Early Onset Something-or-Other

I just finished sending off email thank-yous to all the holiday cards I received this year. Admittedly, sending an email response to a physical Christmas card is probably not up to snuff from an etiquette standpoint. I can only hope that my friends have low expectations, given that the Undomesticated Young Jewish Male is perhaps the least likely demographic in the English-speaking world to do a good job with the whole holiday card thing. Anyway, I have grown to appreciate holiday cards, and despite my failure to fully hold up my end of the holiday card bargain, friends and relatives keep sending them to me anyway. And so I read them and smile and put them up on the mantle and feel warm and fuzzy seeing them up there. So, thank you friends and relatives!

I did have a disturbing experience sending thank-yous this year. I picked up one card from an old friend of mine that had arrived a few days before. It was a delightful little card with a hand-drawn cartoon on the front, portraying each family member as a robot with a Santa hat. “Oh, the robot card! I really liked the robot card,” I thought. Then I opened an email to send them a thank you — and suddenly I experienced the sensation of knowing who to send it too but not the name of the person to send it to. I could remember my friend’s face, the names and faces of my friend’s immediate family, the name of her blog (which I had read several hours before), but not her actual name. I considered looking inside the card, but decided that no, that would be cheating. Finally, after about fifteen agonizing seconds, my brain dredged out the correct name. Stupid brain! What do I pay you for, anyway?

Recently, this has been happening a lot to names of good friends, fairly close relatives, and other bits of information that I should be able to retrieve instantaneously. Last night, I took my sisters and my brother-in-law to a holiday party, and I remember introducing my brother-in-law as, “this is uh, my brother-in-law Adiv.” I cleverly snuck in the “uh, my brother-in-law” part because I needed an extra one-and-a-half seconds to retrieve his name. This is a guy I’ve known for about six years now, not to mention that we had been chatting in the car just a few minutes before. At least I remembered my sisters’ names. And the hosts. That would have been embarrassing.[1]

If I were exhibiting any other symptoms, I’d be seriously worried that this was some kind of early-onset medical condition. Then again, if I were experiencing any other symptoms, would I be the best one to notice? Maybe I should ask friends and family members to please keep an eye out for… what, exactly? Agitation? Mood swings? Irascibility? Hoo-boy. I’m basically screwed.

1. An addendum to the party: as I started up the car for the trip home, I saw a five-or-six point buck galloping down the sidewalk, nearly brushing the car. Fortunately, everyone else in the car saw it too. So I’m not going completely crazy.


Perhaps it is a sign of the impending Web 2.0 apocalypse, but “display sites” are reappearing. Why is an idea that failed in late 90s making a comeback?

We can clear up this mystery with a simple example. Let’s say you’re trying to cash in on the new bubble the modern way, by throwing together a website in a weekend and getting bought by Yahoo!, or hopefully (cue angelic music) Google. You have all the right ingredients: a ratio of three business guys for every one engineer, a cutesy logo and domain name, and a hotshot web dev who knows how to make rounded corners and everything. Now you just need a business plan related to “social networking” and “user-generated content”. But what do these mysterious user-creatures manufacture that you can piggyback off of? Video? Locked up already by YouTube. Photos? Pretty crowded. Music? Sound? Hmmm. Text? Wait — doesn’t everyone have a book inside them? Yes! Books it is! Fabulous. [clink beer glasses]

And thus it came to pass in Teh Dawn of the New Millenium that new display sites began springing up like, errr, things that spring up a lot. Amusingly, of the seven sites Victoria Strauss mentioned in her post early this year, two of them are already dead. Less amusingly, Strauss just highlighted a new site, Associated Content (“The People’s Media Company”). As Strauss puts it:

No doubt many people will simply click “I agree” rather than slog through the whole of this dense, small-print document–but that’s never a good idea. If you read down far enough, you find the following clause (bolding is mine):

A. User Content. By submitting any User Content through or to the AC Network, including on any User Tools or User Pages, but excluding any User Content you submit on AC Blogs, you hereby irrevocably grant to AC, its affiliates and distributors, a worldwide, royalty-free, non-exclusive, and fully sub-licensable license, to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, translate, publicly perform, publicly display, create derivative works from, transfer, transmit and distribute on the AC Network, in connection with promotion or elsewhere, such User Content (in whole or in part) and to incorporate the User Content into other works in any format or medium now known or later developed. Notwithstanding the foregoing, when you submit a text, video, images , AC may modify the format, content and display of such User Content. The foregoing grants shall include the right to exploit any proprietary rights in such User Content, including but not limited to rights under copyright, trademark, service mark or patent laws under any relevant jurisdiction. With respect to User Content you Post for inclusion on publicly accessible areas of AC Blogs, You grant AC the license to use, distribute, reproduce, modify, adapt, publicly perform and publicly display such User Content on the AC Network or on any media. You agree that the foregoing grant of rights by you to AC and its affiliates is provided without any the entitlement of payment of fees or consideration.

