No (Content) Negotiation

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Virginia DeBolt provides a really nice grouping of links to writings related to the WHATWG. Among the writings are those related to accessibility, and there’s nothing I can add to this discussion that isn’t isn’t handled succinctly and completely by others.

I did want to jump into the discussion related to XHTML, though. Dean Edridge wrote a general note of dissatisfaction with the WHATWG effort, including perhaps too much influence by Apple, Opera, and Google. I could add to this list by saying that Microsoft’s non-involvement contributes an undue influence by Microsoft.

Edridge also started another thread, about XHTML5. He wrote:

I don’t think that support for XHTML5 should be optional. Specifying
that user-agents may support only one format, but supporting both is
“encouraged” is insufficient and will only lead to a lack of support for
XHTML5 like we had with XHTML1 [1]

We’ve been down this road before where support for application/xhtml+xml was only an “opt in” for user-agents. That’s the main reason we have less than 100 valid XHTML websites today. [2]
People wont be able to use XHTML5 if there’s no support for it.

Can this please be changed to:
…..Implementations MUST support these two formats.

I found it fascinating that so few sites are ‘pure’ XHTML. This site is now one. Last week I turned off site negotiation and serve up pages with the proper MIME type of “application/xhtml+xml”. This means, of course, this page isn’t viewable by IE, which wants to process the page as XML, rather than interpret it as XHTML.

What’s more interesting, though, is how much push back Edridge is getting on, what to me, is a very valid request. The responses have ranged from the ‘undue burden’ this places on devices like desktop widgets, to how Edridge should try to contain his passion–after all, some people are just raising issues.

What astonishes me, though, is how much this group is willing to bend over for companies that have the resources to make these changes, but it is is not convenient from a business perspective to do so. In other words, they can’t turn it into profit, so why spend time on the tech?

I integrate the use of SVG into my sites. I plan on more heavily integrating it into this site. I can do so because I made one fundamental design decision: this site supports released specifications, not specific browsers. SVG is the one and only graphics system capable of giving something like Flash–a proprietary technology–a run for its money. SVG with XHTML, ECMAScript, and CSS3, combined, could do amazing things regardless of whether you’re using a widget, cell phone, or browser on a computer. Why on earth would we deliberately sabotage this as a goal, just because it’s not convenient from a business perspective for some companies who are making enormous amounts of money, and who could easily encompass such effort without breaking a sweat?

Then the argument comes around to, the fact that there are few sites implementing XHTML tells us that people don’t want it. No, it tells us that tools aren’t doing a good job of ensuring XHTML compliant pages. That people don’t understand about content negotiation. That IE has effectively undermined XHTML while supposedly pretending to be a friend of the specification. This is a true chicken and egg story: which comes first? The demand for the technology which then generates support for the technology? Or support for the technology, which will generate demand?

Regardless of whether it’s XHTML, or accessibility, or support for SVG, a standards group has the responsibility to move a technology forward–not provide excuses for keeping it rigidly locked in place, while browser makers happily skip ahead using proprietary technologies.

Perhaps I’m being overly harsh, but I’ve never seen a web specification group that is so happy to make a race for the bottom as the WHATWG group is.



I did like what the Opera Spec Wrangler had to say. And it is important to keep in mind that much of the work on these specs is done by volunteers. Having said this, though, I am seeing far too much willingness to say, “Oh, well we don’t want to burden the user agents so we’ll make this optional”.

Why even bother with a specification if it doesn’t move us forward? Just to make the web easier to process by a search engine? To give companies a “get out of standards” free card?

What is moving forward? Let’s build some real accessibility into the new markups. Let’s ensure that user agents can handle the specifications that have been released, including XHTML and SVG. Let’s do things right, rather than expediently.


The Red Fox

For a year, we lived on Grande Isle in Vermont. Our home was a rented house with a view of the lake from the living room, and the main road and hills from the large country kitchen in the front. You had to turn down into our drive, which made leaving a bit difficult at times during adverse weather. To the side of our drive way was a big red barn. In front of that, in the field all by itself, was a beautifully shaped evergreen in perfect Christmas tree form.

That first winter, snow began to fall before Halloween and never left once it took hold. The lake started freezing all around the shoreline, and ice filled in the small bay in front of our house. Along the access way to the mainland, we could see tentative tracks in the snow near the water as fisherman tested the ice anxiously, checking for that magic time when they could put up their ice fishing shacks.

As Thanksgiving came and went, the snow grew higher–brilliant white, powdered crystals that drifted around the house and along the side of the road. The crews kept the roads remarkably clear, and we could see from our ‘mud room’ the cars zipping down the hill, as it curved around the field where our house lay.

