Technology Writing

Tasks, transcripts, and semantics

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

I’m spending the rest of the week creating plug-ins that will XHTMLate WordPress. I’m not sure how far I can get with plug-ins, but the end result could be both interesting and useful. I still feel that XHTMLating WordPress is at least partially philosophy, as much as it is code. I can’t seem to communicate this clearly, though, so I am dropping the subject and just focusing on code.

I also have a design for my “Painting the Web” book web site, and need to create a lovely SVG paintbrush, as part of the design. Since my artistic skills are more along the lines of telling a program to draw a line from A to B, the effort may take some time. However, the medium I’m using (SVG) is compatible with my skillset, so perhaps the effort will be trivial and the result good. Better yet, I’ll be able to find a paintbrush at Wikipedia to use.

I did want to point out an interview that Paul Miller of Talis had with Tim Berners-Lee. Unlike most other podcasts, this interview also has a written transcript as well as published show notes. I really wish more video and audio podcasters would spend the time transcribing shows into text, as well as providing more in-depth information about the show than posting a video window and telling people, “Hey! Cool Stuff!” In the meantime, I’m going to watch this podcast via my Apple TV, since the Talis series is also listed at iTunes. I wonder if it’s in HD? (Later: oops! It’s not in video. Darn. I was looking forward to seeing Sir Tim in HD.)

In the write-up on the interview, Miller wrote:

We talked for a fascinating hour during which we ranged from past to future, from technology to policy. We covered specifications such as RDF and SPARQL, and we talked about the pressing need for more accessible texts to explain the Semantic Web to mainstream business.

My book, “Practical RDF”, is out of date, and I and my editor have been talking about a new edition. However, a new edition would not be focused entirely on RDF, and probably wouldn’t cover certain aspects of RDF, in order to be a bit more comprehensive. RDF doesn’t function alone in the world, and a book that covers semantic web technologies needs to cover not only RDF, but also all the complementary technologies. This, in addition to the new tools, data initiatives, and companies.

Now is actually a rather exciting time to be creating a new edition of a book on semantic web technologies. I remember when I wrote “Practical RDF”, which was published before the final release of the RDF specification, I had to stretch a bit to find tools and technologies focused on RDF and/or the semantic web. Now, the semantic web is hip, and the challenge is less on finding good material and more on ensuring that the book isn’t too big, or covers too much.

I don’t think the new edition will be called the same, but we’ll be keeping the “Practical” in the title in some way. Maybe something along the lines of “Practical Semantic Web”. I am nothing if not a practical person, and the “practical” component of the title will also be the overall theme for the book. However, even with this constraint I visualize a book bursting at the seams.

We’re also planning a new edition of Learning JavaScript, too. Unfortunately, the first edition was on a bit of a fast track, and I made mistakes in the book; more than I’d like to see with any of my books. I’ve made corrections via errata, but it will be nice to create a new, updated version.

I’m also helping out with a new edition of a third book, but this would be more along the lines of contributing commentary on organization and some chapters than being sole author.


XHTMLating feeds

Jeff has been adding SVG annotation, as well as objects to his weblog design. When using SVG, the first issue that arises is serving up XHTML in order for the SVG to be processed correctly. This also means serving up your Atom feeds, accordingly.

In Jeff’s case, he’s using the object element to incorporate SVG annotating the post type. If he inlined his SVG, and wanted it processed correctly in feed readers (both big ‘ifs’–stripping out the SVG is also an acceptable response), two things need to be modified.

First, there’s an html_type option value that needs to be adjusted. The only want to do this at this time is to manually update it in the database. I had thought there was a modification made to WordPress to add this as an Administration option, but I couldn’t find it in the checked in code.

I hard coded my feed for this weblog to XHTML, and made the appropriate adjustments, removing the CDATA section and adding a wrapping DIV element (source for feed and comments feed).

To ensure the two feed files don’t get overwritten, I have a plug-in that I use to override the location of the atom feed files, pointing the location to files in my theme directory.

This is only a temporary fix, though. The real fix would be to provide an option to set the html_type in the admin page, which then serves the weblog pages up accordingly, as well as being used to set the type in the feeds. The value should also be used to determine the output of the content in the feeds.

