Back from @Media 2006

@Media 2006 logoI’m back from the rather splendid @Media 2006 conference. I’d been looking forward to this for months, and it didn’t disappoint. Here’s a quick run-down of the sessions I went to:


Keynote presentation by Eric Meyer

Eric Meyer A highly entertaining, informative, and impassioned view of the birth and first decade of CSS. For those of us who have been doing this web thing for a while (1996, me), it was a trip down memory lane. Like many retrospectives, I found this half scary, and half reassuring: scary, because so many milestones that are vivid in my mind can now be classified as “quite a long time ago”, but reassuring because it reminded me how much more I know now than I did back then. If the years had passed and I hadn’t learned anything, now that would be something to worry about.

Eric Meyer is a great speaker, and this was an excellent opening to the conference.

“Good Design vs. Great Design”, with Jon Hicks, Cameron Moll, and Veerle Pieters

Jon HicksCameron MollVeerle PietersThis panel didn’t quite measure up to my expectations. Nothing to do with the quality of the speakers, mind–just that it would have been better titled, “Practical Design Tips”. Jon, Cameron and Veerle each took an area of design (typography, grids, colours), and explained some of the intricacies behind them. Although the techniques they described are undeniably important and useful to folk like me with the design sense of your average HB pencil, they never tackled the issue of “good” vs. “great”. It’s impossible to bottle genius, so I wasn’t expecting a masterclass on how to do “great” design, but I had hoped they would spend more time talking about specific examples, and explaining what made those examples extraordinary.

“IE: 7 and Beyond” by Chris Wilson

Chris Wilson Chris Wilson is Microsoft’s Program Manager for Internet Explorer (you know, that browser you used to use). He talked about a lot of the cool features that will be in IE7; none so interesting to the audience, though, as the improved standards support. Web designers and developers love to hate IE, because it has been so damned frustrating. When IE6 launched, it was the best browser available. Now, it lags behind everything else, but it’s still the browser that 85% of the world uses. Grr! It’s holding us back!

But you know what? IE7 is looking pretty good. And Microsoft isn’t going to sit on their hands after 7, either. Chris said that there is a roadmap in place for at least two more versions. That’s cool. I could be wrong, but the vibe I got from the audience was a kind of grudging respect. The biggest downer was the knowledge that no matter how good IE7 is, it’s still going to take several more years for IE6 to die.

“The New Accessibility Guidelines: WCAG 2.0” with Andy Clarke, Patrick Lauke, Gez Lemon, and Ian Lloyd

Andy ClarkePatrick LaukeGez LemonIan LloydI’d secretly been hoping to see a lot more sparks fly at this panel after Joe Clarke’s “To Hell With WCAG 2” article, but it turned out to be calm and relatively informative affair. However, even the panel admitted that the new guidelines are vast, unwieldy, and confusing. There’s going to be a lengthy shakedown period after the final document is issued.

Designing The Next Generation Of Web Apps” by Jeffrey Veen

Jeffrey VeenJeffrey Veen is a dynamic, enthusiastic, and inspiring speaker. (He is also REALLY TALL.) In his (beautifully designed) presentation, he covered much of the core of Jesse James Garrett’s book The Elements Of User Experience, and showed how the cutting-edge web apps of today are heralding a fundamental change in the way web sites are designed and built. The individual aspects he touched on were all well-understood in isolation, but the way he put them together into a coherent whole was clear and powerful. I came away from this presentation feeling energized and excited.

Other notes on Thursday

The QEII Conference Centre is situated in the heart of Westminster. Westminster Abbey is across the road, the Houses Of Parliament are round the corner, and the London Eye is a hop, skip and a jump away. Location-wise, it’s fabulous. Its catering, somewhat less so. Lunch was an uninspiring half buffet/half hot food affair with loooooong queues. Also, no vending machines for grabbing a bottle of something cold to drink. It did, however, have free wi-fi throughout, and an assortment of power sockets for recharging laptops. I’m glad I didn’t bring my laptop, though, because it would have felt quite thoroughly out of place amongst all the iBooks and MacBooks. (I’d guess that about 80-90% of all the laptops there were Macs.)