We had feeders in the big, gnarly old apple tree in front, which were appreciated by cardinal and chipmunk alike. The chipmunks were especially funny, because they would stuff their mouths so full of nuts that their eyes were almost forced shut.

On Thanksgiving day, two busy beavers took time off from easting roasted turkey and fresh baked pumpkin pie, in order to create our own special Christmas scene. That night, we flipped the switches, and on came the lights surrounding our house, the red barn, the bushes in front, and especially that evergreen tree–now splendidly lit in its proud isolation in the snow covered field.

Not elegant white lights, no. These were a child’s delight of color. Rich reds, greens, blues, and sparkling yellows and oranges chased themselves around the eaves and danced in their own reflection in the snow and around the icicles hanging down from house and barn.

We stood out on the porch looking at the lit tree, sipping hot spiced cider and enjoying the results of our work when we heard a car coming down and around the hill facing toward the tree. Muffled against the snow was the sound of racing engine almost stalling as whoever was driving took their foot off the gas. What must they have seen? A house covered in lights, and in what was once a dark, formless nighttime field, a perfect tree, glowing with color?

From that night on until New Years, cars would slow coming down the hill, sometimes even pulling over to the side to stop to look at a tableau of moonlight streaking across a frozen lake, fronting a snow softened valley and field filled with home, barn, and tree, sparkling in color.

Christmas morning dawned with sun shining brilliantly on the snow and ice, glowing richly against the red of the barn, the green of evergreen brush and trees; blue sky forming a backdrop for lake and field. Snow had come and gone since the lights had been added and covered the tracks and electrical line to the tree, leaving a field unmarked by human.

I was at the window looking out at the field, drinking a cup of coffee, when I noticed movement to the left. Out from the brush and trees separating us from our neighbors came a red fox. We watched as it stopped for a moment, seemingly also enjoying the view. It then took off across the field; hopping rather than running, as it would sink into snow that almost covered its head with each jump.

The fox hopped to the Christmas tree and stopped once more, looking closely into its depths. Perhaps it wondered what strange stuff was wrapped around the familiar old tree. Maybe it heard the rustle of bird or small creature. The red of its fur was brightened by the sun, saturated against the dark green of the tree. A breeze blew a wisp of powdered snow from the tree down on the fox, and it raised its nose into the air and sniffed at the stream of glitter flowing past. Catching the scent of rabbit or den, it once again began making its slow, hopping away across the field and out of sight.


Nick Carr’s The Big Switch

Not long ago Nicholas Carr posted a note on his weblog: the first 150 webloggers who left a note would receive an advance copy of his new book, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google. I received mine last week, and just finished reading it today.

If you expect to pick up a book like The Big Switch, and feel fired up and inspired, think again. The same goes if you expect to come away feeling pessimistic or gloomy about our prospects for the future. Carr somehow manages to celebrate a new way of global computing at the same time reminding us that such will probably add to the continuing decline in privacy, not to mention erosion of barriers between man and machine. It is both history lesson and prophesy: looking at what we can expect in the future by examining what happened in the past. It is not meant to stop our progress, but slow us down before we fall off a cliff in our blind enthusiastic race for the Next Best Thing.

The central thesis is technology’s impact on society, describing both the intentional and unintentional effects. Equal parts anecdote and thoughtful analysis, Carr takes the reader from the industrial revolution, to the wonders of electricity, Ford’s assembly lines, and even into the home. He focuses mainly, though, on the history of computing devices, from earliest machines to today’s cloud-based ‘utility’ computing, which will, eventually banish the traditional client-server computing model in favor of some vast network of utility servers networked via fast and cheap broadband access.

Today, it’s hard to imagine computer owners in the United States and other developed countries abandoning their PCs for thin clients. Many of us, after all, have dozens or even hundreds of gigabytes of data on our personal hard drives, including hefty music and video files. But once utility services mature, the idea of getting rid of your PC will become much more attractive. At that point, each of us will have access to virtually unlimited online storage as well as a rich array of software services. We’ll also be tapping into the Net through many different devices, from mobile phones to televisions, and we’ll want to have all of them share our data and applications. Having our files and sofware locked into our PC’s hard drives will be an unnecessary nuisance. Companies like Google and Yahoo will likely be eager to supply us with all-purpose utility services, possibly including thin-client devices, for free–in return for the privilege of showing us advertisements. We may find, twenty or so years from now, that the personal computer has become a museum piece, a reminder of a curious time when all of us are forced to be amateur computer technicians.

