I NEVER take my daughter to pet stores, because she always wants to save all the animals. But our babysitter didn’t get the memo. Last week at a filthy pet store near school, Ava fell in love with a neglected hamster. Once the internet had assured me our cats wouldn’t kill the hamsters, I gave Ava permission to bring home the hamster, and gave the babysitter money to take care of the purchase.
Ava came home with two hamsters: a lady and a gentleman.
In less than a week, the lady gave birth to seven naked pink babies. It looked like mama hamster was going to eat her babies—distressing my daughter no end—but, days later, they are still alive, and their fur is beginning to grow in.
It’s a school day, but Ava has another virus—her second in two weeks—and is home from school for the second day in a row; I’m home watching her and attempting to do my work.
This morning while I was having coffee on the couch, Ava put the daddy hamster on my tummy. He slipped around behind me, and somehow disappeared.
We spent an hour on hands and knees amid Ava’s used Kleenexes, spilled hamster food, cedar chips, and other detritus, searching for the missing hamster. The cats could not find him either. (Giovannia, our vigilant tuxedo cat, actually looked for the missing hamster; gimlet-eyed Snow White licked her paws, oblivious.)
It soon became obvious that the hamster had somehow crawled into the family couch.
When little incisions under the cushions failed to reveal the missing rodent, I painstakingly destroyed the entire seating area in hopes of finding him. Insider tip: when destroying a couch from ABC Carpet & Warehouse, a scissor works better than a kitchen knife.
It was a beautiful couch before our sick dog Emile (RIP) had his way with it, and before Giovannia and Snow White converted it to a cat manicure device, and before Ava and I gave up and had all our meals on it, and before Ava decided that her favorite meal was soup.
Before I destroyed it, it looked like the Gestapo had held sex parties on it, but at least it was a couch.
Destroying the couch did not produce the hamster. We’ve left a trail of hamster food outside the ripped-apart couch. Probably he will come out at night, hamsters being nocturnal.
Anyone more experienced in this area, please share tips.
We Remember Mama
It’s the 15th anniversary of our mother’s death from Alzheimer’s.
Zen & The Art of iTunes Failure
REBUILDING iTunes library from scratch over two days got app working again. Fine use of lazy weekend.
Had to sacrifice all custom playlists dating back to 2002, including An Event Apart playlists and delivery room mix from Ava’s birth.
Playlists still exist on old iPod but can’t be copied from it back to iTunes. (All software I’ve tried freezes & fails.)
Playlists still exist as code snippets inside .itl file in old iTunes folder, but numerous trials prove iTunes can’t launch from that folder any more. Thus I can’t temporarily launch from old folder, export playlists, switch back to safe new folder, and import them, thereby saving them.
And iTunes can’t import old .itl files. I Googled. I tried anyway.
13 years of custom playlists. From before, during, and after my marriage. Including one my daughter called “princess music” and danced to when she was three. Gone.
But, really, so what? Over time we lose everything. This loss is nothing. Attachment is futile. Always move forward, until you stop moving.
SOMETIME in the night, maybe around 4:00 AM, my new iPhone, which is my only alarm clock, and which was plugged into the wall and fully charged, powered itself down and went black. Maybe it just happened. Maybe Snow White, my restless night ghost cat, accidentally triggered the shutdown by stepping daintily on the phone.
Sometime in the night, maybe around 4:00 AM, I woke up. I’m no longer in the habit of waking in the middle of the night, and I don’t know what made me do it this morning. Maybe it was Snow White, silently walking on my chest, and fleeing just before her action produced the desired result of waking me, so that I thought I woke on my own. Maybe it was a preternatural connection between my central nervous system and the iPhone—like something out of Cronenberg—responding to the phone’s silent shutdown. (Wake up! I’ve died! the iPhone cried.)
