that might not realize the difference between a real dialog box and a faked picture of one. These people are the intended targets of this deceptive advertising, and apparently they’ve been clicking through those ads in the millions.

And now they’re fighting back.

The class action complaint alleges that DoubleClick deceptively and fraudulently commandeered millions of Internet users to the commercial websites of DoubleClick’s customers through dissemination of tens-of-millions of fraudulent Internet advertising banners that impersonated computer error messages. The Complaint states that through use of such Fake User Interface (“FUI”) dialogs that gave the false appearance of being computer error messages, DoubleClick tricked millions of Internet users into interrupting the work they were performing to respond to the fraudulent error message, only to unexpectedly find both computer and computer user thus hijacked to the commercial websites of DoubleClick’s customers.

Blammo! Not only are they striking back against the worst of the online advertisers, they’ve also brought to light a nifty TLA (three-letter acronym). FUI! Pronounced, of course, “Fooey”. Which is exactly what we’ve wanted to say to these advertisers all along.

Now if only an epilepsy association could get together and sue the makers of those flashing and “vibrating” ad banners, we’d have something going.

July 20, 2003

Oh no they aren’t. Oh no they aren’t.

My head is swimming. I’m getting flashbacks to the bad old days. I’m seeing “This Site Best Viewed In” banners spinning around my head. It’s all being brought on by pages like this, and the accompanying banner. It’s all part of a noble, if misguided, switch campaign targeting Internet Explorer. The page says, in part, “If you were looking at this in any browser but Microsoft Internet Explorer, it would look and run better and faster.” And that may well be true (although, in the case of that page and the site it’s part of, it’s not). But that’s not the message we should be trying to get across. Sure, IE6 lags behind Mozilla in a number of ways. But for all intents and purposes, for the majority of pages and sites, they’re at a point where they render HTML and CSS identically. Which is what we want. Which is what we’ve been fighting for all these years. And now that we’re there, starting some kind of anti-IE campaign, especially one based on rendering, undermines the work that has been accomplished.

I find myself torn in standing against this campaign. For one thing, its goal is to drive more users to Mozilla, which is something I wholeheartedly support. And for another thing, this round of the campaign was started by Tim Bray. A co-creator of XML, Tim Bray is one of those people that’s seen as a giant of the internet world, much like Tim Berners Lee. And in reading his weblog, ongoing, I’ve rarely found anything that I disagree with. That is why I was both joyed and dismayed to see The Door Is Ajar, his take on the “browser wars”, such as they may still be. Most of the data points he makes are sound, that IE7 will be bundled with Longhorn, that most people who move away from IE never look back, and that his own stats show IE with only a 60% share. But there’s an undercurrent to his writing that IE should be killed off, and that can be accomplished through a grassroots FUD campaign. The WaSP once felt the same way about Netscape 4, and they came up with the Browser Upgrade Campaign. It served its purpose, Netscape 4’s numbers declined, and then they brought the campaign to a close. That’s the key point. They consciously chose not to move the BUC to the next level, targeting IE6. But this is exactly what Tim Bray is proposing, the Browser Upgrade Campaign, Phase 2.

He’s fighting the wrong war. The battles we need to engage in first are ones that encourage developers to write sites that look good in all browsers. That way, it won’t matter if the visitors are running IE or Mozilla or Opera or whatever. They’ll get the same experience no matter what. Yes, it’s true that only a small number of web users are running anything besides IE. But it’s also true that a small number of web developers consider anything besides IE when writing their sites. They still use tag soup methods from five years ago. They still make heavy use of nested table layouts and font tags. They still think of Netscape as a loser, something they test in at the 11th hour to make sure it doesn’t break too bad. Mozilla isn’t even on their radar. And until these developers are educated and start writing sites that work equally well in all browsers, it is a little premature to drive the unwashed hordes to Mozilla or Opera.

I’m torn on this issue because I know Mozilla is better. I know it has better CSS2 support and a faster rendering engine. And I know that when Firebird hits 1.0 it will blow Mozilla out of the water. IE is old and buggy, and soon it will hold the reviled position that Netscape 4 has these past years. So, yes, people should be encouraged to move off of IE. But it needs to be done without evoking memories of “This Site Better In…” It needs to be pulled off without the hostility of some of the fringe supporters of the BUC, who shouted “Your browser sucks” from the highest mountain. And it can’t be done by making claims about the site looking better, because unless you’re using advanced techniques like Eric Meyer’s CSS/Edge, a well-written site will look identical in IE and Mozilla.

If you’re going to sell Mozilla, sell its true advantages. Tabbed browsing, better security, etc. And learn the reasons why people use IE. Sure, a lot of people use it because they don’t know or care that there’s anything else. But people do prefer IE, even ones who are familiar with Mozilla. IE’s famous integration with Windows can be an advantage, depending on what you’re doing. Internet Explorer easily morphs into Windows Explorer, which can come in handy at times. I wouldn’t dream of using Mozilla to view FTP sites, because of IE’s “folder view” that allows drag and drop. And shoot me if you will, but I’m kind of excited to find out what new capabilities will come out of the deeper integration in Longhorn. This campaign shouldn’t be an all-or-nothing proposal. Our aim should be to educate, not coerce, and a person who doesn’t switch shouldn’t be seen as a failure.

Above all, don’t spread the word that sites look better in Mozilla. In the worst case, they still look worse. In the best case, they look the same. So, the words “looks better” should not be a part of this movement. We’ve been down that road before, and we’re not going back.

