Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Web standards, browsers, and the future of the Web

Recently, the CSS working group and the W3C in general have come under fire as Opera launches an assault on Microsoft. A counterculture of pro-proprietary technology advocates has risen up against the web standards movement. The web standards crowd has responded with fire and passion, sending up a rallying cry against what they see as a return to the browser wars of the '90s. All of this begs the question - what are we really trying to do with web standards and the Web in general? James Bennett asks the same question, though more eloquently and with greater background than I present here.

The point of the World Wide Web is to provide people with information. It used to be nothing more spectacular than that. The type of information varied - marketing, scientific studies, news, etc. - but it was all information. With the advent of RIA technologies and new usage of the Web, though, that's starting to change. People are starting to do more than just research and purchase on the Web. The lines between desktop applications and web pages are blurring.

With AIR, Flex, JavaFX, Silverlight, and other possible vehicles for innovative usage of the Web proliferating like mad, we are left with the question - what can't we do with the Web? That question is what drives research and innovation in the Web. It doesn't play as much of a factor, though, in industrial and commercial common usage. For example, when was the last time you overheard any non-developer talking about Web 2.0 or rich internet applications? How many people actually know about and use Google Docs? I'd be willing to wager that not many outside our world do. That will change in the future, of course, as clever and useful new technologies frequently are wont to be adopted.

However, it seems that we - that is, web developers and other Internet professionals - often confuse research with production. The development of other new technologies, such as integrated graphene circuits, is kept largely out of the public eye. While not expressly hidden, there is no attempt made to put such bleeding-edge breakthroughs into immediate public usage.

Web standards and the development of proprietary Web technology is slightly different, but not much. Web standards are supposedly akin to such things as the Railway Group Standards in that they make the Web easier and "safer" to use and develop for. By taking away the difficulties inherent in producing for multiple different platforms, web standards allow developers to spend their time innovating in more specific ways.

The problem is that web standards are not keeping up with technological development, and so developers on the cutting edge are not able to utilize new technologies without resorting to proprietary platforms. Many developers give up on web standards so that they can implement the latest and greatest products of the commercial or open source worlds. I personally would love to see XHTML taken beyond its HTML4.01 roots; the WHATWG tends to agree with me on this. However, with the current leadership of web standards, that simply isn't possible.

We need new standards. The W3C is not keeping up with the pace of development, and therefore should either be revamped or replaced.

Monday, December 17, 2007

T-Mobile must be boycotted.

Normally, I don't post more than once a week. However, after reading about T-Mobile's assault on Net Neutrality on Wired, I had to blog about it.

T-Mobile wants to tell you what websites you can visit. We should tell T-Mobile what it can do with its Terms of Service....and take our money elsewhere.

Why Jorn Barger is wrong and the rest of the world is right.

So, as I was browsing the web for a topic for this week's blog post, I came across an article in Wired that really caught my eye. In it, the inventor of blogging, Jorn Barger, talks about what blogging should have been instead of what it has become. He seems to be of the impression that blogs should be, essentially, reports of interesting links the blogger has seen recently.

Sorry Jorn, but that's what and digg are for now.

Blogs these days frequently come in two flavors - personal diaries and explorations of a particular topic. While links play a major role in most of the latter, they are often completely absent in the former. Blogging has gone beyond its humble origins and developed into something akin to a cross between 18th century coffee houses and digital soap boxes.

Blogging is a powerful social medium. It can be a tremendous platform for conversation on just about any topic. My personal favorites, like productivity, fun, and fitness, have endless possibilities for debate, ideas, and plain craziness. It wouldn't be nearly as much fun, though, without the highly social nature of it all. A conversation isn't a conversation if it's a bunch of links.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Fitness full-time

Every day we are inundated with advertisements for Lose Weight Fast diets, exercise regimens, and miracle drugs. Almost all of these products require you to give up a portion of your day to Getting In Shape....or giving up things that you love, like tiramisu.

People two hundred years ago didn't worry about such nonsense. People in other developed nations, like England, France, and New Zealand, don't worry about it either. So why are we obsessed with Diets, Exercise, and Drugs?