Or maybe it was the anxieties of the day before catching up with me. A hugely important business meeting yesterday, yada yada. Something odd and unsettling my daughter’s teacher had said in school the day before (if my daughter’s report of what happened was accurate). An argument my daughter had yesterday with her best friend, and her conviction (voiced to me only) that they were drifting apart forever. Or maybe I just drank too much water before going to sleep. Whatever the cause, I lay there awake. And lay there. Giovanni, the tuxedo cat, on my arm. Snow White, who sleeps in my daughter’s room, suddenly in my room, standing on my chest.
After about an hour of anxious thoughts and idle fur stroking, I reached for the phone to see what time it was. And that’s how I discovered that the device was strangely cold, except around the lightning port, which felt unnaturally hot. The screen was black. My button pushing, which began desultorily and grew ever more urgent, had no effect. The device would not come on. It was cold. Off. Maybe dead!
And suddenly I was out of bed, because that’s what happens when your mobile device stops working. You spring into action like a firefighter at a burning building. Flicking on living room lights, brewing a Nespresso (sorry), plugging things in, pushing buttons with the methodical calm of an ER surgeon.
Never fear, O my friends of the internet, the device came back to life. Yes.
What’s strange is that, if I hadn’t woken up early, I would have slept right through, because the alarm would not have gone off, and without it (for instance on Saturdays) I sleep in hard.
And if I had slept right through, I would have missed my daughter’s “publishing party” at school today (that’s what the school calls it when the kids read stories aloud that they have written), and she would have been late to school one too many times this year. I would also have missed my appointment at the Apple store in Grand Central—the first Apple store appointment I’ve made in years, to fix an iPad Mini which mysteriously stopped taking a charge two weeks ago and is now, essentially, a large, awkward guitar pick.
Is my phone jealous of my iPad? Did it shut down so I’d sleep through my appointment at the Apple store?
Did I wake from family worries? Business concerns?
Was it because I knew my phone needed me?
Or was it just the cats?
Happy birthday, Maurice
MY DAD is 88 today.
Publishing v. Performance—or, The Soul of the Web
MY SOUL is in twain. Two principles on which clued-in web folk heartily agree are coming more and more often into conflict—a conflict most recently thrust into relief by discussions around the brilliant Vox Media team, publishers of The Verge.
The two principles are:
Building performant websites is not only a key differentiator that separates successful sites from those which don’t get read; it’s also an ethical obligation, whose fulfillment falls mainly on developers, but can only happen with the buy-in of the whole team, from marketing to editorial, from advertising to design.
Publishing and journalism are pillars of civilized society, and the opportunity to distribute news and information via the internet (and to let anyone who is willing to do the work become a publisher) has long been a foundational benefit of the web. As the sad, painful, slow-motion decline of traditional publishing and journalism is being offset by the rise of new, primarily web-based publications and news organizations, the need to sustain these new publications and organizations—to “pay for the content,” in popular parlance—is chiefly being borne by advertising…which, however, pays less and less and demands more and more as customers increasingly find ways to route around it.
“The Verge’s Web Sucks,” by Les Orchard, quickly countered Nilay’s piece, as Jeremy chronicles (“Les Orchard says what we’re all thinking”). Jeremy then points to a half-humorous letter of surrender posted by Vox Media’s developers, who announce their new Vox Media Performance Team in a piece facetiously declaring performance bankruptcy.
A survey of follow-up barbs and exchanges on Twitter concludes Jeremy’s piece (which you must read; do not settle for this sloppy summary). After describing everything that has so far been said, Mr Keith weighs in with his own opinion, and it’s what you might expect from a highly thoughtful, open-source-contributing, standards-flag-flying, creative developer:
I’m hearing an awful lot of false dichotomies here: either you can have a performant website or you have a business model based on advertising. …
Tracking and advertising scripts are today’s equivalent of pop-up windows. …
For such a young, supposedly-innovative industry, I’m often amazed at what people choose to treat as immovable, unchangeable, carved-in-stone issues. Bloated, invasive ad tracking isn’t a law of nature. It’s a choice. We can choose to change.
