Building Rails and Standards Tribes in Savannah

I was thinking this morning about moving to Savannah, since the new job’s down there, and what I wanted to do to find a tribe. I have several great non-geospecific tribes already, my W3C scattered around the globe, my SxSW tribe and then my AOL tribe also spread around the globe, but mostly local to Northern Virginia (this includes “escapees” at various startups and places around the area). But, I’ll be moving to a new city, and I like having a local tribe.
I went looking this morning before heading over to the conference, and there’s no Refresh Savannah or Ruby Users Group that I could find through Google. So… it looks like we need to start them! I’ve got the domain names registered. Who wants to help?

Nerdy Songs

Jason posted a tweet about writing songs this afternoon and I must have been in a particularly suggestible post-nap state and instantly came up with several extremely nerdy song titles. I think almost all of these fall into to Nerd Country n’ Western, but whatever. Here they are:
* I’m Semantic, But Wow, You’re Well-Formed
* Since You Left, I’ve Been in Plain Old Semantic Hell
* Why Do Our Tags Have to Branch?
* If You Won’t Mock My Markup, I Won’t Jeer Your Scripts
* What’s in a DOCTYPE?
* I Sold My Soul to the W3C, and All I Got Was a Long-Sleeved Tee
* Baby, It’s Not Really a Microformat!
* Let’s Go Home and Append Some Child Nodes to Your DOM
* If You Leave, All I’ll Have is Twitter
I’m sorry. I really am, but you’re welcome to add to the nerdy nonsense in the comments…

The Many Misadventures of One Kevin P. Lawver

I made it home. What a week. I posted before about what I did on the flight to China and that was the last you heard from me. Well, Saturday night, my laptop died. It suffered a complete hard drive failure. Even using Arun‘s system disk, it couldn’t find the hard drive controller. Hopefully, this means the drive itself is OK and I can get the first day of pictures and all the stuff I worked on on the flight there off.
But, that left me in a tough spot. I had no laptop, spotty access on my blackberry (which is OK for staying semi-connected and consuming small chunks of data, but doesn’t work very well as my primary connection to the “collective”), and I usually charge the blackberry with the laptop. Thankfully, I’d thrown a little USB power thing in my backpack just to see if it would work for charging the DS Lite.
So, I took notes in a W3C meeting longhand, on paper… yes, I stood out. Yes, my fellow nerds gave me a hard time about it (good-naturedly, of course). Yes, it sucked not to be able to upload photos, browse the web, read feeds and hack.
But, the worst part of the trip was my asthma. Beijing is extremely polluted, and I was affected by it. A couple times, I took a walk around the neighborhood (the hotel and conference center is right across the highway from most of the major olympic venues), and came back wheezing. The one free day I had, I took a “test” walk in the morning to see how I’d do, but had to cut my walk short and take multiple hits on my inhaler to stop the asthma attack that followed. So, I didn’t really go anywhere or see anything outside of a four or five block radius of the hotel. I didn’t want to get stuck somewhere having an asthma attack where I don’t speak the language and didn’t know where I was or how to get back to the hotel.
There was a great dinner, with entertainment provided by students from Baihong University, and I love hanging out with W3C folks. We even got a game of werewolf together. Doug Scheppers and I cleaned up the village as werewolves and won handily. It was only slightly unfair as Doug and I are both seasoned werewolves, and we “feasted” on a game full of first-time players.
Now, I’m home and it’s going to take me a few days to get back on schedule. A twelve hour time difference is crazy, and I don’t think I ever got quite adjusted to it, so maybe it’ll be easier coming back.
I’m off to bed, hopefully to sleep for many many hours. I’ll hopefully post pictures tomorrow once my laptop situation is taken care of.