It's all because America has shifted from a society of physical activity to one of mental activity. Now, this is not a bad thing in theory...but in practice, it's the root cause of our national obesity epidemic.

So, here's how to get in shape, stay in shape, and actually enjoy it for once. This is targeted primarily towards cubicle zombies, but the philosophy applies to just about everyone.

It's pretty easy. The steps are:

  • Ramp up the activity
  • Choose to avoid one luxury food a week
  • Make food your fuel, not your crutch
  • Play hard
  • Work with your body AND your mind
Ramp up the activity.

If you're going to get in shape, you can't just sit in a chair all day, then go home and sit in front of the TV or computer screen. Whenever you can, be physically active. Make sure that if you're spending a day at the office, you move. For example, the recommendation From Above is to get up and move around once every hour. That's not enough, and it can be jarring if you're in the middle of a great idea. Instead, try to be active constantly. Push your chair back and forth. Stretch frequently. Stand up and walk around your office or, if you're conveniently located in a tiny cube, get creative with the objects at your disposal. Tape dispensers make interesting free weights, as do textbooks. The key here is to ramp up the activity. If you do nothing else in this list, do this.

Choose to avoid one luxury food a week.

Anyone who's tried most of the diets out there knows how hard it is to suddenly go without all your favorite foods. So, instead of cutting out everything right away, go gradual. Make a conscious choice to turn down or avoid one luxury food per week. Luxury foods are usually sweets like candy, muffins, and pastries. Foods with high carb counts are good candidates for the chopping block. If you can't just cut something out entirely, try substituting something healthier. Honey makes a good alternative sweetener. My first Chop was to stop buying cappuccinos every morning. Not only did that give me 300 fewer calories a day, it also saved me about $60 a month. The key here is to go gradual. Losing weight fast isn't important. Losing weight permanently is. That said, some people like Tim Ferriss have done some amazing things with minimal-effort, fast weight loss.

Make food your fuel, not your crutch.

A lot of us enjoy food. It's not just necessary to our survival, it's a social activity. For some, it's a coping mechanism. For others, a passion. Whatever your reason for enjoying food, if you're overweight, you enjoy it just a tad too much. Don't worry, though, because you can still enjoy food and lose weight. All you have to do is make food your fuel, not your crutch.

Always eat after being physically active, not before. Eating before you move is like trying to fill a gas tank when it's already full. Some of you might say, "but I'm hungry and tired! I need to eat before I can get active!" First, if you're tired when you get up in the morning, then you definitely need to be more active physically and less active mentally. There has to be a balance there, as with all things. Starting your day with a jog can be inconvenient for some, so try different ways of getting active right away. If you have trouble waking up in the morning, get creative - replace caffeine with dancing. Yes, dancing. You'd be surprised how well dancing wakes you up. Just make sure you warm up those muscles before doing anything too strenuous or you risk injuring yourself, and that doesn't do anyone any good.

If you're tired in the afternoon, take a nap. Unless you're starving - and by this I mean your stomach feels like it's stabbing itself to death with a spoon - try and avoid snacking. If you're really hungry, eat fruit. Fruit has natural sugar that will restore some of that lost energy. But always, always, always remember - food is fuel. Fuel must be used, not stored.

Play hard.

Instead of sitting down in front of the computer all night after a tough day of being on the computer at work, take up a sport. You heard me. Go to your city's Parks & Rec department and sign up for one of their clubs. If you're a little too heavy at the moment to do this without hurting yourself, then take up dancing. Dancing is easier to do at home and will burn just as many calories as sports. "But my guild in WoW will be angry! I can't just abandon them!" If your guild demands your constant presence every night, all night, then you should think long and hard about whether they have your best interests at heart. Do they care about you, or that AoE heal you just happen to have? There's nothing wrong with playing video games, just as long as they don't make up the totality of your nightly entertainment.

On weekends, take up a project that involves working with your body. Something that involves lifting heavy weight - like, say, helping Habitat for Humanity build houses - can really work wonders. Doing something that ends with a finished product and a continual reminder of progress can do great things for your self-esteem and sense of accomplishment. If you're a code monkey who spends the weekends working on personal coding projects, try the same activities in Ramp up the activity for at home. Since you're in your own space, you can go really nuts.

