Jeffrey Zeldman Presents The Daily Report

24 February 2004 4 pm est

Waterbox redux

The music of Waterbox, part of this site’s “Classics” department, is back online for your listening pleasure.

Tracks were cut in the 1980s, using a prototype Akai MG1212 integrated 12-track recorder/mixer.

20 February 2004 9 am est

A List Apart No. 171

In Issue No. 171 of A List Apart, for people who make websites:

Designing for Context with CSS

by Joshua Porter

The medium is the message: Imagine providing unique information exclusively for people who read your site via a web-enabled cell phone — then crafting a different message for those who are reading a printout instead of the screen. Let your context guide your content. All it takes is some user-centric marketing savvy and a dash of CSS.

Helping Your Visitors: a State of Mind

by Nick Usborne

Even the simplest website is harder to figure out than a catalog or magazine. With every new site we visit, we have to “learn” how it works, how its “pages” turn, how to find what we’re looking for. Text that takes visitors’ needs into account can help guide them through the maze.

19 February 2004 10 am est

The Drop Shadow League

When I started designing, bevels and drop shadows were the first refuges of a hack. Not any more.

Clement Mok made the world safe for bevels with the elegant web navigation menus his now-defunct Studio Archetype designed in the late 1990s. Unlike the crude bevels designers of uneven skill and taste cranked out via Photoshop filters of varying quality, Studio Archetype’s bevel effects were carefully composed, using Photoshop’s line and pencil tools.

You can’t view that work because it is now offline. But sites like 2advanced have carried on the tradition. Examine their small buttons up close, and you will see how 2advanced has carefully stroked the edges of each shape with slightly lighter and darker lines, emulating highlights and shadows in a purely graphic way. It is line art masquerading as 3D, and it works.

2advanced, K10k, GUI Galaxy (currently on hiatus) and a handful of others have helped promote a renewed interest in beveled user interface elements that emulate real-world buttons and panels. Their pixel-perfect, push-button aesthetic is not appropriate to every brand or every user interface, but where it works, it works well.

While the pixel-perfect bevel hearkens back to the classic Mac OS, the drop shadow may owe its recently regained respectability to the look and feel of Mac OS X. Some of us disliked Aqua at first glance. Photorealistic icons instead of painstaking pixel art? Drop shadows?

But most of us came around. And soon, new sites were embracing the once-reviled drop shadow and making it their own. Consider the 85th PGA Championship (Dominey Design),, and Web Standards Awards: three elegantly designed sites that put drop shadows (or drop-shadow-like effects) to good use.

Although I consciously avoid imitating my peers, I find that the last three sites I’ve designed all use drop-shadow-like effects: mainly tiny gradients that emulate shadows while exercising more control over the color palette.

The first two sites are in production on secure servers; the third is still in comp approval stage. And the third surprised me the most. While making some client-requested changes, I suddenly found myself “dimensionalizing” what had been an absolutely flat (print-like) look and feel. And you know what? It made it better. Layout nuances suddenly had more life. Page divisions seemed clearer and bolder.

Nothing lasts, and in the world of design, trend prediction is as reliable as last month’s presidential poll numbers. But the drop shadow, subtly used, feels like it will be with us for a while.

Flowers from Amazon

Amazon has responded to the problem discussed in yesterday’s Report and echoed in the Amazon Associates Program’s discussion board:

These letters were sent out in error. If you have already provided your Tax Identification Number to Amazon for your Associates account, you can disregard this B Notice letter.

Amazon made the same mistake a few years back, and issued a similar retraction in response to a similar protest. The problem is not unique to Amazon, as anyone with corporate or organizational record-keeping experience knows. Often, one corporate database does not talk to another, or two corporate databases contain contradictory information. Systems migration and incompatibilities are the usual suspects.

18 February 2004 10 am est

Amazon tax gaffe: from hero to zero

Amazon is a super-savvy Internet company, except when they screw up. I, along with other Amazon Associates, am now reeling from the double whammy of a database error compounded by unusable voice mail.


It goes on to say that, “twice within three years,” the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has told Amazon that the taxpayer identification number they have on file for me does not match my name.