How to Spend 14 Hours Stuck in a Chair

I’m heading to the airport in a couple hours, with a very long plane ride ahead of me (well, two, but the second is next week). How long? Well, if United is to be believed, it’s thirteen hours and forty-four minutes long. This will be the longest continuous flight I’ve ever been on (Dulles to Bangalore is twenty hours in the air, but there’s a four hour “break” in the middle). Since I almost never sleep on planes, I’ve compiled a list of things to occupy my time:
* A bunch of DVD’s including the first season of The X-Files, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (so I can finally watch it with Wizard People, Dear Reader) and a bunch of other stuff that I can’t remember at the moment.
* I downloaded a ton of TED Talks and stuff from iTunesU.
* Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky and The Writing Life by Annie Dillard.
* The old standby, the DS Lite
* A bunch of silly programming things to play with:
** I’m going to try to write my own queueing server, or if that fails, play with Starling
** Work on the blog re-write
** Work on another top secret thingie I’ve been meaning to play with.
** Adobe AIR
* A bunch of podcasts
* And then, if I do all of those things, I can always watch whatever movie the airline provides.
Hopefully, that’ll be enough to keep my occupied from Dulles to Beijing (for the W3C AC meeting). I’ll let you know how it goes (if I can get to the internet from China… I hear they have some version of it).

Social Networking Mashups

I’m speaking today at The Social Networking Conference about social networking mashups. I decided to turn it on its head a little bit and do an introduction on portable social networking instead, because what is it but a big ol’ mashup of identity, relationships and content?
If you’re at the conference, I’ll see you at 1:30, and I’ve updated the slides a bit since I had to turn them in for the CD, so the presentation is a wee bit bigger and more complete than the one you got in your packet. I’ve uploaded the “final” version here, and you’re welcome to download it.
Feedback is welcome. I certainly couldn’t cover everything, because I only have about 35 minutes to cover everything (and 36 slides). I don’t touch on the Data Portability working group, or several other relevant things, because there just isn’t time. It’s very much an introduction into why it makes sense for social networks to support “good things” like OpenID, Creative Commons, microformats, providing feeds for everything, etc. Hopefully, it will lead to more technical discussions and some good questions.
Feedback is, of course, welcome!

Adapting to Web Standards: Going to Press!!

the cover of Adapting to Web Standards - buy two or three copies!

I just saw the e-mail today that the book I helped write is going to press on Monday!! It’s called Adapting to Web Standards: CSS and Ajax for Big Sites, and I wrote a chapter about AOL.com. It’s available for pre-order now, of course, and would make a great Christmas gift for your favorite web nerd – they might even like two or three copies (really, they might).
Writing the book (well, my chapter) was… difficult. I don’t think I’ll write another one any time soon, at least while I have a full-time job. It was a great experience, don’t get me wrong, and Christopher and Victor, our editor, handled all the hard bits. I’d always wanted to write a book, and am grateful that they gave me the opportunity to write a chapter for this one.
I can’t wait to hold a copy in my grubby mitts and hear from folks what they think of it (good or bad).