Also, pretty much all of the speakers were using Macs for their presentations. Hardly surprising given the audience, but I’d never seen Keynote in action before. In the hands of a good speaker/designer (like Jeffrey Veen): wow.

Drink dropsBy the end of the day I was thoroughly exhausted, and I never made it to the social event in the evening to use my Drink Drops (“Magical drops that can be exchanged for drinks at the bar!”). The Drink Drops were an amusing part of the conference welcome pack, which came stuffed in a nice messenger bag. The other thing I found disproportionately pleasing was that the delegate badges/name tags were printed on both sides, so that no matter how your lanyard twisted, your name was always visible. Nice touch.

Presentations I wish I’d seen: Jeremy Keith on DOM Scripting. Fortunately, I think Vivabit will be releasing podcasts of the sessions at some point in the future, so I’ll be able to catch it later.


Initial notes on Friday

A mobile phone’s alarm ringtone is not enough to wake me up reliably. Bah. Fortunately, my hotel was only a ten minute jog away from the venue.

“Bulletproof Web Design” by Dan Cedarholm

Dan CedarholmA look at how to make sure your site design works no matter how the user chooses to view it. Good, solid advice. Come Q&A time, some of the audience didn’t quite realize that it was a presentation, and not an opportunity for Dan to fix their specific site design problems, though.

“Javascript Libraries: Friend or Foe?” with Cameron Adams, Peter-Paul Koch, Stuart Langridge, Dan Webb, and Simon Willison

Cameron AdamsPeter-Paul KochStuart LangridgeDan WebbSimon WillisonAfter experimenting with Prototype for a while, most of my recent work has been done with the Yahoo! UI Library, and I was curious to see how the panel would line up. Answer: there is still a significant level of skepticism towards using any of these new-fangled libraries at all. Apart from that, there doesn’t seem to be a clear favourite. I got the impression that YUI is possibly the least likely to offend anyone’s sensibilities, but I also think I need to spend some time with Dojo and Mochikit. Prototype…out of favour?

“Mobile Web Design” by Cameron Moll

Cameron MollI got the timing wrong for this slot, and I missed the first half. The second half was good, though. Main message: mobile design is about more than just trying to squeeze your site onto a small screen; it’s about customzing your site to deliver content and functionality that is appropriate to the user’s context. If you’re on the move, and using a web app from a mobile phone, do you really need all the bells and whistles? Or just a cut-down set of features, possibly already tailored to your current GPS co-ordinates? Much to think about here in this space.

Also, Cameron Moll? Sharpest-dressed man at the conference. Green shirt with green tie? Sharp.

“Strategic CSS Management” with Rachel Andrew, Roger Johannson, and Bruce Campbell Dave Shea

HOLY SHIT IT’S BRUCE CAMPBELL! WHAT’S BRUCE CAMPBELL DOING AT A WEB CONFERE… Oh wait–it’s his identical twin brother Dave Shea.

Cult actor and writer, Bruce Campbell. Web designer and founder of the CSS Zen Garden, Dave Shea.

I was looking forward to this panel because I regularly deal with projects that have lots of pages with very different style and layout requirements–and how do you keep your CSS organized? Do you use multiple files (possibly in multiple folders), or keep all your rules in a single file, and make sure everything is properly tagged and commented? The panel discussed a variety of techniques, but they varied wildly in which ones they preferred. I came away with a few new good tips, though. (In particular, Dave Shea’s idea for indenting comments.)

“Microformats: Evolving The Web” by Tantek Çelik

Tantek ÇelikThe first contact I had with Microformats was last year, when I started using XFN for marking up the links in my blog sidebar. The number of formats has grown substantially since then, and the whole idea has been gaining momentum. (Tantek works for Technorati, and they now have a microformats search.)

For me, this was the most exciting and eye-opening presentation at the conference. In fact, it was a HOLY SHIT moment. Microformats are the next practical step for the semantic web. Semantic markup is now pretty well established, and tags have made metadata cool again. Microformats are now adding extra meaning to ordinary markup without having to resort to embedded RDF. (Although Tantek pointed out that microformats, being XHTML, can be transformed into RDF. So if you want it, it’s there.) Ironically, they are going to be huge, REAL SOON NOW. Time to get with the program.

