Archive for April, 2002


Flash and accessibility

Macromedia Flash just keeps getting more and more accessible. Soon Flash will support captioning, thanks to an extension that Macromedia bought and plans to release. Actually, I suppose that it already does support captioning, if you know your ActionScript.

I’ve started to learn to use Flash MX. Part of me is feeling a bit guilty, since Flash is a proprietary standard, something that I normally avoideschew. Why not use SVG? For some things, I suppose I could. Especially the presentation slides that I hope to build with Flash. But I also want to embed video in Flash presentations, which so far as I know is not possible with SVG. Being able to supply captioning along with the video is huge.

Besides — honestly, Flash doesn’t really inspire the run-screaming-from-proprietary-satanic-standard reaction in me. It just doesn’t.


Digital Divide

There’s a guy at work who loves razzing me for being a Mac user. “Simple machines for simple minds,” he quips. He has yet to explain what’s wrong with making a computer easy to use. Last week, in response to an article on ZDNet explaining how even a Windows guy could love a Mac, he wrote, “I got hung out when OS/2 disappeared. At least if windows goes down I can always learn Linux and still use my HW. If mac goes down it will just suck all those big ole mac heads down with it!”

Yeah. My response:

There are PowerPC Linux distros from Debian, SuSE Yellow Dog. I’ve been running Linux on my Macs for a few years now. It’s a great way to use old Macs that can’t run OS X. Granted, Linux support for brand-new Mac hardware takes a bit longer to develop, but it gets there.

A balanced article by Edd Dumbill: “iBooks Love Linux“.

And again, you can hardly compare yourself to an average user. The average Mac head is no more or less computer-savvy than the average Windows user. In the unlikely event that Windows goes down, what will Windows users do? They’ll be in the same boat as Mac users would be. Digging for old copies of BeOS.

Except, of course, that they would never have heard of BeOS.

Today he points to what turns out to be an interesting article about one reason for the digital divide that’s raising such a furor in the US: “The reason the entire country isn’t on the Internet is that tens of millions of Americans are too old, too young, illiterate, or just plain stupid.

Good point. And it relates to something I was planning to write about today anyway.

The other day I was talking with a friend who for the first time is really coming to grips with widespread incompetence. For the most part, his whole life he has been surrounded with intelligent, over-competent people. His idea of “average” is skewed. But now he’s coming into regular contact with genuinely average people and is experiencing something like culture shock. I know what he means. If ten years in retail taught me anything, it’s that people are stupid (and that I am no exception to this rule).

Then a bit later I was talking with a teacher in an inner-city school. One of the things that he both loves and hates about his job is the diversity among the students that he works with. Not racial or cultural diversity, though. He’s talking about teaching kids who will grow up to be rocket scientists, and kids who will end up in prison. Forget about incompetence on the job: that’s average. Deal with people who can’t keep a job or will never have the chance. There’s a challenge.

So yeah. That’s part of the reason for the digital divide. I don’t think that it’s insensitive to acknowledge it. We can fight illiteracy, we can try to teach people to use technology. But we’re still going to have to deal with people who either don’t want to or cannot use computers. Something to keep in mind as more and more services are moving exclusively online.


Tea Nazi

Five or six years ago, a tea shop opened in Minneapolis. It was open only 4 hours a day, which made it hard to get to, but I had just started exploring the world of specialty tea, so I took the time to make a special trip. They brewed no tea, just sold it bulk: “Thés et tisanes en gros,” read a small handwritten sign on the wall.

I told the proprietor that I was interested in some Keemun Mao Feng, as I had been reading about it and it sounded good. He sized me up, then took another tea off the shelf.

“No,” he said, opening the double-lidded canister, “you’re not ready for that. Try this first, it’s a basic Keemun. Then maybe you’ll appreciate the Mao Feng.”

I was flabbergasted. Here was this guy, refusing to sell me something that I wanted to buy! I wasn’t sure how to take this. On the one hand, he was making sense. The Mao Feng was over $100 per pound. Although I was only buying 4 ounces, the far less expensive basic Keemun was still considerably easier on the pocketbook. On the other hand, I have a pretty sophisticated palate. I roasted and tasted coffee for a living, I was quite capable of recognizing the quality of a tea. I told him as much. I don’t think the coffee bit helped.