At the same time that Carr lays out this new global data hive, he also reminds us of the costs associated with all this nifty, cool, technological innovation. He recounts stories of Yahoo’s interaction with China; the continuing concerns about Google and it’s lack of transparency regarding privacy; and corporate profiting from the so-called ‘crowdsourcing’ that takes advantage of unpaid labor to fuel much of this new internet-based ‘boom’.

As for the brave new world of the future, where barriers fall, and all races, religions, and peoples mix into the great utopian society all thinkers in the past have always proposed was just around the corner, Carr sees a possible darker outcome.

Not only will the process of polarization tend to play out in virtual communities in the same way it does in neighborhoods, but it seems likely to proceed much more quickly online. In the real world, with its mortgages and schools and jobs, the mechanical forces of segregation move slowly. There are brakes on the speed with which we pull up stakes and move to a new house. Internet communities have no such constraints. Making a community-defining decision is as simple as clicking a link. Every time we subscribe to a blog, add a friend to our social network, categorize an email message as spam, or even choose a site from a list of search results, we are making a decision that defines, in a small way, whom we associate with and what information we pay attention to. Given the presence of even a slight bias to be connected with people similar to ourselves–ones who share, say, our political views or our cultural preferences–we would, like Schelling’s hypothetical homeowners, end up in ever more polarized and homogeneous communities. We would click our way to a fractured society.

In many ways, Carr’s hypothesis of a ‘fractured society’ is born out in his own writing. As I read, I was impressed with both the quality of writing, and the depth of the research. However, I also experienced a sense of alienation as I progressed–a feeling that this book was written by one member of a group for other people within that group and that I was, more or less, an intruder being allowed a glimpse into a world not necessarily denied entry, but not allowed until I figured out the secret handshake.

I’ve been criticized in the past for bringing the ‘woman issue’ into supposedly unrelated topics, and most likely will be chastised again, but I came away from Carr’s book feeling like the book was written for an audience composed of people like Carr: white, upper class, well educated (or well read), affluent or semi-affluent, wired Euro-Oceanic-American men. The one time when a more feminine perspective on the coming new revolution in computing was addressed focused on the impact of electrical appliances in the home earlier in the last century. Rather than free women up to pursue other interests, Carr writes, what happened is that as more time was freed up, standards of cleanliness increased, until women were finding that we were spending the same amount of time on these household chores, regardless of helpful devices. More significantly, our measure of worth became intertwined with these tasks–an unfortunate artifact that still exists today. With women’s increasing identification with homework as a measure of worth, we became isolated from each other, as tasks that used to be completed together, in cooperation, were transformed by machines into tasks that drove us into competition–who has the cleanest house, best apple pie, and so on. From competition is a short step to isolation.

The psychic price of the new tools and the new roles they engendered was sometimes high, however. Women labored under escalating pressures: to meet the higher expectations for cleanliness and order, to purchase the latest “must have” appliance, to learn how to operate all of the new machines and keep them in working order. And, for many, electrification brought a new sense of alienation and loneliness into the house. As women took over the work required to keep house, they often found themselves spending more of their time alone, isolated in their suburban residences. They may have had their young children to keep them company, but adult companionship was usually rarer than it had been in the past when homemaking was more of a communal activity.

I expected this theme to be carried through into other discussions in the books, especially considering the ‘isolation’ of women in an environment where, supposedly, we constitute half the audience. However, we were dropped after this one section. It was both confusing and a little frustrating, and added an ironic element to the book, especially when you read Nick’s coverage of Google’s ‘personalized’ search efforts.

By filtering out “the detritus” and delivering only “the good stuff” they allow us to combine fragments of unbundled information into new bundles, tailor-made for audiences of one. They impose homogeneity on the Internet’s wild heterogeneity. As the tools and algorithms become more sophisticated and our online profiles more refined, the Internet will act increasingly as an incredibly sensitive feedback loop, constantly playing back to us, in amplified form, our existing preferences.

The increasing filtering of the ‘detritus’, as Carr so eloquently puts it, is born out in a recent discussion via email with Techmeme’s Gabe Rivera where, in a fit of pique, Rivera wrote:

You know, if a gender-neutral (i.e. gender-rigged) version of Techmeme were possible and prudent (most women I’ve talked to feel otherwise) I bet it would still link very infrequently to your blogs.

a gender-neutral (i.e. gender-rigged) version of Techmeme…

It is the insularity of Carr’s viewpoint, reflected strongly in his coverage of the topics that tempers my view of his predictions regarding the direction, and impact, of future happenings in regards to utility computing and the internet. I came away with a feeling that Carr may yet be surprised at what the future brings.