Me, I’m torn. As a 20-year-exponent of lean web development (yes, I know how pretentious that sounds), I absolutely believe that the web is for everybody, regardless of ability or device. The web’s strength lies precisely in its unique position as the world’s first universal platform. Tim Berners-Lee didn’t invent hypertext, and his (and his creation’s) genius doesn’t lie in the deployment of tags; it subsists in the principle that, developed rightly, content on the web is as accessible to the Nigerian farmer with a feature phone as it is to a wealthy American sporting this year’s device. I absolutely believe this. I’ve fought for it for too many years, alongside too many of you, to think otherwise.
And yet, as a 20-year publisher of independent content (and an advertising professional before that), I am equally certain that content requires funding as much as it demands research, motivation, talent, and nurturing. Somebody has to pay our editors, writers, journalists, designers, developers, and all the other specialtists whose passion and tears go into every chunk of worthwhile web content. Many of you reading this will feel I’m copping out here, so let me explain:
It may indeed be a false dichotomy that “either you can have a performant website or you have a business model based on advertising” but it is also a truth that advertisers demand more and more for their dollar. They want to know what page you read, how long you looked at it, where on the web you went next, and a thousand other invasive things that make thoughtful people everywhere uncomfortable—but are the price we currently pay to access the earth’s largest library.
I don’t like this, and I don’t do it in the magazine I publish, but A List Apart, as a direct consequence, will always lack certain resources to expand its offerings as quickly and richly as we’d like, or to pay staff and contributors at anything approaching the level that Vox Media, by accepting a different tradeoff, has achieved. (Let me also acknowledge ALA’s wonderful sponsors and our longtime partnership with The Deck ad network, lest I seem to speak from an ivory tower. Folks who’ve never had to pay for content cannot lay claim to moral authority on this issue; untested virtue is not, and so on.)
To be clear, Vox Media could not exist if its owners had made the decisions A List Apart made in terms of advertising—and Vox Media’s decisions about advertising are far better, in terms of consumer advocacy and privacy, than those made by most web publishing groups. Also to be clear, I don’t regret A List Apart’s decisions about advertising—they are right for us and our community.
I know and have worked alongside some of the designers, developers, and editors at Vox Media; you’d be proud to work with any of them. I know they are painfully aware of the toll advertising takes on their site’s performance; I know they are also doing some of the best editorial and publishing work currently being performed on the web—which is what happens when great teams from different disciplines get together to push boundaries and create something of value. This super team couldn’t do their super work without salaries, desks, and computers; acquiring those things meant coming to some compromise with the state of web advertising today. (And of course it was the owners, and not the employees, who made the precise compromise to which Vox Media currently adheres.)
Put a gun to my head, and I will take the same position as Jeremy Keith. I’ll even do it without a gun to my head, as my decisions as a publisher probably already make clear. And yet, two equally compelling urgencies in my core being—love of web content, and love of the web’s potential—make me hope that web and editorial teams can work with advertisers going forward, so that one day soon we can have amazing content, brilliantly presented, without the invasive bloat. In the words of another great web developer I know, “Hope is a dangerous currency—but it’s all I’ve got.”
MY WEBSITE is 20 years old today. I’m dictating these remarks into a tiny handheld device, not to prove a point, but because, with gorgeously ironic timing, my wired internet connection has gone out. It’s the kind of wired connection, offering the kind of speed, ‘most everyone reading this takes for granted today—a far cry from the 14.4 modem with which I built and tested the first version of this site, shipping it (if you could call it that) on May 31, 1995.
I’m no longer dictating. I’m pecking with my index finger. On the traditional computer keyboard, I’m a super-fast touch typist. I mastered touch typing in high school. I was the only boy in that class. All the other boys took car repair. They laughed at me for being in a class full of girls, which was weird and stupid of them on at least five levels. Maybe they wanted to work in an auto body shop. I wanted to be a writer and an artist. Learning to type as quickly as I could think was a needed skill and part of my long self-directed apprenticeship.
My first typewriter cost me $75. I can’t tell you how many hours it took me to earn that money, or how proud I was of that object. I wrote my first books on it. They will never be published but that’s all right. Another part of the apprenticeship.