So I took his advice and bought the basic Keemun. Even that was marvelous. Over the next six to eight months, I would make a few more trips to the tea shop, and eventually was allowed to buy a Mao Feng. Oh, happy day! Occasionally, to the amazement of my friends and some of his other customers, I would even be graced with a free sample or two of some truly exquisite teas.

My friend Michael was not so “lucky.”

Did you ever see the Seinfeld episode with the Soup Nazi? This guy made incredible soup, but ran his shop in an outlandishly dictatorial manner. Customers took what they were given, no questions or complaints. Those who got on his bad side would be banned (“no soup for you, come back one year”).

For months I’d already been calling the owner of this little Minneapolis tea shop the Tea Nazi when, incredibly, he described himself in the same terms — careful, of course, to point out that he’d never seen an episode of Seinfeld.

One Saturday my friend Michael stopped by the store half an hour after they were to have opened, but the door was locked. He peeked in and knocked. The Tea Nazi was sitting behind the counter, reading a newspaper. No response. Michael knocked again. The Nazi looked up, irritated, then made a big show of standing up, walking over to the door, unlocking it, and returning to his seat and his newspaper behind the counter.

Michael walked in, looked around, but got no reaction from the proprietor.

Bravely, Michael spoke up. “Do you have any white teas? A friend of mine has been telling me about them and I’d really like to know more.”

Without looking up from his paper, the Tea Nazi gave a disgusted sigh, then said in a flat tone: “There is a book, All the Tea in China, that will tell you everything you want to know about white tea.” Then he stood up, folded his paper, and retreated to the back room. Michael waited, hoping he might come out again, but he never did.

Needless to say, Michael never returned. Neither did I. A few months later, a tea shop opened up across the river in Saint Paul, run by a really nice guy who actually lets people buy the tea they want. I’ve never looked back.


Close call

I tithe to O’Reilly.

It’s like I can’t help myself. I devote a certain amount of my income to technical books, and most of those that I buy are O’Reilly, whether or not they’re actually what I need to get. I was in the bookstore the other day, giving serious consideration to buying Programming C# and Programming ASP.NET. I have very little reason to know either C# or ASP.NET and am unlikely to anytime in the next year or more. There’s far too much other stuff to learn that would actually apply to platforms that I work with. But the books looked good, and I do have an interest in learning more about .NET. Somehow I managed not to buy them, but it was a close call. And something tells me that within a couple months, I’ll have read them both.

Fortunately I’m a Safari subscriber, partly for this reason. And now that I’m not taking the bus into work anymore (where we’re living now makes that impractical, though I’ll be getting back to the bus in the summer), and much of my reading time is gone as a result, I can read more online.


Apache 2.0

The title of this article, “Apache 2.0 Beats IIS at Its Own Game“, makes it seem like Apache’s some sort of newcomer to the web server game, beating IIS on its home turf.

Oh. I guess that is what they mean. Apache 1.x on Windows has always been labeled experimental, not for production environments. With Apache 2.0, this is no longer true. Because of changes in how it’s written, Apache runs well and runs safely on Windows servers. Rock on.


Back from the conference

I just got back from the MnSCU IT Conference. It was a blast. For the first time, there were enough web-related sessions that i couldn’t get to them all.

A guy from Apple was there, with a thrown-together-at-the-last-minute session called “Microsoft Office on UNIX.” Lame. The audience was filled with Unix geeks, offering an awesome opportunity to show off the Unix underpinnings of OS X. Did the Apple guy do that? No. Instead, he fumbled through an obviously unplanned series of standard Mac apps. For an entire excruciating hour, I sat there thinking: show us more than the frickin’ command line, fool! Show us the GIMP, show us Apache, show us OS X Server, show the networking tools. But no, none of that. Well, he showed Apache when someone asked about it. Idiot. I would have walked out but there was nothing else that seemed interesting at the time.

There was a two-hour hacking demonstration at the same time that Matt and I were giving our presentations on XML. Bummer. But the demo was repeated and I was able to go to at least an hour of it. One of the reasons that I was excited to take my job a year ago is that in every conversation with my supervisor, I learn something. His hacking demo was certainly no exception.

