If you don’t know me by now…

I fear I may have given the wrong impression of myself when I posted this photo a couple of months ago:

Frank and the Mac

The picture may lead you to believe that I thrive on sunlight streaming through the window. That I maintain a tidy desk. That I <gasp> use a single monitor. Wait… I am a geek. Hath not a geek a cave? If you ping me, do I not l33t?

Well, worry no more. Here’s the updated version:

The cave, revisited

Key features:

  • Three monitors. MacBook Pro on the right, Frankenstein on the left. The middle monitor switches back and forth depending on context. Synergy so I can be working on both machines at once with a single keyboard and mouse.
  • Roland TD-3 drum kit for relaxation and right-braining
  • Pinboard on the wall to the left of the desk
  • Random box o’ stuff piled on top of the Mac Classic
  • Volume control for the amp within easier reach
  • Comfortingly messy

I have also come across a trio of articles in the last couple of weeks that pretty much describe me to a T. Have a look and see.

The Nerd Handbook” by Rands:

“These control issues mean your nerd is sensitive to drastic changes in his environment. Think travel. Think job changes. These types of system-redefining events force your nerd to recognize that the world is not always or entirely a knowable place, and until he reconstructs this illusion, he’s going to be frustrated and he’s going to act erratically. I develop an incredibly short fuse during system-redefining events and I’m much more likely to lose it over something trivial and stupid.”

Wide vs. Deep” by Greg Knauss:

“The programmer, though, wants to be involved deeply and profoundly in just a few projects — he wants to own them, top to bottom. Maybe it’s a whole program, or a single feature, or some underlying library. Whatever. He wants to live in it, neck-deep. He has to worry about all — literally all — of the obscure technical details that make computers go. Jumping between projects — context switching — is a great way to burn a programmer out, because the cost of unloading one project from his head only to load up another one is enormously high. The idea of switching between two projects in a day, much less ten, is not only exhausting, but depressing.”

What I Want For Christmas: Not A Damn Thing” by John Scalzi:

“For a number of years, I’ve told people who have been thinking of getting me something for Christmas or whatever holiday excuse they have for gift giving that I’d simply prefer they not get me anything at all. The reaction to this often ranges from confusion (i.e., how can you not want gifts?) to exasperation that my insincere “no, no, you don’t have to get me anything…” ways just means they will have to be extra crafty in getting me a gift, since I’m not helping them by hinting at what I want. This is when people ask my wife what I want, and she tells them that I told her years ago to stop getting me Christmas gifts. At which point I suspect their heads explode.”

I wrote about exactly that same thing two years ago, albeit in a more mouth-foamingly ranty way. Scalzi expresses himself much more calmly and eloquently, and everything he says applies to me. (Well, apart from Julie Delpy, Kate Winslet, and that car. Call it Jennifer Connelly, Kate Beckinsale, and a 1983 Porsche 911SC, and we’re golden.) To anyone who wants to get me anything for my birthday or Christmas now or in the future: please read Scalzi’s article.

Quite comfortingly, Christmas doesn’t seem to have landed yet here in The Netherlands. And it’s almost December! Sure, we’ve got the whole Sinterklaas thing going on, but it doesn’t thrust itself at you and hump your leg like Christmas does in the UK. Consequently, I’m feeling a lot calmer this holiday season. Or maybe the therapy is helping. Or something.

(The title of this post is, of course, a reference to the Simply Red cover of the Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes song. Yep, that’s the consequence of Dutch radio bangin’ out those “classic 80s hits.” One of these days, you’ll get the full thermonuclear rant…but not today.)

@Media Ajax

@Media Ajax logoI was at the conference @Media Ajax conference last week. In hindsight, “@Media JavaScript” would have been a better title, though. It is less than two years since Jesse James Garrett coined the term “Ajax”, but we are already at the point where Ajax development is just the way we do things now, rather than something that needs to be explained, discussed, and evangelized.

During the wrap-up panel at the end of the second day, one of the questions was directed to the audience: who would have attended the conference if it had in fact been called “@Media JavaScript”? Most people put up their hand. I would not be surprised if Vivabit run a sequel to this conference next year; but the main reason for them to keep the term “Ajax” in the title would surely be to make it easier for developers to convince buzzword-hungry managers to let them attend.

