This Conversation Never Happened

‘Tis the day before Thanksgiving, and I expect the office will be deserted. One thing I know for sure is that all my fellow tech writers have decided to take a vacation day. My boss’s parting words were, “Hold down the fort.” She left off the “comma, kid” at the end, thank goodness.

Of course holding down the fort won’t be too difficult; even a lone tech writer can be awfully intimidating. Case in point: a few weeks ago, I ran into one of our senior engineers in the hallway. “Hey, did you send me a review copy of your new guide?” he asked.

“Oops,” I said. “You were supposed to be on the list, but I completely forgot. Sorry about that. I’ll email you a copy.”

His face fell. “No no,” he said, backing away slowly, “No need for that…” And with that, he turned and fled. “This conversation never happened!”

Linkdump: Ethics and Other Obsolete Things

Today’s linkdump is brought to you by Simon Willison. Simon, now my list of links links to your list of lists of links.

  • Wilcox High School sacrifices its football season on principle. “He said, flat out, a rule was broken and even though it’s not our fault we’d have to pay the consequences,” senior captain Anthony Reyes said of [Coach] Freitas’ address to the team. “It broke my heart. I’ve been waiting for this for four years. We were on top of everything, and it all got swept away.”

    I agree, it truly is heartbreaking. But at the end of the day, this is a time to be more proud of our alma mater than ever.

  • History of FrameMaker. I had no idea that Sun Microsystems had such a significant role in FrameMaker’s early history. Incidentally, reliable sources report that Sun has dropped internal support for FrameMaker on Solaris and is forcing its tech writers to move to StarOffice. Speaking for all my fellow tech writers, I think this is a fabulous idea. Now Sun will need twice the number of writers to accomplish the same amount of work. Ladies and gentlemen, send in those resumes!

  • The Wingnut Debate Dictionary. Cute, but I like the Devil’s Dictionary 2.0 a bit better.

  • The RCA SelectaVision VideoDisc Web Site. My family rarely makes good technology choices. Case in point: the RCA VideoDisc player. Back in the day, you had two choices for watching movies at home: videotapes, and videodiscs (not to be confused with another dead technology, laser discs). Videodiscs had a number of disadvantages. They were far bulkier than tapes. You couldn’t record on them. They held less than an hour of material per side, which meant that halfway through the movie, you’d have to get up and flip the disk.[1](This was back before the days of the remote control, so we didn’t mind so much.) The VideoDisc player’s main advantage was that it cost about a third of what a video tape player did. Unfortunately that cost advantage evaporated in a few short years, and with it, the VideoDisk player market. I should note that my family did clean up when all the video stores started dumping their discs for $1-2 a piece. My folks still have the player, and for all I know it still works. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad investment after all.

  • Analysis of the Voyager Record (hat tip: my second cousin Andrew). How do you convince an alien race that they’re holding an artifact produced by another intelligent species? That Carl Sagan was one smart cookie. Plus he looked sharp in a turtleneck.

1. I remember that when I watched the Count of Monte Cristo, I accidentally started the movie on side 2 of disc 1. I spent most of the movie wondering, “Who is this mysterious Count of Monte Cristo? And why is he so pissed off?” I had completely skipped the whole Chateau D’If / Edmund Dantes part. Come to think of it, this might be the preferred way to see the Count of Monte Cristo.

But They’re Doing It In Shelbyville!

Huh. Well, that was… something. Is it too late to come up with a Return of the King stylesheet?[1]

A few months ago, I decided to experiment with opening up comments. The experiment has turned out to be a lot of fun, a great success… and yet it has also brought its share of headaches, in the form of comment spam. Fortunately I don’t get a lot of comment spam, but it sure is annoying to clean up these little nastygrams.

It just so happens that earlier this week, on the very day I was grumbling and going through my ritual cleansing-of-the-comments, GMSV pointed to a somewhat relevant Business Week article by e-marketeer Christopher Kenton. The article argues that California’s new opt-in antispam law will hurt small businesses. Unfortunately, Mr. Kenton had difficulty switching his writing style from “marketing whitepaper” to “editorial article”. But it’s hard to blame him for this — there are some unfortunates who simply don’t have an off switch for that kind of blather, and so it falls on the rest of us to be patient and understanding. We can only hope that for the sake of his family, he at least leaves it at the office.

Anyway, if you slog though Kenton’s dismal prose, his editorial boils down to two points:

  1. The California anti-spam law will crush entrepreneurs, because it causes small startups to lose a powerful and inexpensive marketing tool.