After touch typing at the speed of thought for decades, I found it tough learning to write all over again, one finger letter at a time, in my first iPhone, but I’m fluent today. My right index finger is sending you these words now, and probably developing early onset arthritis as a result, but I am also fairly fluent with with my left thumb when situations compel me to work one-handed. The reduced speed of this data entry ritual no longer impedes my flow.
And since WordPress is an app on my phone, and my AT&T 4E connection never fails me, even when the cable modem internet connection is out, today I can update my site leagues faster than when I was chained to a desk and wires and HTML and Fetch and static files—20 years ago, before some of you were born.
I wanted to launch a redesign on this 20th anniversary—in the old days I redesigned this site four or five times a year, whenever I had a new idea or learned a new skill—but with a ten year old daughter and four businesses to at least pretend to run (businesses that only exist because I started this website 20 years ago today and because my partners started theirs), a redesign by 31 May 2015 wasn’t possible.
So I’ll settle for the perfectly timed, gratitude-inducing, reflection-prompting failure of my cable modem on this of all days. That’s my redesign for the day: a workflow redesign.
Boy, is my finger tired. Too tired to type the names of all the amazing and wonderful people I’ve worked with over the past 20 years. (Just because a personal site is personal doesn’t mean it could have happened without the help and support and love of all you good people.)
When I started this site I wrote in the royal “we” and cultivated an ironic distance from my material and my gentle readers, but today this is just me with all my warts and shame and tenderness—and you. Not gentle readers. People. Friends.
I launched this site twenty years ago (a year before the Wayback Machine, at least two years before Google) and it was one of the only places you could read and learn about web design. I launched at a tilde address (kids, ask your parents), and did not think to register zeldman.com until 1996, because nobody had ever done anything that crazy.
On the day I launched my pseudonymous domain I already had thousands of readers, had somehow coaxed over a million visitors to stop by, and had the Hit Counter to prove it. (If you remember the 1970s, you weren’t there, but if you remember the early web, you were.) Today, because I want people to see these words, I’ll repost them on Medium. Because folks don’t bookmark and return to personal sites as they once did. And they don’t follow their favorite personal sites via RSS, as they once did. Today it’s about big networks.
It’s a Sunday. My ten year old is playing on her iPad and the two cats are facing in opposite directions, listening intently to fluctuations in the air conditioning hum.
I’ve had two love relationships since launching this site. Lost both, but that’s okay. I started this site as a goateed chain smoker in early sobriety (7 June 1993) and continue it as a bearded, yoga practicing, single dad. Ouch. Even I hate how that sounds. (But I love how it feels.)
I started this site with animated gifs and splash pages while living in a cheap rent stabilized apartment. PageSpinner was my jam. I was in love with HTML and certain that the whole world was about to learn it, ushering in a new era of DIY media, free expression, peace and democracy and human rights worldwide. That part didn’t work out so well, although the kids prefer YouTube to TV, so that’s something.
My internet failure—I mean the one where an internet connection is supposed to be delivered to my apartment via cable—gets me off the hook for having to create a visual tour of “important” moments from this website over the past 20 years. No desktop, no visual thinking. That’s okay too. Maybe I’ll be able to do it for for this site’s 25th anniversary. That’s the important one, anyway.
Hand pecked into a small screen for your pleasure. New York, NY, 31 May 2015. The present day content producer etc.
Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Medium?
IN 2003, long before he was a creative director at Twitter, Douglas Bowman wrote articles about design, posted case studies about his design projects, and shared his photography on his personal/business site, stopdesign.com.
A year previously, Doug had attained instant fame in standardista circles by recoding Wired.com using CSS for layout. That sounds nonsensical nowadays, but in 2002, folks like me were still struggling to persuade our fellow web designers to use CSS, and not HTML tables, for layout. Leading web designers had begun seeing the light, and there had been a sudden profusion of blogs and personal sites that used CSS for layout, and whose markup strove to be semantic and to validate. But nobody had as yet applied web standards to a large commercial site—giving rise to the charge, among Luddite web designers, that standards-based design was “okay for blogs” but had no business on the “real” web.