Monday 19 November

Keynote presentation: “The State Of Ajax” by Dion Almaer and Ben Galbraith

Dion AlmaerBen GalbraithThis presentation set the scene for the rest of the conference, briefly covering subjects like JavaScript 2 and the heated politics surrounding it, the emergence of offline support for web apps (Google Gears) and runtimes with desktop integration for web apps (AIR, Silverlight), and the evolution and convergence of JavaScript frameworks. Their demonstration of Google Gears’ WorkerPools was an eye-opener for me; I hadn’t realized that Gears was about so much more than offline storage. They closed with a reflection on how Ajax has transformed our expectations of web applications, and how it is enabling a more attractive web.

(Note to self: get more familiar with Tamarin, ScreamingMonkey, Google Gears, AIR, HTML5, Dojo, Caja.)

“But I’m A Bloody Designer!” by Mike Stenhouse

Mike StenhouseMike talked about how in modern web development, the traditional barriers between designers and developers are breaking down. Designers need to be aware of the consequences of their choices, and how things like latency and concurrency will influence a feature. Developers need to increase their awareness of interaction design. This led to a discussion of how he feels thatBehavior-driven development has made him a better designer (and developer). He mentioned WebDriver for writing and executing BDD test cases, but the demo code he showed looked more like Ruby… I think I missed something there. Good tools and techniques to explore, though.

Update:: RSpec?

“Real World Accessibility for Ajax-enhanced Web Apps” by Derek Featherstone

Derek FeatherstoneProviding good accessibility for web content is hard enough; once you start building dynamic web apps, you’re practically off the map. Derek took the zoom/move control in Google Maps as an example of bad practice, showing how difficult it is for someone with only a voice interface to use. He walked through some more examples, with useful advice on how to make improvements in each case.

One of the toughest problems for Ajax applications is how to inform screen readers that a part of the screen has been updated. Derek noted Gez Lemon and Steve Faulkner’s technique for using the Virtual Buffer as being one of the best options for tackling this right now. Another cool technique that I hadn’t seen before was updating an input field’s <label> element with error information when the form is validated (so that a screen reader is made aware of the change), but then using CSS positioning to display the error information where a sighted user would expect to see it–possibly on the other side of the field than the label itself. Very clever.

I’m also going to have to familiarise myself with the ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications) work coming out of the WAI: ARIA proposes to extend (X)HTML with additional semantics that would allow web applications to tap into the accessibility APIs of the underlying Operating System.

“How To Destroy The Web” by Stuart Langridge

Stuart LangridgeAfter lunch, Stuart Langridge put on his Master of EVIL hat, and tried to coax us to join him on the Dark Side by teaching us about all the things we can do to make a user’s experience on this hyperweb thingy as shitty and 1998-like as possible. Remember: if your app doesn’t use up all of a user’s bandwidth, they’ll only use it for downloading…well, something else. (“Horse porn” sounds so prejudicial.)

(Stuart’s slides lose a certain something when taken out of context.)

“Planning JavaScript And Ajax For Larger Teams” by Christian Heilmann

Christian HeilmannChristian works for Yahoo!, and has for a long time been a great evangelist of unobtrusive javascript and other modern JS techniques like the module pattern. In this presentation, he talked about working with JavaScript in larger teams. This is interesting, because until recently, there were no such things as “large JavaScript teams”. JS was something you copy-and-pasted into your web site, or got your resident front-end geek to bolt on as an afterthought. JavaScript has matured enormously over the last few years.

Many of Christian’s points are good software development practices in general: comment your code, follow a code standard, work as if you will never see your code again, perform code reviews, use good names, etc. Take five minutes to read through Christian’s presentation slides (they’re very readable and comprehensible, even out of context), and then take another five minutes to think about them. JavaScript is a first-class citizen of web development now: let’s treat it as such.

(Note to self: make more use of the BUILD PROCESS.)

“Ajax A Work: A Case Study” by Peter-Paul Koch

Peter-Paul KochPPK wrapped up the day with a case study of a genealogy/family tree application he is building. He walked through the decision processes behind:

  • building the app as an Ajax app in the first place
  • choosing XML instead of JSON (or HTML or CSV) for its data format on the wire
  • deciding on an optimal loading strategy to ensure a highly responsive user experience

Interestingly, PPK was the only speaker who used the “strict” definition of Ajax (i.e. Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) as the basis for his presentation. I didn’t agree with all of the decisions he described, but it was an interesting view anyway. (And besides, it’s not my app 🙂 His write-up of the conference, as well as his slides, can be found on his Quirksmode blog.