“Hot Topics” with Molly Holzschlag, Jon Hicks, Jeremy Keith, Eric Meyer, and Tantek Çelik

Molly HolzschlagJon HicksJeremy KeithEric MeyerTantek ÇelikA relaxed and funny look at some of the interesting topics that came up over the course of the conference. The most interesting question came right at the very end, and was “Which developments in the web world are going to make a big impact in the coming year?”, to which the most-voiced answers were “Mashups” and “Microformats”.

(And Eric, the guy three rows back in the green T-shirt you startled by shouting “YOU!” when you wanted another vote from the audience? (“Yes, YOU!”) That was me. I think I was right to be afraid…very afraid…)

Other notes on Friday

Presentations I wish I’d seen: Nate Koechly on Yahoo!

After having missed the Thursday evening social, I really ought to have gone along to the wrap-up party, but I was pooped. I’m not very good at meeting new people (I have given some thought to getting a T-shirt printed up with “I’m shy; please talk to me” on it for occasions like this), and what I really wanted to do was have a nice relaxing wander around London in the early evening sunshine. This I did, and it was very pleasant.

Overall, it was an excellent conference. It has given me plenty to think about, and I certainly hope to be around for next year’s event.

(Speaker images shamelessly lifted from the @Media speakers page.)


About half-way through Elizabeth Bear’s novel Scardown, two characters talk about how merely “good” is not enough any more:

“You ever think about how much better you have to be at something now than you did two hundred years ago?”

“What do you mean?” Koske turned around and leaned his butt against the wall. The mocha was okay as long as he let himself drink it on automatic, without trying to taste it.

“Say in nineteen hundred, or whatever, before there was television and radio.”

“There was radio in nineteen hundred,” Koske corrected, but he wasn’t sure after he’d said it.

“Whatever. The point is, you’re a singer in the year whatever, and you’re a pretty good singer, and you make a pretty good living at local bard or singing on street corners or at fairs or whatever. And suddenly somebody invents the radio, and you don’t have to be the best singer in the town anymore. Now you have to be the best singer in the country. And then you have television, and you have to be the best singer in the world. And you have to be pretty, too, and look good on camera.”

Koske realized he’d finished his mocha and folded the cup into the recycler. “Okay.”

“So a lot of people are frustrated, and go to work making widgets or whatever, because everybody in the world has access to the, like, ten best singers anywhere.”

There’s a whole bunch of context around this exchange–interpersonal and international rivalries abound. The main speaker (Lt. Chris Ramirez) is a covert agent of the Chinese government trying to subvert Trevor Koske to his cause. Koske has been edged out of the first pilot slot on the starship Montreal by nano-enhanced Jenny Casey, and he is somewhat bitter about this. Ramirez is using the above line of reasoning to lead in to the idea that the Chinese socio-political system has its advantages over the free-for-all corporatized Western democracy they live in.

[Ramirez] “…What I’m saying is in the old system, people who had a gift were nurtured. Even if they weren’t the best in the world. And PanChina has protocols that take the place of that sort of nurturing–“

“–creche environments for kids, parental visits on weekends.”

“There’s an old political philosophy…do you know any history, Trev?”

Trvor snorted and kicked his heel against the wall. “Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs.”

“Have you ever heard the expression from each according to his ability, to each according to his need?”

“Can’t say I have. Why?”

Ramirez shrugged and moved to the dispenser to refresh his drink. “It’s the boiled-down version of a discredited political philosophy. One that was the root of the PanChinese system, several revolutions ago. They also believe in individual service to the state, and state service to the individual. It doesn’t seem like a bad ideology to me. I think more people can excel, given the kind of support you see on a village level rather than worldwide competition. And I think people should be given a chance to just be good at something, and live their lives. Instead we’ve got a world full of unhappy people in dead-end jobs medicating themselves to stay sane.”

Wouldn’t it be nice not to have to be the best to be recognized?

Do you ever feel like that? I know I do. On the net, you’re constantly exposed to the best that is available in the digital medium. The best in blogs, the best in podcasts, the best in software, coding, and digital design. And if you live your life in the net, as more and more people do, then you are not only aware of these ultimates, but you and your efforts stand side-by-side with them.