Web Standards’ Three Buckets of Pain

I spent this week at the W3C’s annual technical plenary, which is a week of “discussing” the future of the foundations and future of the web. I spent the first part of the week in the CSS Working Group discussing CSS3 features and CSS2.1 issues. Tuesday evening and Wednesday were spent in the AC meeting and Technical Plenary day (everyone gets together in a big room for panel discussions and lightning talks about standards-related issues – my favorite day of the week). The latter part of the week I spent in the new HTML Working Group talking about a lot of issues I’m not up to speed on because I just joined the working group (but, of course, that didn’t stop me from jumping in).
Molly led a panel during Plenary Day called From the Outside, In: Real World Perspectives on the W3C with a handful of designers and developers who aren’t currently involved in the W3C (Aaron, Matthew, Patrick and Stephanie). The panel helped solidify a few things for me and I want to try to explore them in this post. The panel wasn’t bad by any stretch. I think it was brave for them to come into the “lion’s den” and give the W3C their perspectives. But, I felt that the way the panel was presented left people in the audience confused about the overall message, and exposes a huge gap between the W3C’s understanding of “web standards” and the web development world’s definition.
Before I get any further, I need to explain where I stand here. I have a foot planted firmly in both worlds. I’ve been building web applications for almost a decade and have been a fan of standards-based development since late 2001 when my blog validated as XHTML 1.0 Transitional. I’ve been a member of the CSS Working Group for about four years as well.
The complaints about web standards are varied and many, and the panel made it feel like they all fell squarely at the feet of the W3C. But, that’s just not the case. I think a lot of the problem comes from our (being the web development world) definition of “web standards” being almost completely different from the definition understood inside the W3C. To web developers the world over, “web standards” means: “What I have to do to get my page to look right in all the modern browsers.” The W3C’s definition is “the underlying specifications that implementors (in our case, web browsers) use”. See, the standards aren’t written for, or by, web developers. In the case of HTML and CSS, they’re written for and by the people who create web browsers – which is why they’re so hard for the rest of us to understand. The vocabulary is different. The requirements are different. There is a whole world of pain in store for the brave soul who wants to write a web browser – and it’s a uniquely different world of pain from someone (you and me) who wants to apply those standards to build a web page that will render in one of those web browsers.
For the rest of this blog post, anyone building a web browser is implementing the standards, and anyone trying to build a web application is applying the standards. People building web browsers have to implement parsers, renderers, conformance checks, error handling and all sorts of other nasty things to get a browser to function. People building web applications have to take the standards and apply them through an implementation (in our case, a browser). We’re not writing the parser, we’re writing the thing that gets parsed.
And there are our three buckets of pain:
# The Specifications
# The Implementations
# The Applications
h4. The Problems With The Specifications
The major problems I hear about the W3C and its processes are:
# It takes too long.
# I don’t know what’s going on or when we’re going to see the standards come out.
# Spec X is missing this, this and this!
# Developers and designers have no voice in the standards at all!
One, two and four are, or were, true. Number three is only half true most of the time. Every time I ask developers or designers I know about what’s missing from CSS, I always hear “I want multiple backgrounds and a real layout model. Oh, and border images!” Two of those are already implemented in Safari, and I’ll bet you Firefox will have them done shortly. They’re all in CSS3 somewhere.
Web developers and designers have more of a voice on the CSS Working Group than ever. There are currently three designers in the working group (two from AOL and one invited expert). The group is also working with the new CSS11 group, and is actively gathering feedback. The new HTML Working Group has several members who are web developers and over four hundred invited experts (who can’t all be building browsers).
The W3C is working very hard at opening up. It’s not there, and they’ll stumble, but the attempt is being made.
h4. The Problems With Implementations
# Microsoft took a vacation. IE6 has been out (and broken) for a very long time. We got complacent in our hacks and nonsense to work around its “quirks” and now those bad habits and hacks are getting stale.
# They don’t move fast enough! See number one. We’re tired of waiting, but laying the blame on the CSS Working Group instead of Microsoft. If Microsoft had been actively engaged in the Working Group this whole time, we’d be a lot farther along. It’s very hard to get to interoperability when the market leader is working on other things.
# They have bugs. Every piece of software ever written has bugs. Thankfully, bugs get fixed in the other browsers fairly quickly. Unfortunately, IE is now on a 15-20 month release cycle, which means we have a while to wait until we see things we need like display: table and probably 30-45 months until we can hope to see advanced layout or the grid implemented.
h4. The Problems With Applications
(this is going to be painful… just hold on – it’ll be over soon)
Our biggest problem as web developers and designers is the misunderstanding I pointed out at the beginning. We need to understand the three buckets of pain and what we can expect out of each one. There’s no reason to rush standards out if no one’s going to implement them. There’s no reason for us to try to use them until they’ve been implemented.
We have to admit that we made a fundamental mistake in how we advocated building things with “web standards”. As someone who’s done training for the last five years, this is as much my fault as anyone’s. We taught to the implementations. We never taught the distinctions between the specification and the implementation. We never taught that we were teaching an application of the standard and not the standard itself.
The hacks became the standard and not the exception. We taught without understanding the long term implications of teaching hack management instead of teaching the specification and the application of it separately.
h4. How do we move forward?
We need more developers and designers plugged into both worlds. To work on the specifications themselves, or even read and give feedback on them, you have to abandon any hope that this will be useful to you in your development world for three to five years. Once you do that (it took me two years to get that through my head), you’ll be much less frustrated, and might actually be helpful. To a degree, you also have to abandon your notions of how you do things today. When thinking about layout, you have to give up thinking that “float” is the best way to do it (because, please, it’s just not).
We need to reboot our perceptions of web development and start thinking towards the future. It’s a new world, and getting newer every day. Our best practices have to evolve – our disciplines have to evolve. We need to think about a world without IE6. It’s going to happen. We need to come up with better ways of building web applications. We need to come up with better ways of teaching the value of web standards. We need to do a better job of educating designers and developers about the consequences of building web applications. We told them all the good things that would happen when they did it our way, but did we tell them that hacks go away? Did we tell them that browsers evolve and that hack they spent all that time on to get things to line up in IE6 will go away some day?
I don’t think I covered everything I wanted to say. There are a lot of things swirling around in my head right now. I had my mind blown last week by this realization and it will probably take more thinking about it before it really crystalizes and I can really explain what I’m feeling. But, right now, this is it, and that’s as good as I’ve got: It feels like I’ve spent the last 7 years living a lie, but the truth is so much more interesting and complex than the lie ever was. It feels like a stronger foundation, but wider and darker in the corners, than the one I’ve been standing on.