Then Doug recoded Wired.com with CSS, Mike Davidson did the same for ESPN.com, and all the old reactionary talking points were suddenly as dead as Generalissimo Franco—and the race was on to build a standards-compliant, open web across all content and application sectors.
IN THE PROCESS of helping to lead this sea change, Douglas Bowman became famous, and anybody who was anybody in web design began passionately reading his blog. And yet.
And yet, when Doug had a really big idea to share with our community, he published it on A List Apart, the magazine “for people who make websites.”
Did he do so because blogging was dead? Because the open web was in trouble? Of course not. He did it because publishing on A List Apart in 2003 allowed Doug to share his innovative design technique with the widest possible audience of his peers.
PUBLISHING in multiple venues is not new. Charles Dickens, the literary colossus of Victorian England, did it. (He also pioneered serial cross-cutting, the serial narrative, and the incorporation of audience feedback into his narrative—techniques that anticipated the suspense film, serial television narratives like Mad Men, and the modification of TV content in response to viewer feedback over the internet. But those are other, possibly more interesting, stories.)
Nobody said the open web was dead when Doug Bowman published “Sliding Doors of CSS” on A List Apart.
Nobody said the blog was dead when RSS readers made it easier to check the latest content from your favorite self-publishing authors without bothering to type their personal sites’ URLs into your browser’s address bar.
Forward thinkers at The New York Times did not complain when Mike Davidson’s Newsvine began republishing New York Times content; the paper brokered the deal. They were afraid to add comments to their articles on their own turf, and saw Newsvine as a perfect place to test how live reader feedback could fit into a New York Times world.
When Cameron Koczon noticed and named the new way we interact with online content (“a future in which content is no longer entrenched in websites, but floats in orbit around users”), smart writers, publishers, and content producers rejoiced at the idea of their words reaching more people more ways. Sure, it meant rethinking monetization; but content monetization on the web was mostly a broken race to the bottom, anyway, so who mourned the hastening demise of the “web user manually visits your site’s front page daily in hopes of finding new content” model? Not many of us.
By the time Cameron wrote “Orbital Content” in April of 2011, almost all visits to A List Apart and zeldman.com were triggered by tweets and other third-party posts. Folks were bookmarking Google and Twitter, not yourhomepage.com. And that was just fine. If you wrote good content and structured it correctly, people would find it. Instead of navigating a front-page menu hierarchy that was obsolete before you finished installing the templates, folks in search of exactly your content would go directly to that content. And it was good.
So just why are we afraid of Medium? Aside from not soliciting or editing most of its content, and not paying most of its authors, how does it differ from all previous web publications, from Slate to The Verge? Why does publishing content on Medium (in addition to your personal site and other publications) herald, not just the final-final-final death of blogging (“Death of Blogging III: This Time It’s Personal”), but, even more alarmingly, the death of the open web?
You may think I exaggerate, but I’ve heard more than one respected colleague opine that publishing in Medium invalidates everything we independent content producers care about and represent; that it destroys all our good works with but one stroke of the Enter button.
I’ve even had that thought myself.
But isn’t the arrival of a new-model web publication like Medium proof that the web is alive and healthy, and spawning new forms of creativity and success?
And when the publisher of a personal site writes for Medium, is she really giving up on her own site? Couldn’t she be simply hoping to reach new readers?
(If she succeeds, some of those new readers might even visit her site, occasionally.)
Thanks to Bastian Allgeier for inspiring this post.
Updated! Writing the Book on Web Design, Jeffrey Zeldman interview, Communication Arts Insights, March 24, 2015. “This is the beauty of a design career: you have the opportunity to create what you feel is missing from the world.”
Automan, The Dan Benjamin Show, March 19, 2015. Dan and I discuss the death of Internet Explorer.
Designing the Web with Jeffrey Zeldman, The Web Ahead, March 18, 2015. Jen Simmons conducts a remarkable, in-depth interview on web design history, the state of web design and development, the future of our medium, and our masochistic love affair with Big Brother.