The notice lists my taxpayer number as 000000000.

Amazon is not being coy, nor did the company print 000000000 to protect my tax identification number from prying eyes. There is apparently a problem with one of Amazon’s databases.

And now it is my problem. To clear up the mess, I must have the friendly folks at the IRS file an official form with Amazon before the middle of next month, or various financial penalties will be applied to my account. The notice goes on to talk about “penalties of perjury” and uses other language most often heard inside a criminal courtroom.

Although the document is labelled a Second B Notice, it’s the first I’ve heard of it. Probably Second B Notice is simply a name, even though it sounds like “second notice to the customer.”

My taxpayer identification number has not changed since I was sixteen. I’ve participated in Amazon’s Associates program since 1997. An Amazon database seems to have hiccupped, and, instead of catching the mistake, Amazon has dragged me and the IRS into it.

On the back of the form, a phone number is listed, and I’m permitted to call [name field left blank] if I have “any questions.”

Fearing that the whole thing might be a scam to harvest social security numbers, made by a company spoofing Amazon, I did a whois to see if the phone number listed looked anything like Amazon’s. It did, so I called.

On the first attempt, I got a voice mail message that ran roughly as follows: “Welcome to the Amazon Tax Identification Number line. Please leave your name, phone number and area code, social security number or tax identification number, and a complete description of your problem, and state whether or not you need someone to return your call.”

The punchline followed: “You will have twelve seconds to leave your message.” BEEP!

I got my name and part of my phone number out before the 12-second cutoff.

As the automated next step message began to play, my little dog barked once.

Brief as it was, that wee bark obliterated whatever Amazon’s automated message had intended to tell me.

So I waited for the message to repeat, as is customary on any voice mail system created since the early 1970s, when it was all tape and punchcards.

The message never repeated.

I stared at the telephone handset, thinking surely it would loop around again. If I phoned a one-man auto body shop in a remote corner of Haiti, its voice mail would offer me more than one chance to send my message, or re-record it, or talk to an operator. Amazon’s tax line doesn’t. One shot is what you got.

Hung up. Dialed again. Same initial instructions, same follow-up warning that I would have twelve seconds to leave a detailed message. But now a third voice entered the choir. It said: “The voice mail box you have called is full.” I was given the option to contact the front desk or hang myself. I went for the front desk.

...Where a new message announced that no one was working at the front desk, and provided various numbers I might punch if I wished to inquire about something I’d purchased. There was no way back to the previous number. If Amazon’s website worked like its voice mail, Jeff Bezos would be staggering around Seattle’s Pike Street Market in a poncho, hitting tourists for spare change.

I made a third attempt to contact Amazon by phone, then gave the problem to Jesus.

If the voice mail box had not been full, I might think I was the only one blindsided by an Amazon database error. But the box was full, suggesting that I am not alone. If ten thousand Amazon Associates all got the same Second B Notice, and if even a tenth of them were able to leave incomplete, twelve-second-long voice mail messages, someone at Amazon will get a clue. Phone system and scary form letters aside, Amazon is a damn good, damn smart company.

Phone system and scary form letters aside.

Highlights from recent Daily Reports

Safari 1.2 CSS bug found and fixed
A layout element in The Daily Report of 12 February revealed a CSS bug in Apple’s Safari 1.2 browser for OS X 10.3. The day we reported it, Apple’s Dave Hyatt fixed it.
By Popular Request
Links archived on new page; site interface slightly modified; a tip on forcing browsers to recognize when a style sheet has changed.
W3C Fixes CSS Validator
Within days of reading our gripe, the W3C fixed its CSS validation service.
Museums and the Web 2004
We will deliver a keynote address at this prestigious international conference. Register by 15 February to save.
A List Apart No. 170
Bobby van der Sluis: Exploring Footers (controlling vertical positioning in CSS layouts). Jeremy Keith: JavaScript Image Gallery (a quick, easy way to make a one-page gallery that uses JavaScript to load images and their captions on the fly).

There is more

More highlights and back orders may be found in our Essentials Department.