My only other quibble with the book reflects somewhat the same concerns I had with David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous: the coverage of the topics could have been more comprehensive if the books weren’t so small. I think, though, this reflects humanity’s growing inability to focus more than a certain period of time on a topic. If both Carr and Weinberger had created larger books, their audiences would have been, conversely, smaller. Carr touches on this, himself, in one of his last chapters, on a merge of man and machine through the use of AI.

The printed page, the dominant information medium of the past 500 years, molded our thinking through, as Neil Postman has written, “its emphasis on logic, sequence, history, exposition, objectivity, detachment, and discipline.” The emphasis of the Internet, our new universal medium, is altogether different. It stressed immediacy, simultaneity, contingency, subjectivity, disposability, and, above all, speed. The Net provides no incentive to stop and think deeply about anything, to construct in our memory that “dense respository” of knowledge that Foreman cherishes. It’s easier, as Kelly says, “to Google something a second or third time rather than remember it ourselves.” On the Internet, we seem impelled to glide across the slick surface of the data, as we make our rushed passage from link to link.

Perhaps Doris Lessing was right, after all. Perhaps, not.

Neither Carr’s filtered viewpoint nor the brevity of the coverage of some topics adversely impacts my appreciation of his excellent writing, and fascinating mix of historical perspective and future view. I can recommend The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google. Buy it as a gift for the A-list “everything is bright, everything is beautiful, the Semantic Web 2.0 rocks” pundit in your life. Oh, and make sure they actually read it.

Graphics/CSS Photography

Picnik your Flickr

How many misspellings does it take to make a successful mashup?

Elaine posted a note about Flickr adding edit capability via Picnik. I immediately tried it out, as the following screenshots demonstrate:

[images lost]

Just as with the stand alone version of Picnik, some of the functionality is free, others are part of a premium package: $24.95 per year.

Picnik is one of the few online photo editors I did include in the book, primarily because it’s one of the better organized, and has some of the most interesting effects. One aspect I like most about it is the sliding scale tool, which provides live scaling of the image.

Picnik uses Flash, like all of the online photo editors do. Flash isn’t a requirement, though. Most of the functionality, and then some, that Picnik can do can be done with something that most people already have installed at their linux-based hosting site: ImageMagick.

To use the ImageMagick, you do need to have command line access through SSH. ImageMagick can also be installed on the Mac using Macports, and accessed via the Terminal application. Once installed, the following command:

convert purpledragon_thumb.jpg -bordercolor white \ -background DarkGray -polaroid 5 purplepolaroid.png

Creates the following effect.

Purple dragonfly polaroid

Or, you can use Picnik with the premium package.

Climate Change Environment

Biofuel and global warming

The Christian Science Monitor has a good article on the effects of global warming in six different countries, including Indonesia. One aspect of global warming in that country is the aggressive nature of deforestation in order to grow palm trees for palm oil for biofuel.

I am not in favor of biofuels. They do not address the problems, which is to make more efficient machinery, depend more on solar energy, and frankly, do with less. Instead, people can now have their SUVs and drive them, too, by planting corn in their tanks.

We had an issue with biofuels in this state in that one company wanted to build a corn biofuel plant using water tapped from one of Missouri’s precious non-replenishing aquifers. When asked what he would do if the plant sucked the aquifer dry, the owner just stated he would have to deal with the situation. Of course, he neglects to mention about how everyone who lives around the plant would also have to deal with the situation.

What about turning corn into biofuel? Most of the surplus corn grown in the US is sent to countries where the people are suffering drought and famine. When the corn is diverted to fuel, starvation results.

I now read that a Canadian company is building a biofuel plant here in Missouri, to make fuel from wood scraps. This sounds commendable: use scrap wood to create cleaner biofuels. However, what is never mentioned in these stories is that all biofuel production requires a great deal of water, and can have serious consequences on the land surrounding such plants.

Missouri is attractive to biofuel producers like Oregon and Washington are attractive to companies wanting to install computer server plants: we have a seemingly abundant supply of the natural resource they need. In the northwest, it’s electricity; here in Missouri, it’s water. However, as we’ve seen in Georgia, there is no guarantee that the water we have in the ground today, will be there tomorrow.

Ultimately, I don’t agree with the use of biofuels. Their use postpones the decisions we will inevitably have to make as to lifestyle; they gloss over the real issues facing the world; and they let the greedy continue their wasteful ways of life. More than that, we don’t need more industry profiting from our natural resources.