Just by posting on the site, you’re granting Associated Content the right to exploit your work in any way imaginable–and possibly to make money from that exploitation–without any compensation or consideration to you. Of course, the chances that Associated Content will actually exercise this right for any given piece of content are probably fairly slim. Also, since it’s a non-exclusive grant, you aren’t prevented from selling, re-posting, or adapting your work yourself. You may, therefore, consider it worth the risk.

Strauss goes on to say:

(This kind of language, by the way, is not unusual on the Internet. For instance, you’ll find something similar–though not as encompassing–in Yahoo’s Terms of Service (see Clause 9), and also in the User Agreement of Triond.com (see Clause 5), another content site. As katya l. points out in the Comments section of this post, just about any online service will require you to grant certain basic rights, otherwise they won’t be able to transmit content over the Internet without violating copyright laws. However, what Associated Content is asking its content providers to agree to goes some way beyond that basic license.)

Actually it’s much worse than that. Here are the terms of service for Yahoo! Groups (and most other Yahoo! sites that enable user to post text):

Yahoo! does not claim ownership of Content you submit or make available for inclusion on the Service. However, with respect to Content you submit or make available for inclusion on publicly accessible areas of the Service, you grant Yahoo! the following worldwide, royalty-free and non-exclusive license(s), as applicable:

With respect to Content you submit or make available for inclusion on publicly accessible areas of Yahoo! Groups, the license to use, distribute, reproduce, modify, adapt, publicly perform and publicly display such Content on the Service solely for the purposes of providing and promoting the specific Yahoo! Group to which such Content was submitted or made available. This license exists only for as long as you elect to continue to include such Content on the Service and will terminate at the time you remove or Yahoo! removes such Content from the Service.

What about the good folks up the road in Mountain View? Here are the terms of service for Google Groups Beta:

Google claims no ownership or control over any Content submitted, Posted or displayed by you on or through the Service. You or a third party licensor, as appropriate, retain all patent, trademark and copyright to any Content you submit, Post or display on or through the Service and you are responsible for protecting those rights, as appropriate. By submitting, Posting or displaying Content on or through the Service, you grant Google a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license to reproduce, adapt and publish such Content on the Service solely for the purpose of displaying, distributing and promoting the Service or any other Google Services. This license terminates when such Content is deleted from the Service. Google reserves the right to syndicate Content submitted, Posted or displayed by you on or through the Service and use that Content in connection with other services offered by Google.

Both Yahoo! and Google assert affirmatively that they do not own your stuff, that the “worldwide, royalty-free license” is scoped to “displaying, distributing, and promoting the ‘Service'”, and that the license terminates when you delete your content. None of this scoping is present in the Associated Content terms of service. They own your book and or their buddies can do whatever they like with it. Forever.

What makes this particularly odious is that on a site where people are putting up their books, you would expect a lot more protection than the boilerplate Yahoo! and Google Terms of Service, not less. I wonder how far you’ll get taking your work to a publisher and telling them, “Well, see, I’ve already granted these other guys the right to sorta kinda do whatever they like with my stuff… but you should totally buy it anyway!” I’m guessing that your average publisher would get a little tetchy to hear you say something like that. Now my guess could be wrong, since after all, I know very little about how the publishing industry actually works. Then again, neither do the employees and backers of these next-gen content sites, which is something that prospective users of these sites should perhaps keep in mind.

Wry Havok

Brad DeLong uncovers this passage:

I thought we had finished with the subject of your wanting to become a writer when you passed through New York last April. You asked for what you called “an uncle’s meddling advice,” and we spent an afternoon talking about your chances of commercial or critical success (nil and next to none), about the number of readers that constitutes the American audience for literature (not enough to fill the seats at Yankee Stadium), and about the Q ratings awarded to authors by the celebrity market (equivalent to those assigned to trick dogs and retired generals). You didn’t disagree with the drift of the conversation, and I thought it was understood that you would apply to business school.

To which Brad remarks:

The graders of the PSAT/NMSQT say that the tone of the parenthetical comments is best characterized as “wry.” We in this house agree–unanimously–that “surly” is a better characterization. They are not dryly humorous with a touch of irony. They are, rather, sullenly ill-humored.

I think this is exactly right. First, as one of Brad’s commenters clarifies for us, “Wry involves an attempt at weak humor, surly is a brooding, passive-aggressive, sullen low-level frustrated anger expressed as reluctance and sloth.” I think this fits the uncle’s tone to a T.

Second, there’s the particular issue the uncle is whining about, which on the scale of “things that are tapped out” falls just behind “complaining about how kids these days are so disrespectful to their elders.” The uncle is surrounded by illiterates, and only he, the nephew, and possibly fifteen thousand like-minded readers in the Upper West Side are daring to keep the flame of culture alive. As we cretinous Internet kids like to say these days, “Oh noes!” It’s hard to appreciate someone’s allegedly wry humor when you’re rolling your eyes at them instead.