Work with your body AND your mind.

If you're too heavy on the mental side of the physical-mental seesaw, you need to work harder on the physical side to balance out the equation. If it's winter and you live in the suburbs or in a small town, try shoveling your neighbors' sidewalks for them. It can be hard work, but it'll be rewarding in both your neighbors' reactions and in the physical results you get.

Use that brain of yours to come up with new ways to get your body and your mind working in tandem. Martial arts is a great way to do this. Even yoga at home counts, though the social aspect of training with others can be a wonderful bonus.

If you're concentrating hard on developing your body into something you can be proud of, you'll find that your mind will get healthier too. Your concentration, reaction time, creativity, and overall happiness will spike. That ADD you think you have? That's not ADD. It's just a side effect of not being in shape.


Eat well, play hard, and work hard. Do this all the time, and you'll find yourself improving on a daily basis....without really having to think about it too much, or spending hundreds on a silly fad diet. Go do it.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Liberty vs. Economy: How far can we go?

Freedom. Economics. The two are interconnected on a basic level. Neither can exist while the other languishes.

This is the basic philosophy of libertarianism or "classical liberalism," as some put it. Supporters of the Libertarian Party and its relations vary in their interpretation of this philosophy. Some - in fact, from what I have seen, a good many - wish for total absence of government in the field of the economy. That seems to me to be fallacy.

While the government should not have a strong hand in the economic affairs of its citizens, it should not have no hand at all. Inevitably the government will make mistakes, but that is the nature of human things - we make mistakes, and nothing can change that. The government's hand in the economy is necessary to protect against other human mistakes. While the wisdom of the majority is questionable at times, the process necessary to alter a machine on the scale of the federal government is slow. This allows for "testing periods" that might otherwise be rendered too short by an overzealous legislative process, as is the case in a direct democracy. The rule of the economy by large financial entities - such as corporations - can thus be tempered in its fickle nature by the relatively stable hand of the government.

By the same token, though, we must be watchful that the government does not take too large an interest in the affairs of business. It is far too easy for large tariffs, taxes, or bureaucratical procedures to stifle innovation or competition which might otherwise be beneficial to the health of our nation's economy.

When pressed for a vote on a particular example of this clash of liberty versus economy, one must always, without fail, closely examine as many of the major consequences as is feasible before making a determination. Voting on party lines or by rhetoric alone - be it libertarian, neoconservative, or liberal - is to invite disaster on an epic scale. Such, I fear, is the case with our current financial situation in the United States. I imagine that the collapse of the subprime market, the increase in the price of gasoline and its attendant effects, and the subsequent slowing of the American economy can be traced to poor decisions in the balancing act of liberty and economy.

Sometimes, the liberty of business needs to take a back seat to governmental interference in the machine - and sometimes, the reverse is true.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Second Life, MMORPGs, and Conversation

So, I reactivated my old Second Life account to do some building work for my dad at Baker College. He's started a virtual space for Baker College in Second Life called Baker Island. It's apparently a research exercise in the vein of human-computer interaction, and I've been tasked with building a café for all the virtually-hungry students that come calling.

As I wandered around Second Life's many shops and freebie areas looking for resources to help build the café, I noticed an overwhelming number of people running around....but not talking. There was very little chatter in the public chat, and little chatter in the rather large groups I belong to. So, while there is a large number of users in these shopping areas - ostensibly the most populous regions in Second Life - there was almost no social interaction.

Compare this to World of Warcraft, the largest Western MMORPG in terms of paying subscribers. Everywhere you go, there is inevitably a dirth of conversation. People form groups, raids, and arena teams...not to mention guilds. There is a constant loud presence in larger areas like Orgrimmar and the Crossroads.

So why does Second Life have so little person-to-person interaction, while World of Warcraft (and other MMORPGs) has so much?

I've noticed in my many gaming adventures online that the more of a sandbox a virtual world or game is, the less chatter there is. The more there is to do, the more likely it seems that people want to concentrate on doing things rather than talking. EVE: Online is an unusual example - plenty of conversation, but a sandbox environment. This one can be rationalized by pointing out that in EVE there are a large number of activities that are heavy on downtime - travel, for instance. Plenty of time to do nothing but wait and, if there are others around waiting, talk.