All of this could be done in plug-ins. What can’t, is handling input from readers when serving up XHTML pages. Input from readers enters WordPress in several different places in the code, most of which do not have hooks allowing us to override the code to provide our own. The only way WordPress will be able to effectively do XHTML is through a commitment to make this a change in the underlying base code.

Since the WordPress developers have not shown any interest in supporting XHTML, and since I haven’t seen a lot of interest in XHTML support in WordPress from my own explorations and published posts, this is just not a challenge I’ve been eager to take on.

The real question is will Microsoft support the XHTML MIME type in IE8? Not having support for XHTML is one of the major browsers is probably the biggest hold up on more widespread support for XHTML. Otherwise, I would think that the increasing interest in SVG would start generating enough movement towards XHTML to finally trickle it’s way into the WordPress community, regardless of the aversion to XHTML of the development team.

PS I would appreciate help testing my current XHTML validation in my comments. You can’t hurt anything with the way the comments are now currently moderated.


There’s open and then there’s open

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

As an example of Microsoft’s new commitment to being more open with web developers, the company is releasing the IE8 beta to invited testers only, with a more general release later. Perhaps by “open”, we don’t all mean the same thing?

I also noticed that the company has not provided any answers to the questions we’ve been asking about the “super standards mode”. In particular, nothing from the company about support for XHTML and SVG/MathML. A simple, “Yes, we’re supporting XHTML” would have added real weight to all those bold pronouncements of openness and standards support this last week. Instead, the company spends it’s time, spreading fooflah, and working the community.

As an aside, you know, there’s nothing sadder in nature than a wasp without its stinger.


htaccess utility

Now this is nice: an .htaccess editor, as well as a reference to an .htaccess generator. The editor has a decent interface, though it’s not perfect. It needs online help attached to each of the options, and the site needs reference to example files.

As more non-techs host their own sites, tools like this will make the move from being helpful, to being essential.

Technology Web

Microsoft to world: do as we say

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Jeffrey Zeldman writes in support of the Microsoft IE8 meta tag, which we find out is a done deal.

To understand version targeting—which we ought to try to do, since Microsoft intends to implement it and hopes at least some of us will opt in—let us examine two different sets of customers that Microsoft’s browser must satisfy.

Did we really think that A List Apart was rolling the meta tag out earlier in order to gather comments from the community? Perhaps take alternative suggestions? No, this was nothing more than Microsoft working with a few web elite to shove more IE specific nonsense down our throats.

In his newest writing on this topic, Zeldman writes that yes, the meta tag is ugly, but really, what’s the harm?

Still, even if version targeting were merely the tribute Microsoft’s browser engineers had to pay their corporate overlords to retain permission to keep improving IE’s standards compliance, what would be the harm? The meta element is valid, and its use is optional. The HTTP header is easy, and leaves your markup pure.

He also hints at the “goodies” coming in IE8, which if they don’t excite you overmuch it’s because we’ve seen them before: in Firefox, in Safari, and in Opera. He further goes on to say that Microsoft is really only thinking of us with this new form of version targeting.

Today’s IE is light years more compliant than the old versions we struggled with. And Microsoft has promised to improve compliance forever. If we opt in, we can expect the same level of scripting support in IE that we get from the browsers we love. Improved, predictable standards support in all browsers. Isn’t that what we all want?

If we opt in…

Let’s reframe this discussion. I have worked, hard, to get this weblog to serve up XHTML 1.1 strict pages. I have worked, hard, to master both SVG and CSS in order to style the site, as well as provide some of the functionality. I’ve also worked equally hard to make sure that the JavaScript isn’t funky, strange, doesn’t eat up more CPU or memory than necessary, and works in my target browsers. I don’t claim any of my effort is perfect, only that I work hard to ensure my work is clean, accessible, and standard.

How is Microsoft rewarding me for this hard work? By forcing me to add a meta tag, or change the HTTP header. Not to use a standard meta tag that’s meaningful to other browsers, or change the HTTP header in a universally standard way, no. I am asked, once again, to change my web site specifically in order to accommodate IE.

Wow! Did you feel that, too? I just felt a tug on my shoulders, like I was a puppet and someone was pulling my strings.