Tuesday 20 November

“The State Of Ajax” by Brendan Eich

Brendan EichBrendan Eich is the man who invented JavaScript. There are few mainstream languages that have both been adopted so widely, and dismissed out of hand by so many. In the keynote presentation, Dion and Ben characterised Brendan Eich as wanting to use the JavaScript 2 (ECMAScript 4) spec to “just let him fix his baby”. That’s a pretty crude caricature of Brendan’s position, though. He is very keenly aware of all the problems in JavaScript as it stands right now. (And there are some really big problems.) With JS2 he is trying to take the best bits of JS1, and build a language for the next 5-10 years (or more) of the web.

However: JS2 really is a different language. It adds new syntax, and it will not be compatible with existing interpreters. The other side of the “future of JavaScript” debate wants to see incremental improvements to the current implementation(s), so as to maintain compatibility and not “break the web”–because we’re still going to be stuck with IE6 for a long time to come.

I’m not going to run through the technical guts of all the things going into the JS2 spec–there are just too many of them. Take a look at Brendan’s roadmap blog to get pointers to what’s going on.

“Building Interactive Prototypes with jQuery” by John Resig

John ResigThis presentation did exactly what it said on the tin: an introduction to coding with jQuery. It appears to be compact, simple, expressive, and ideal for a lot of everyday JavaScript work.

“Metaprogramming Javascript” by Dan Webb

Dan WebbDan showed how to use some of JavaScript’s best features (prototypal inheritance, expando properties, using Functions as Objects, etc.) to produce some surprising results. Because of these techniques, JavaScript really is a language that can bootstrap itself into a better language. Very slick.

(See the slides for the presentation on Dan’s site.)

“Dojo 1.0: Great Experiences for Everyone” by Alex Russell

It appears that no @media conference is complete without a doppelgänger. I hope I’m not the only one who sees the obvious resemblance between Alex Russell and Ryan Reynolds. (Photo of Ryan Reynolds shamelessly lifted from Tharpo on Flickr.)

Hollywood star and sex symbol Ryan Reynolds Dojo toolkit lead developer Alex Russell

Alex is the lead developer for the Dojo toolkit. He talks really fast on stage! He is full of energy and seemed eager to share his insights with the audience, even though some of those insights paint a rather depressing picture of the state of the web. Personally, I lapped it up. I think it was the best presentation of the conference. Rather than talking just about Dojo, he discussed among other things:

  • the complexity of web development, and why there is a need for JavaScript libraries/frameworks in the first place
  • the burden of bringing new semantics to the web
  • how the lack of progress and competition is putting the whole open web in jeopardy

You can get the slides for the presentation on Alex’s blog, but without his lively and passionate narrative, they lose a lot of their power. Although he also talked about the technical capabilities of Dojo itself (powerful internationalization features, accessibility already built in to all its widgets, all built on top of a tiny core), it’s the strategic positioning of the toolkit that is going to make me download it and try it out.

“JavaScript: The Good Parts” by Douglas Crockford

Douglas CrockfordDouglas Crockford is one of the people most responsible for bringing JavaScript to its current level of maturity. He invented JSON, and wrote the JSLint checker and JSMin minifier. He reckons that JavaScript is the world’s most misunderstood programming language. His presentation covered some of the best bits, which you probably would not discover on a first glance at the language, such as Lambda expressions, closures, and dynamic objects.

Douglas stands in the opposite camp to Brendan Eich when it comes to evolving JavaScript. He wants to see the language become more secure (very important, given how glaringly insecure it is right now), but he thinks that the radical changes proposed for JS2 are wrong. One of the best parts of JavaScript is its stability: there have been no new design errors in the language since 1999, because that’s how long JS1 has been frozen. (There have been minor iterations to it since then, but nothing on the scale of the fundamental architectural changes that JS2 will bring.) He is still keen on evolving the language, but in a much more gradual way.

One very interesting thing that Douglas briefly mentioned was ADSafe. This is a subset of Javascript, designed for safety: a script built with the ADSafe subset can still perform useful work (it still has access to the DOM, and can make network calls), but it is not allowed to use any of the features that make JavaScript inherently unsafe (e.g. access to global variables, use of eval, etc.). ADSafe is a static checker: you run it to verify the code before you allow the code to appear on a page. If it isn’t safe, you don’t let it run. Google’s Caja works in a different way: it takes untrusted code and transforms it into safe code. To understand the use of these tools, consider Google’s iGoogle home page, where you can have widgets from a variety of sources all running on the same page. Without some kind of safety container, these scripts would have access to each other’s code and capabilities — very dangerous.