On the other side of things, games like Team Fortress 2 that are filled with highly attention-intensive activities prevent chatter by engaging players constantly. While the number of possible activities doesn't match, say, Second Life, the sheer percentage of the players' brains that must be devoted to normal game activities tends to outweigh the conversational side.

So, really, could you say that the amount of chatting going on is directly proportional to the boredom factor of the game? It's possible. It's very possible.

Developers would do well to take note of this fact when designing online games.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Stream of consciousness part 1: the Internet

What follows is a completely unfiltered and unedited post on the subject of the nature of the Internet. This is the first part of an experiment I'm trying on what is popularly called "stream of consciousness" or "free writing." Perhaps you will find something interesting and comment-worthy; perhaps not. Such is the nature of an experiment.

A commentary on programming and the web.

Java, JavaScript, AJAX, C++, .NET, ASP, all these things are just different languages that achieve roughly the same end. That end is to produce something or to explore something, two verbs with ubiquitous usage throughout history if only in concept.

The web, or more accurately the internet, is a social medium. Unlike other forms of communication such as artwork or books, the internet is by and large two-way. This has given rise to the concept of Web 2.0. Web 2.0 is something of a misnomer, though - the Web has always wanted to be a vehicle for large scale communication. This blog is an example of that. The earliest versions of the Internet incorporated email and bulletin board systems. Nothing revolutionary in that, either; it just meant faster communication.

So then, combining the production of stuff - using programming languages - and the distribution of stuff (since distribution is a social action), the Web is nothing more than an extension of the real world. It's not particularly fascinating nor particularly original, but it allows us to interact with more people than might otherwise be possible.

Something that, then, follows from this is that people will through communication on a larger scale acquire a larger number of experiences and points of view. Through this, more thought is generated, ultimately speeding up the discovery process.

Interestingly, the Internet can overcome some traditional barriers of communication and thereby promote freedom. Certainly the Internet has been a godsend for the libertarian line of thought. It has also been highly useful to people like those from Myanmar. By the same token though, it has also enabled the more extreme edges of society to have a bigger voice. Disturbing behaviors and lines of thought are present on the Web where they would not be tolerated in more antiquated types of communication and literature, such as libraries.

Imagine, if the speed and reach of the Internet is what has revolutionized the way society interacts....what would society be like if we were all telepathic?

Monday, November 5, 2007

Live free. Live open source.

In today's digital, global community, many of the old rules no longer apply. One of these is the way in which we get access to and use common everyday information and media. The old way was to do things like buy a CD at a music store, check out a book on writing resumes at the public library, or pay someone $60 an hour to teach you how to play guitar.

The world has changed.

Now, we download songs through GarageBand, read online resume writing guides found through Google, and learn guitar through instructional videos on YouTube. It's all available freely and instantly, and much of it is open source or public domain. We're in an age of open source living. And it doesn't have to be restricted to purely online things.

Open source living is using products and services provided in a collaborative, unrestricted way. It's all about freedom of choice and freedom of creativity.

Some examples of open source living:

  • living in 1-month, open lease rental apartments

  • using computers with easily replaceable and customizable innards

  • having a jam session with a couple local musicians

  • choosing open-dialogue farm products over supermarket-bought ones

  • writing a book, then making it available to everyone using Creative Commons license - whether free or for profit

  • and so on!

Besides promoting the free exchange of ideas, open source living is also frequently cheaper and more fun than what I called "lock-in living." For example, say you buy a voice for a season in an open-dialogue farm. The costs vary but are usually pretty cheap, since these farms are smaller and don't have to worry about specific crop quotas like the big farms do. Since you've got a voice, you can choose one or more products for them to grow, and you get a portion of everything they make for a season.

Another example is choosing open-license music over licensed music. The artists gain prestige, exposure, and input - and sometimes event gigs - and the consumers enjoy themselves. While open source doesn't mean completely free, it usually provides greater freedom of choice.