  2. The California anti-spam law can’t be enforced anyway, because the spammers will just move out of the state.

The first argument is rather charming, in a musty sort of way. It reminds me of Late Medieval and Early Renaissance scholars, pondering the ruins of the Ancient World. “The Ancients were Giants among Men!” goes this line of thinking. “How can we hope to match their achievements? They built the Pyramids! They wrote the Illiad! They somehow managed to sell their products and services without resorting to unsolicited email!” How were such ingenious feats possible? I suppose Mr. Kenton is free to argue that the small businesses of 2003 are demonstrably more stupid and feeble than the small businesses of 1993. I guess I just have considerably more faith in the American entrepreneur than he does.

The second argument brings to mind another analogy. Imagine a large freshwater lake that is ringed by a number of small towns, each of which is dumping its wastewater into the lake. The water is becoming undrinkable, and something has to be done. Let’s say that the citizens of Springfield pass a law banning the dumping of untreated water into the lake. Now imagine you’re at a council meeting at one of the other towns, debating the merits of the brand-new Springfield law. A man stands up and says, “Why the heck should we ban the dumping of wastewater? Even if we do, they’ll still be doing it in Shelbyville!”

And so the argument goes. If you make a strict law banning unsolicited email in California, the spammers will just move out and spam us from somewhere else, like Nebraska. If Nebraska passes an equally strict law, then the spammers will run off to Europe. Except wait-a-minute — the European Union already has a strict anti-spam law. Okay then, they’ll set up shop in China and Russia…

But see, the problem with being Shelbyville (oops, I mean China and Russia) is the following: once the majority of people recognize a problem and start to agree on legislation for solving it, they tend to get annoyed with groups of people who don’t follow suit. And ve hav vays uv making you follow suit. In the world of Springfield and Shelbyville, this means honking and giving the finger to Shelbyville drivers as you pass them. In the world of international relations, it means something else, like angry communiques and threats of trade sanctions. If you want to participate fully in the world economy, the other countries have mechanisms for applying pressure until you bring yourself up to international standards. True, these mechanisms are slow and imperfect. But the issue in this case is whether such laws can spread fast enough to prevent email as a mode of communication from melting down completely. The issue certainly isn’t about whether we should waste our time dithering and whinging and making excuses for our own bad behavior.

Of course the main hole in the international-pressure strategy would be countries that have zero interest in participating in anything, like North Korea. Well, that’s North Korea for you. Seriously, if all the spammers flee to North Korea, good riddance. Plus, think about it: wouldn’t you rather North Korea based its economy on spamming than on global extortion and the manufacture of weapons-grade plutonium for sale? Seems like a good trade to me.

Then again, the United States also seems to be immune from this sort of international pressure. So okay, forget what I said above, maybe this strategy isn’t so smart after all. But let’s look at the bright side… won’t it be fun when China and Russia are lecturing us about being the world’s haven for criminal spammers? I, for one, will at least take comfort in the fact that they won’t be over here in California.

1. Probably, assuming I’m disinclined to steal background graphics from

The MARQUEE Element: Revolutions

Yes, the Matrix stylesheet is back, baby![1]

This Halloween, Marnie and I carved jack-o-lanterns and everything, but no trick-or-treaters showed up at all. It sucks living in an apartment building. We even left a little trail of jack-o-lanterns leading up the door, but no dice. I think we probably scared off the kids, if anything. “Now son, don’t go trick-or-treating at the place of the Evil Apartment People… they’re just trying to lure you in to their laboratory.” Anyway, now between my birthday cake and the uneaten candy, I have a serious excess of chocolate in the house. I guess I’ll take the candy to work, where it will be appreciated by a rather different set of costumed children.[2]

Anyway. I’m trying to stay off this Markup stuff for a little while, but I couldn’t let this pass. Late last week Dave Hyatt[3] decided to add support for the <marquee> element to Safari (presumably in the upcoming Safari 1.2). Coincidence? I think not. Oh sure, in his comments Dave mumbled something about wanting to support certain prominent Asian websites where <marquee> has proved popular, blah blah blah. But we all know what the real reason was. Now if Dave would just add support for the <blink> tag, Safari would surpass Mozilla and reach the exalted ranks of Opera, the only browser in the world currently able to display the Page of the Damned in all its unholy glory. You don’t want Opera to beat Safari on this point, do you Dave? Especially after they said those mean things about Safari

Ah, there’s nothing more fun than stirring up trouble on a Monday morning. You know, this site really is becoming a repository of pure evil. People are already starting to use the Page of the Damned as an example of the <marquee> element; soon I’ll completely corner the competitive <marquee> market, just as I have for cursed frogurt. Yes… everything is proceeding as I have forseen.

1. Not seeing the new stylesheet? Take the red pill, reload the page… and free. Your. Mind.

2. Must keep the demonic engineers well-fed with sugar… or there will be… trouble…

3. I’m never sure — is Dave the lead Safari rendering engine developer? The only Safari rendering engine developer? Or just the only famous one?