The XML presentations went well. The first was very well attended — a packed house! — but not with the people that I expected. It was a basic introduction to XML: what XML is, what it can be used for, that sort of thing, so I think it appealed to a broad audience. Matt noticed that a guy from Microsoft kept writing stuff down whenever we mentioned Microsoft. Weird.

Our second session, which got into some details about ways that you can start using XML on the Web right now, drew a mostly developer-type audience. I think. Hard to say. We dealt with stuff like RSS, content management systems, and web services. Constrained by time and the sheer enormity of the topic, we couldn’t get into enormous detail, but we still did inject some useful code examples and ideas that I hope will get people excited about using XML. Or at the very least, be able to intelligently consider whether it could be used to solve problems they’re working on. Our whole point is that XML isn’t some up-and-coming technology: you can use it now. Even if you don’t know a damn thing about XML, you can use it in things like web services and impress your boss. <grin />

I plan to expand the presentation slides into an article of sorts and will post a link here.

As I mentioned before, I used AxPoint to create the PDF slides from an XML source document. Pretty nice little tool. The markup’s easy to use, AxPoint’s easy to install and run. My only disappointment is that at this point the sldes that it creates are pretty basic. I’m looking forward to having more control over the font selection, placement, that sort of thing. Still, it’s a good tool. I recommend it.

I got to thinking, though, that using Flash for presentation slides would be fun. (Remember, I’ve sworn off learning to use PowerPoint. I have no explanation for this.) I’ve decided that it will be worth my while to get to know how to use Flash MX, with its XML support and improved accessibility. I’m curious to see what it would take to create an accessible Flash-based chat client, running over Jabber-RPC (XML-RPC over Jabber).

They’d set up a wireless network, which gave me yet another reason to buy an iBook. Next year, I’ll be there, iBook in hand, blogging the whole conference for a completely disinterested audience. I’m sure you’re giddy just thinking about it.

The best part of the conference, though, wasn’t the sessions and presentations. It was connecting with my web developer peers throughout the system. Good folk all. It’s wonderful to see us coming together as a community and start to do good work together.

Anyway. I’m back. Now I’m off to spend some time away from computers. Curl up with a book and a cat. I’ll be back tomorrow, though, I’m sure.


Google’s SOAP API

Google’s opened a SOAP API. There’s been some talk about this on a Ruby list somewhere, and I think on the SOAP::Lite list, but now that it’s actually here I am almost apoplectic with excitement about the possibilites. Maybe my enthusiasm is somewhat enhanced beyond normalcy because I’m in the middle of typing up notes for a presentation on web services.

Either way. Cool. Check it out.


spam weirdness

I got this bizarre spam yesterday that has me idly puzzled. Check out the HTML comments in the message. Why in the world would someone do this?


Apache 2.0 released

Apache 2.0 is officially released. 2.0.35 is now the recommended version.

So now I really have to find a way to set up my own server. Until I have a broadband connection so I can run a server at home, I’m tempted by virtual FreeBSD or Linux servers. Any recommendations? Someone here in the Twin Cities PHP Users Group uses WebPipe quite happily and I admit that it does seem pretty sweet. I’d very much like to be able to do more with mod_perl, especially AxKit. And now I’d really like to tinker with Apache 2.0. We shall see.


Mozilla 1.0 on the way

Mozilla 1.0 is on the way. Looks like a release candidate may be available next week. Yay! Of course, as a day-to-day browser it’s already damn fine.

Many criticisms of the Mozilla project for not yet releasing a version 1.0, while Microsoft continues to release major version after major version of IE, are unjustified. Mozilla is about so much more than the browser. Version 1.0 doesn’t mean that at last we’ve got a kick-ass and pretty bug-free browser/mail client/news reader/chat client/whatever. We already have that, as far as I’m concerned. As I read the Mozilla 1.0 Manifesto, 1.0 is a signal that at last we have a stable set of APIs to start building on.

What I’m waiting for is the next major release of Netscape 6. There is such a massive difference between Netscape 6.2.2 and the Mozilla 0.9.9 — not to mention the ever-so-improved nightly builds. At work, the standard browser is Netscape 4.78. Ugh. Thankfully there’s no interest in switching to IE, but until Netscape 6.3 or higher is released, I don’t want to start pushing for a Netscape upgrade. The day it’s released, though, I’m gonna start hammering away to get a decent browser on everyone’s desktop.

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