Things that go hand-in-hand with open source living are alternative medicine and alternative energy sources. Solar power and herbal medicines in particular are very "open source" in nature, since instructions and discussions regarding them are easily found online. A Google search for renewable energy will turn up scores of sites about alternative energy sources, and a search for holistic medicine will find you plenty of natural alternatives to the drugs pushed by pharmaceutical companies. Keep in mind, though, that not all medicines are created equal, and you should be very careful about what you do to your body!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Partisanship is vile. What loss to this country...

Seriously. I see Republicans railing on Democrats and Democrats railing on Republicans. The fighting and partisanship is completely at odds with what our forefathers intended. Benjamin Franklin must be turning in his grave at the extreme partisanship that many Americans today profess.

I do not belong to a political party. Neither should you. This is not because I am Right and you are Wrong; rather, it is a simple matter of reason. Political parties inherently divide people into differing camps of rhetoric. This is self-evident. Also self-evident is that rhetoric snuffs out free thought and discussion.

For this reason, every time I see someone who proudly declares that they belong to one party or other, I will shake my head sadly at the sorrow state of our once great nation. Powerful we have become, but divisive and hostile. So sad, and so unnecessary.

Here are a few action items for you to help improve the political climate of our country:

  • Print and distribute flyers promoting nonpartisan discussion of an issue important to you.
  • Start a discussion club at your local coffee house.
  • Unregister yourself as a member of the political party you presently belong to.
  • Pick one hot issue and start a blog about it. Discuss all possible repercussions it could have.
  • Invite your family and friends to switch parties for a single month and give themselves wholeheartedly to the opposing lines of thought. Don't vote during this experiment though!
  • Read one of Benjamin Franklin's works. There are many, and your local library will have at least one.
  • Start a newsletter for your town that promotes nonpartisan exploration of issues.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

True open source - death of the individual or celebration of individualism?

Many, many people speak glowingly of the benefits of open source software. A growing movement also seeks to make a great many other things "open source" - from the file-sharing freedom fighters at FreeCulture.Org to the unusual licensing of the newest editions of Dungeons & Dragons. Libertarianism and the concept of freely available content appears to be on the rise. However, is this necessarily a good thing? What of individualism and ego, concepts central to Western culture?

Before the Internet and the World Wide Web enabled easy, free sharing of information and data, the individual had two primary levels of protection for his works. First was copyright law, which prior to 1976 and the introduction of Fair Use was a strong wall against unlicensed propogation of content. The other was the simple and undeniable fact that content could simply not be transmitted with any reasonable speed or transparency. The advent of Betamax and the subsequent legal turmoil ended up making unlicensed (and also, licensed) distribution of content much easier.

The recent case by Regal Cinemas against Jhannet Sejas highlights a similar paranoia by an industry juggernaut targeted against a consumer and potential distributor. Ignoring the legal implications of the Regal v. Sejas case (that the possibility of infringement is equal to infringement in the eyes of the law), these kinds of events demonstrate growing pains inherent in the development of an entirely new socioeconomic system. Instead of the traditional producer-distributor-consumer model prevalent throughout the past few hundred years, we are now presented with a direct producer-consumer model - or, in some cases, a consumer-consumer model, whereby the individuality of the producer is apparently cut out of the picture.

And that, my friends, is the crux of this post. Does the removal of the producer from the cycle and the distribution and modification by consumers of their works remove the individualism from the quotient?

For my part, I say no. In fact, it seems to me that rather than removing individualism, it promotes it - albeit in a slightly different form. After all, the concept of inventor-as-hero is a fallacy, with most inventions actually developing from several different points at several different rates. Ely Whitney, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and similar inventors - while important - were not absolutely critical to the development of the technologies they became famous for. They simply became standard bearers.

Similarly, the advent of open source society is not going to crush individualism. Rather, it will promote the free exchange of ideas and, thereby, accelerate the process at which these producer-heroes arise. Further, with the free flow of information, their fame will spread far more rapidly than did their cultural predecessors'. Linus Torvalds and Matt Mullenweg are prime examples of this.

So lead on, brave open source pioneers, and may your paths be paved with cookies. Yours is the cause of freedom and of the future.