At The W3C Technical Plenary

Kevin holding his head in his hands.

I’m in chilly Cambridge, MA this week for the annual W3C Technical Plenary. I’ve spent the last two days in the CSS Working Group discussing the future of things, issues, and debating the relative merits of x vs. y. Now that I have a camera built in to my laptop, I decided to take a little photo diary during the day.
I’ll try to remember to continue the diary today during plenary day and the rest of the week while I’m hanging out covering for Arun in the WebAPI group.

BarCampDC: The Kid Comes Along

Youngest BarCamper
by Kelly Gifford

(that’s Dr. Joe talking to Max)
Max and I went to BarCampDC this Saturday. BarCamp is an “un-conference” (no set schedule, everyone participates), and they’re held all over the world. This one was organized by Jason Garber, Jackson Wilkinson and Justin Thorp. They did a great job, and were cool with Max coming and participating.
I spoke on Rails, did the live coding demo I’ve done at other unconferences, and helped out in the portable social networking session.
Here are some links related to those sessions:
* Ficlets, Rails and OpenID – I used this presentation during the intro to show off some of what Rails can do (also has some good OpenID info).
* Tapping the Portable Social Network – Explains some of the concepts behind the prototype I put together, and
* Portable Social Networks – The blog post that explains the prototype and presents the flow (and has a link to download the app).
** Brian Oberkirch’s Portable Social Networking Post
** Jeremy Kieth on Portable Social Networks – The post that started me thinking about how to solve it.
* The International Day of Awesomeness – Because I “sponsored” (on accident, I swear), I got to speak before one of the sessions. Of course, I spoke about The International Day of Awesomeness.
Now that’s out of the way, let’s talk about Max! When I originally asked Max if he wanted to go to BarCamp with me, I wasn’t sure he’d want to go. We talked about it a couple times on the way to summer camp and the more he found out about it, the more excited he got. I was excited for him to see me give a presentation and see what it is that I do when I travel. He had a great time. Everyone was really great with him. He was so excited to talk about Scratch and Hackety Hack and to learn from everyone. He was by far the youngest attendee there (I mean, Jason only looks 15). He was insanely well-behaved, and other than him clicking markers together a couple times or tearing paper, he was as well-behaved as any of the adults. He zoned out a little bit in the afternoon, but I think most people did.
On the way home, we talked a lot about what he thought of the day. Even after almost twelve hours of non-stop geekdom (we left the house at 7:30AM and this was at about 7PM), he was asking when the next BarCamp was going to be (in the last twenty-four hours, he’s asked me when the next one is about ten times), and asking me if I’d help him do a presentation on animation and using Hackety Hack.
Thank you to everyone who sponsored BarCamp, helped organize things, presented, and talked to Max during the day. I can’t tell you how cool it was to watch him talking to people and share his passion. It was great to share that with him, and to see him get out there. He said afterwards that he was a little shy in the morning, but that everyone was really nice. Max is an interesting kid, and I love seeing him learn and discover new things – and I love being able to share the things I’m passionate about with him.