July 19, 2003

Fussin’ and a’ Feudin’

Don’t you love it when counties fight with each other, and the whole thing degrades into a childish shouting match? I know that’s just peaches in my book.

Here’s the story. Carson City and Douglas County have been friendly neighbors for years. Douglas is basically little more than a suburb for Carson. Many many people (like me) live in Douglas and work in Carson. But Douglas County has a couple of good sized towns of its own, and it has the Lake Tahoe casinos. Another thing it has is ownership of the hills right outside of Carson City. For the longest time, this was no problem. Development butts right up to the hills, and the county line is right at the base of them. The hills were filled with sagebrush, and everybody was happy.

And then came the day when Target came a-knockin’, scouting for locations for a new Carson City store. They looked around in town itself, but didn’t like anything they saw. So they asked, “what about that hill outside of town?” Carson City hemmed and hawed a little bit, and let it slip that the hillside was actually in the next county over. Target said, “Fabulous!” and drove over to Douglas County, making a deal with the county commissioners. Before you knew it, there was not only a Target but also a Home Depot on top of the hill, funneling the tax dollars south instead of north. Carson City fumed in its own juices.

Not long after, Wal*Mart decided they wanted to update their ten-year-old store, turning it into a Wal*Mart Super Center. There was one little problem. The current Wal*Mart was located inside the “non-compete” zone that Raley’s supermarket had negotiated twenty years before. Under the contract with the city, no other supermarkets were to be built within the zone. So Wal*Mart couldn’t expand; they had to build a new store instead. Somewhere along the way, Wal*Mart heard about the sweet deal Target had gotten, and started talking to Douglas County. Carson City became frantic now. Wal*Mart was a major sales tax generator, they couldn’t afford to lose it. So they brainstormed and tried to think of ways to keep the megalith within the city limits. One plan was to tear down a popular park and fairgrounds and give the land to Wal*Mart. The citizenry rose up against that idea pretty firmly. Another was to give Wal*Mart land out Highway 50. But Wal*Mart had studied the traffic patterns. They knew Hwy 50 was dead compared to the main road through town. And Carson just didn’t have anything to offer along that corridor. So the new Wal*Mart Super Center was built about a hundred yards on the other side of the county line, another win for Douglas.

After this happened, other developers became interested in Douglas County. And Douglas knew it had stumbled across a good thing, so it welcomed them with open arms. There was still plenty of sagebrush in those hills, plenty of opportunities to draw major national chains, and their tax dollars, to the area. Soon ground broke on a massive shopping center, containing a Best Buy, Bed Bath and Beyond, PetCo, CostPlus, and, if rumors are to be believed, In-N-Out Burger. Douglas was riding a good wave, and Carson City was getting more and more pissed off.

Then came the breaking point. Douglas County eyed 144 acres of sagebrush across the street from Wal*Mart, and decided to actively go out courting buyers. They arranged a public auction for the land. Carson City finally lost it, blew a fuse, and threatened to sue to stop the auction. Their reasoning was that Douglas County was meeting with developers to build an auto mall on the property, and all the car dealerships would move out of town, taking the city’s last major source of sales tax with them (especially since the Carson City Kmart was slated to be closed). This could not be tolerated. Douglas County backed down momentarily, but later decided to press on with the auction. Carson City blustered, Douglas called their bluff, and it all came crashing down yesterday when Carson City actually filed a federal lawsuit. A lawsuit against a neighboring county. To stop them from selling their land. W? T? F? Can they even do that?

This article outlines some of the trumped-up charges Carson City had to invent to get this lawsuit rolling, including violations of the National Environmental Policy Act. Carson City is upset because it has run out of developable land, and it’s jealous that Douglas still has so much room to grow, and is therefore getting all the new development. That’s all this is about. The Douglas County commissioners are properly upset. They’re calling it a “war”. They’re publicly resigning from boards in protest. In one of the more childish moves, one of them threatened to block the sale of land needed for Carson’s new freeway. Both sides are now at the point of acting irrationally, and once that point has been reached, there’s nothing but trouble ahead. I think we’ve lost whatever bit of civility used to exist between the two entities, and us regular Joes are caught in the middle.

It’s all so ridiculous. And all I wanted was an In-N-Out Burger!

July 17, 2003

CSS Layout

Today I fell over the cliff. I did the brave, the unthinkable, the foolish. I finally ditched the single layout table that used to hold this weblog rigidly in place, and went for (gasp!) all CSS in my layout. And, amazingly enough, I was able to do it without changing the look of the site one bit. Wasn’t sure if I could pull it off.

It works with a combination of absolute positioning and margins. The green strip you see to the left is actually the <body> of the page. This middle section, with the posts, is a beige-colored <div>. Normally it would fill up the page, hiding the background color. But I’ve given it a margin-left of 150px, which exposes that much of the <body> background, creating the green bar. This allows the green bar to extend the length of the page, which wouldn’t happen if it was just a float or something. Then all the text in the green bar is in a <div>, which is absolutely positioned just below the header (which itself is an <h1> with a background image). The blogroll is floated right.

The layout’s been tested in IE5.5, IE6, Mozilla and Opera 7, all on Windows. They all show me the same thing. I’ve hidden the style sheet from Netscape 4.x, using @import, so in that browser it looks predictably plain. And that’s the extent of my testing. I’m hoping that I didn’t overlook anything that would make it fall apart in other browsers, like Macs or older IE. But, I’m sure I’ll hear about it if I did!

More tweaks to come, I’m sure.