In my professional field (web development) you have to be up to speed with a great many skills and technologies these days, and all of these technologies are represented on the net by an abundance of masters and experts. You want a Javascript expert? Go see Peter-Paul Koch, Dean Edwards, or Thomas Fuchs. Need a CSS/Web standards guru? Check out Eric Meyer, Molly Holzschlag, Dave Shea or any number of others I could mention. You want graphic design, ASP.NET, python, ruby, or any other kind of speciality under the sun? Take your pick. They’re all out there, just a google away.

(It’s not just software, either. If you’re a writer, you’re going to be a long time hunting for a field that isn’t already covered by a dozen high-profile bloggers sucking up most of the traffic for it. Anyone whose craft involves shifting bits is sooner or later going to come up against the phenomenon of the long tail, the modern equivalent of the 80/20 rule: 20% of sites get 80% or the attention–or customers, or recognition, or whatever.)

The constant visibility and proximity of excellence is both enormously valuable, and tremendously intimidating. Because world-class excellence is what I have to measure myself against. Sometimes this is a great spur onwards, but often it just feels like great pressure. To perform at that level, and to be recognized as one of the elite (you know who you are), takes a lot of effort. And the fact that I haven’t yet reached those heights feels like failure.

But not only that: because web development is such a fast-moving field, the very act of keeping up with all the latest developments can seem like a full time job, and a black hole down which all my spare time is doomed to disappear.

So here’s another quote to counterbalance the first one. It’s from Lois McMaster Bujold’s novel Paladin Of Souls:

“There is this, about being the sparring partner of the best swordsman in Caribastos. I always lost. But if I ever meet the third best swordsman in Caribastos, he’s going to be in very deep trouble.”

This isn’t an argument in favour of mediocrity, or for not striving to be the best. Rather, it’s a caution to occasionally stop looking forward all the time, and to take a step back and look at what you have achieved already. Second best is usually still damn good.

Lately I’ve been finding myself in the blinkered, forward-looking mindset. I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by technologies I feel I ought to be learning, by projects I should be working on, by articles I should be writing, by films I should be seeing, and on and on. I’ve been overloading myself with goals and targets. I’ve been living for the future: planning ahead for what I’ll do after this meeting, what I’ll do when I get home from work, when the kids are in bed, when I’ve got this piece of software up and running, when I’ve finished this project….

It’s time for me to spend some more time in the now, enjoying things that don’t have purpose other than that they’re fun. I need to spend less time in Bloglines, and more time playing games. Less time on my PC, and more time in bed, getting lots of sleep. I’ve got some holiday coming up in a couple of weeks, and I’m going to try and do as little as possible in my time off. Yeah.

Software frenzy continues

New stuff not on my PC is ProfiMail, an email client for my Nokia 6680 phone, and Ta-da Lists, a to-do lists web app from 37 Signals.

Profimail is a lovely little app that makes great use of small fonts to squeeze a whole heap of emaily goodness onto a small screen. Multiple email accounts, POP3 and IMAP, predictive text–everything you’d expect from a mobile phone email client. Most of the clients I work at here in Edinburgh (large financial institutions) quite sensibly block standard email ports at the firewall, but they also block access to all webmail over HTTP. Having email on my phone means I can read my mail during the day, even if replying to it with just a numeric keypad is a bit of a pain. Can’t live without this any more.

Ta-da Lists is to-do lists over the web. That’s all. Nothing fancy, just a really smooth experience. If you want more sophisticated lists and note-taking capabilities, you can move up to Backpack, but I’m having enough trouble coping with the idea that I’m using any form of to-do list at all that the cognitive shock of using a more sophisticated tool would probably kill me.

It’s the whole “Getting Things Done” thing, you see. I have a severe allergic reaction to motivational speaking, and the GTD movement has hijacked a simple organizational tool and turned it into a cult of productivity. Thoughts of starting up a counter-movement under the “Letting Things SlideTM” banner have been running wild in my imagination. I’ve considered registering the domain “” and using it as a staging post for gathering tips on how to waste time, procrastinate, and generally loaf about aimlessly, but then I realized that actually getting it together to do so would be a horrific betrayal of the intended site’s basic principles. So I haven’t.