Zeldman also gave space at A List Apart for a Jeremy Keith, the only person who spoke out against the new IE8 meta tag whose opinion Zeldman seems to respect. Keith says all I want to say, and more.

The reasoning here is that less savvy developers shouldn’t have to worry their little heads about adding one extra line to their documents. Instead, they should be encouraged to continue to write to the quirks of one specific browser version from the market leader. That their documents will “break” in other browsers is not Microsoft’s problem. The counterpoint to this condescending worldview is that standards-aware developers are the ones best placed to add a single line of markup to their documents—though, for some unexplained reason, the instruction for up-to-date rendering (IE=edge) is strongly discouraged.

This strategy is doomed to failure. Standards-aware developers, by their very nature, will object to adding a line of unnecessary markup to their documents just to get one single browser to behave as it should by default.

Keith also asks a very pertinent question: how do we know for sure that civilization, as we know it, is doomed if the meta tag isn’t used? In other words, there’s been a rather breathless assumption on the part of Microsoft that releasing IE8 without this silly meta tag will break vast swatches of the web. Shouldn’t we, instead, see what happens with the beta release of the browser?

I agree with Keith’s suggestion of let’s see what happens. If the web sites Microsoft is so concerned about are intranet sites, the companies that built the crappy site are also the type of companies that won’t upgrade to a new browser version until it’s been released for two years. Frankly, most are probably still using IE6, in which case what IE8 does is moot.

Another assumption by Microsoft (and Zeldman, more’s the pity) is that there are vast numbers of web developers and designers who seemingly don’t read the news, weblogs, design sites, Microsoft’s site, and so on. They must not read because according to Zeldman and Microsoft, they won’t know that Things are Different in IE8 and thus must be protected from themselves. Frankly, I find such assumptions of mass, blanket stupidity and incompetence to be insulting, as well as elitist.

True, there are “bad” sites, but less now than in the past, not the least of which because so much content is now generated from templates rather than created by hand. True, not every site meets some standard of ALA purity, but most designers and developers–and even preachers and school teachers–do the best they can, and that includes keeping up with the changes in both standards and browsers. After all, who does Zeldman think attends all of his company’s A List Apart events?

If, as Keith mentions in his writing, we have a long enough beta period for IE8, this should be sufficient for designers and developers, WYSIWYG tool creators, and preachers and school teachers to implement whatever changes they need in order to remove the IE cruft. Rather than a meta tag, what we needed from Microsoft was clear communication about to expect from IE8. Instead what we’ve received is silence occasionally punctured by vague hints, an ACID2 test graphic, which we now know will fail unless the meta tag is present, and another example of Microsoft asking the web world to adapt to it if we want to move forward.

I am a web developer, not a designer, so perhaps my opinion should be taken with a grain of salt. However, as a web developer, I’m also filled with a sense of unease from what was not said in Zeldman’s writing. We’ve not had any official confirmation from Microsoft that using the HTML5 DOCTYPE will turn on “standards” mode. We’ve also not had any confirmation from Microsoft that it will, finally, support the XHTML MIME type, and that this will also trigger “standards” mode. I wasn’t holding my breath on SVG and MathML, but Microsoft has been abnormally quiet about these specifications, too.

Surely, if any action is going to “break the web”, as Microsoft’s mantra seems to be, it’s the company’s unwillingness to support standards in seeming conflict with its own proprietary Silverlight technologies that is more at risk for “breaking the web” than the use of a silly meta tag or not.

Frankly, if this discussion was only about the addition of a meta tag for versioning, I’m not sure that Zeldman’s audience would be up in arms. However, it’s more than just the new meta tag that’s at stake: it is the very future of the web. A future no longer dominated by any browser. A future where we’re free to truly explore the wondrous tools with which we can build sites, no longer held back by a company that has not acted in good faith, either in the past or, sadly, today.

After reading Zeldman’s and Keith’s postings, I visited the IE weblog. I looked for answers to the questions we asked: about HTML5 triggering standards mode; whether IE8 will support XHTML and SVG; will Microsoft actively participate as part of the X/HTML5 effort; what can we expect from IE8. Nothing. Not a word. Yet we’re supposed to accept, on faith, that this “minor” change to our web pages will be the key to the future?

Microsoft still doesn’t “get it”. Evidently, neither does Zeldman.