(The slides Douglas has on his blog are not quite those he used for this presentation, but they’re close enough.)

Wrap-up panel discussion with Brendan Eich, Stuart Langridge, Alex Russell, Douglas Crockford, and moderated by Jeremy Keith

Brendan EichStuart LangridgeAlex RussellDouglas CrockfordJeremy Keith Jeremy tried to keep this light-hearted, but there was clearly some tension between the panellists. I was pretty tired by this point, though, and the thing I remember most is Alex berating Yahoo! (Douglas) for not open-sourcing the YUI framework and coming together with other toolkit developers to present a unified front to browser vendors. Other subjects that came up included Google Gears (again), how badly CSS sucks (I see their point, but I still like it anyway), and capability-based security (see also The Confused Deputy).

(Jeremy’s has write-ups day 1 and day 2 on the DOM Scripting blog.)


It was a very interesting conference. It didn’t feature as much technical content as I had expected: it was more strategic than tactical. I didn’t mind at all, though, that it wasn’t just about “Ajax”. I love JavaScript, and I came away feeling excited by the amount of activity in the field.

The most important things I took on board:

  • Make more use of the build process
  • Investigate Google Gears – there is a lot of interesting stuff going on there, and it will start making its way into browser implementations soon
  • If you’re doing any kind of JavaScript development beyond simple form validation, you really should be using a library…
  • …probably jQuery…
  • …but Dojo looks REALLY interesting


About four and a half years ago–on the plane to Boston for our 2003 Toad The Wet Sprocket Road Trip, to be precise–my brother Scott asked me a question:

“If you were going to be stranded on an island for the rest of your life, and you could only bring three songs with you, what would they be?”

The question is similar to the classic Desert Island Discs poser, but limited to three songs instead of eight “pieces of music”. Does this make the decision any more difficult? I’m not sure, because I had never considered the question before then, and in the FOUR AND A HALF YEARS since then, my brain has not been able to get past figuring out what those three songs would be. Seriously, I don’t think a month as gone by without me lining up a couple of tentative “THREE” playlists to see how they felt.

At work, I have a reputation for being a “completionist.” I have no idea why.

I have had so much trouble finding the (or at least, “a”) right answer because I live on a diet of new music. I have bought or downloaded 67 CDs so far this year (yay for eMusic). I don’t consider myself a “muso”, but I love variety, and I love falling in love with new sounds and new bands. Being limited to just three tracks for the rest of my life would be a kind of Hell. (Worse than being stuck with nothing but Dutch radio, even.)

So the three tracks have to be really spectacular — songs that I never grow tired of, no matter how often I hear them. Songs that consistently bring a smile to my face, get my blood moving, make me tap my feet and bash the air drums. Tracks with bite, texture, and enough complexity that I still find new things in them even after hundreds of listens. Songs that in thirty years’ time I won’t be cursing my younger self for selecting.

It’s this long-lasting criterion that has made it difficult for me to trust the staying power of recent songs. In fact, the first two tracks I have finally chosen are both from 1971: they’re older than me. I have never known a world without these two tracks in it, and they still sound great. Earlier this year I decided that they were definitely part of THE THREE.

The third track worries me because it’s from 2004 — only three years old. But I really have listened to it over and over again since it was released, and it never sounds anything less than awesome. After all this time dithering over the perfect track list, do I dare commit myself to a lifetime of it? I think I’m finally ready to say yes.


  1. Isaac Hayes – Theme From Shaft
  2. The Who – Won’t Get Fooled Again
  3. Ash – Orpheus

Do I really need to comment on numbers 1 and 2? They’re timeless classics. There is no better funk groove than Shaft, and there has never been a better rock scream than Roger Daltrey’s. But does Ash really stand up there with these greats? I think so.

The sheer energy and joy that pours out of every moment in Orpheus is energizing and infectious. Rick’s drumming is driving and furious, Tim’s yells of “go” and “yeah” launch the second half of the bridge like a starter’s pistol, and Charlotte’s cascading “ooh-ooh-aah-aah” backing vocals give me shivers every time. Crashing guitars, memorable melodic hooks, and possibly best of all for the Desert Island scenario: a sense of escape and freedom.

This is the song that would keep up my hopes of some day getting away.