Nevertheless, in order to properly enjoy the benefits of structured procrastination, you need to have some way of keeping track of what you’re putting off. And sending myself emails to and from my home and work accounts to keep myself informed just wasn’t cutting it any more. Hence: Ta-da lists. It has the benefit of coming from the hands of 37Signals who build some wicked cool stuff, and really, really understand the web.

I can almost consider it as research into the current state of the art of web apps. Call it an antihistamine for the soul.

Unusual .UK subdomains

I thought that all .uk net addresses were further scoped by an appropriate second-level domain, e.g. “” for companies, “” for academic institutions, “” for governmenty-type stuff, but apparently not: I mis-typed my shortcut for Bloglines yesterday, and ended up at the British Library, which is just “”.

There are a few other anomalous British second-level domains floating around, such as “” for the National Library of Scotland, and “” for the National Engineering Laboratory. From this page at Nominet (the people who run the .uk top-level domain), it looks like they were created before the .uk structure was formalised.

That’s your piece of trivia for the day.

A9 search

Amazon has been pumping up its A9 search engine this week. It’s been getting stacks of press, and I even noticed this evening that an A9 search box has replaced the standard Google search box over at IMDB. (Probably not surprising, since Amazon owns IMDB, too.)

I remember taking a look at A9 when they soft-launched the beta earlier this year, and thinking, “meh.” Looking at it now, though, they’ve really thrown some coals on the fire. Multiple lists of search results on a single page make it a power searcher’s dream. It makes heavy use of personalisation, automatically keeping track of your search history. And if you install the A9 toolbar, it will even provide the “Personal Search” functionality I was so interested in having back in February:

“With the A9 Toolbar all your web browsing history will be stored, allowing you (and only you!) to retrieve it at any time and even search it”

The only problem is, now that it’s here, I feel somewhat reluctant to actually use it.

Amazon are quite up-front about what they’re going to do with people’s A9 browser history: they’re going to correlate it with their Amazon customer history to improve the customer experience they provide. Their privacy policy says pretty unambigiously:


I was a little bit freaked out when I visited A9 earlier in the week and found the “Hello Mr Martin Sutherland” welcome message at the top of the screen. I didn’t remember ever signing up with A9, and a quick look through my password safe showed that I didn’t have a separate user name for it. But because A9 is an Amazon subsidiary, they share their cookies, and so they can use my Amazon login to identify me.

Cross-domain cookie sharing is often considered a bad thing, because it indicates information leakage. How happy are you if Company X decides to suddenly share your private information with Company Y without notifying you–even if you had previously agreed to their privacy policy? (Though probably without reading it.)

A9 is a wholly owned Amazon subsidiary, so technically they are the same company. Also, I like, trust and respect Amazon as a company. (Heck, I applied to–and still want to–work for them.) Put together, these two statements should generate a nice bit of syllogistic synergy to give me warm fuzzies about A9. But they don’t. There’s something about the relationship, and the sharing of personal information that makes me feel…icky.

It’s hard to quantify exactly where the Ick Factor starts. I’m happy enough to leave Amazon in custody of all my book, music, and DVD browsing and shopping information. I have absolutely no problem with that. In fact, I want them to use it to improve my shopping experience.

But also giving them access to all my search history, and potentially all my browsing history? Um, no.

I think that A9 recognizes this. In addition to their fully personalised site, they also offer, an anonymous version of the search engine. You still get the multiple search panels, but they don’t tie your searching back to a specific identity.

But is the non-personalised search really that much better than, say, raw Google? I think it’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” case. Without personalisation, A9 is only an evolutionary step in terms of search; but with personalisation they go too far.

So why don’t I have the same icky feeling about Google, which I’ve been using almost exclusively for several years now, and which also has the ability to track its users’ search history? Well, I kind of do when it comes to Orkut, their social networking service. And this is, I think, the crux of the matter: I am happy enough entrusting specific chunks of my on-line life to specific companies. It’s when they start clubbing together to aggregate my personal information that it all becomes icky.

And then we’re back at national identity cards. Sigh.

We’re only a decade or so into the Internet Age, and there’s still a long way to go in terms of clarifying mores and defining a social contract between individuals and collective entities. This is all going to be really big and important over the next ten years, isn’t it?

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