Revenge is a Dish Best Served Cold

Via Jacques, it looks like Sam Ruby has written some JavaScript that enables you to embed MathML and SVG in an HTML 4 document. XHTML is no longer required. Wow. Ever since XHTML came out, the only thing XHTML 1.1 has been able to do that HTML 4.01 couldn’t do was embed MathML and SVG. Now that’s gone.

There is also a little historical irony here.

At the 2004 W3C Workshop on Web Applications and Compound Documents, prominent W3C member and co-inventor of CSS Bert Bos went on record saying that JavaScript is the worst invention ever.

That always seemed harsh to me. Sure, JavaScript can be dangerous. You can easily shoot yourself in the face with it, boy howdy. But really, the worst invention ever? No wonder that Brendan Eich, inventor of JavaScript, expressed his irritation at the time — although this was less over the W3C calling his “baby” ugly and more about the disconnect between W3C’s recent work and the actual needs of web developers. In fact, it was right about this time that the WHATWG started picking up steam. But that’s another story.

Now fast-forward a couple of years. XHTML was the W3C’s baby.[1] But with a not-particularly-long snippet of JavaScript, Sam Ruby has kicked the chair out from under XHTML. Actually, that’s not really the right image. Imagine a man with a chiseled jaw in a nearly immaculate tuxedo, Agent XHTML, clinging desperately to the edge of a sheer cliff with just two fingers. A dark, menacing, bearded figure approaches. “So,” he sneers, “you’re the best the W3C has?” Agent X looks up. “Ruby. I should have known you’d become a minion of J.A.V.A.S.C.R.I.P.T. Your evil master will never succeed in poisoning the World Wide Web!” Ruby just shrugs. “It’s a long way down, Agent X,” he says. Then he stomps on Agent XHTML’s fingers. The tuxedoed man plummets, screaming all the way down. Meanwhile, somewhere from his underground lair, the shadowy criminal mastermind known only as “Mr. Eich” watches all of this from a screen, stroking his pet cat thoughtfully. Hmmm, or does Brendan have a shark tank? Because that would be totally awesome.

1. Or more accurately, the last thing they’ve thrown over the wall to webdevs in the last five years.

I Win Christmas!

Today I went to the annual Ryan Troll Holiday party, which includes a “White Elephant” gift exchange.

What I gave up: components for a vintage 1998 home-built computer — 350 MHz Pentium II processor with heatsink and fan, Asus P2B motherboard, 128 MB of screaming fast RAM, Matrox graphics card with 8 MB of VRAM, two sound cards, various cables and documentation.

What I received: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wine in near-mint condition.

Looks like Santa’s got my back this year. I’m as tsetummelt as anyone over this. Who knew?

Tutorial Sneak Preview: Elements vs. Tags

I’m working on a new version of my ancient, long-neglected HTML Tutorial, which I originally wrote in 2002. The Official List of reasons why I’m doing this includes:

  • finishing broken and missing sections, such as tables and forms
  • updating the tutorial for the new web environment (IE 6 is now the baseline)
  • migrating to DocBook so that I can provide multiple output formats
  • replacing all copyrighted material in the examples with material in the public domain
  • releasing the tutorial under a much more liberal license

But the real reason I’m doing this is because the tutorial currently says “tags” when it really should be saying “elements”. Arrgh! I cringe every time I read that. I’ve added a section about this to the tutorial so that others can avoid my mistake…

A Digression: What’s a “Tag”?

You’ll often hear people refer to “tags,” as in, “The markup tags tell the Web browser how to display the page.” Almost always, they really meant to say “elements.” Tags are not elements, they define the boundaries of an element. The p element begins with a <p> open tag and ends with a </p> closing tag, but it is not a tag itself.

  • Incorrect: “You can make a new HTML paragraph with a <p> tag!”
  • Correct: “It’s a good idea to close that open <p> tag.”

Now that you possess this valuable information, you’re in the same position as someone who knows that in the phrase “That’s not my forte,” the word “forte” should be pronounced fort, not for-tay. You get to feel slightly superior to people who say for-tay, but you really shouldn’t go running around correcting them.

Sometimes you’ll hear people say “alt tag,” which is even worse. An “alt tag” is really an alt attribute. This important attribute provides alternative text for images, in case the user can’t see the image for some other reason. We’ll talk more about this attribute later.

The element vs. tag confusion is sort of understandable: it’s a common mistake even among professionals, and they both look like angle-brackety things, after all. But attributes are not tags, not even close. If you hear someone say “alt tag,” this is a key indication that the speaker does not understand HTML very well. (You probably shouldn’t invite them to your next birthday party.)

I suppose I shouldn’t beat myself up, since nearly all of the prominent HTML tutorials get this and many other issues wrong, as any search for “html tutorial” makes depressingly obvious. Two notable exceptions are Stephanos Piperoglou’s Webreference.com tutorial and Patrick Griffith’s outstanding HTML Dog.