The Greatest Generation Really Was Pretty Great!

I’ve been reading Steve Blank’s outstanding series, The Secret History of Silicon Valley. Blank makes the case that much of the valley’s history has been simply forgotten, and the true starting point is at least 100 years ago:

I read all the popular books about the valley and they all told a variant of the same story; entrepreneurs as heroes building the Semiconductor and Personal Computer companies: Bill Hewlett and David Packard at HP, Bob Taylor and the team at Xerox PARC, Steve Jobs and Wozniak at Apple, Gordon Moore and Bob Noyce at Intel, etc. These were inspiring stories, but I realized that, no surprise, the popular press were writing books that had mass appeal. They were all fun reads about plucky entrepreneurs who start from nothing and against all odds, build a successful company.

To my surprise, I discovered that yes, Silicon Valley did start in a garage in Palo Alto, but it didn’t start in the Hewlett Packard garage. The first electronics company in Silicon Valley was Federal Telegraph, a tube company started in 1909 in Palo Alto as Poulsen Wireless. (This October is the 100th anniversary of Silicon Valley, unnoticed and unmentioned by anyone.) By 1912, Lee Deforest working at Federal Telegraph would invent the Triode, (a tube amplifier) and would go on to become the Steve Jobs of his day — visionary, charismatic and controversial… By 1937, when Bill Hewlett and David Packard left Stanford to start HP, the agricultural fields outside of Stanford had already become “Vacuum Tube Valley.”

The part that really struck me was the section about World War II, where Fred Terman and his colleagues were tasked with defeating Germany’s very sophisticated and secret electronic air defense system, which was responsible for inflicting unsustainable losses on Allied bomber crews. In an incredibly short period of time, these engineers completely transformed the nature of electronic warfare. Or as Blank puts it,

Just to give you a sense of scale of how big this electronic warfare effort was, we built over 30,000 jammers, with entire factories running 24/7 in the U.S. making nothing but jammers to put on our bombers.

By the end of World War II, over Europe, a bomber stream no longer consisted of just planes with bombs. Now the bombers were accompanied by electronics intelligence planes looking for new radar signals, escort bombers just full of jammers and others full of chaff, as well as P-51 fighter planes patrolling alongside our bomber stream.

Unbelievably, in less than two years, Terman’s Radio Research lab invented an industry and had turned out a flurry of new electronic devices the likes of which had never been seen.

Aside from catching up on my history, the other thing I’ve been doing is moving the HTML tutorial out of WordPress completely and into the new template. This also gave me the opportunity to do some cleanup — fixing typos, outdated sections, broken links, and so on.

One section of the tutorial discusses abusing HTML borders to do dotted underlines and other fancy decorations. Originally, I had a link to a 2003 version of the CSS 3 spec, which included the possibility of doing dotted underlines natively, using CSS text-decoration As I was editing, I thought it would be good to update the link to the latest version of the draft. To my surprise, the 2007 version of the section now says in red,

Paul and I have agreed that we want to simplify the set of properties introduced in the previous CSS3 Text Candidate Recommendation. We’re not sure how yet, though, and would like to solicit input from the www-style community.
So far, we think that the following capabilities should be sufficient…

Hmmm. Okay, so to recap:

  • In the early 1940s, Fred Terman’s Radio Research Lab spawned an entire new industry in a couple of years, based on far-out science-fictional technology, shipped product, and helped win the war against fascism.

  • Meanwhile in the 2000s, after nearly a decade, we still can’t figure out how to do fancy underlines.

Welcome to 4.0

After three and a half years, it’s about time for another redesign. Welcome to 4.0 — now with fewer features!

For comparison and amusement, the previous three revisions are preserved in amber here:

  • 1.0 (2000-2003): Look at those elegant rounded corners! Clearly a site way ahead of its time.
  • 2.0 (2003-2006): We’ve made the jump from a table-based layout to an all CSS version. It turned out… awfully boxy and green. Although to be fair, I believe this layout actually worked in Netscape 4 and Internet Explorer 4.
  • 3.0 (2007-2010): Goodbye green, hello brown! This was my first attempt at a YUI Grids based layout.

I was satisfied with version 3.0 at the time, but over the last couple of years, I became more and more unhappy with the site. Not only did it still look amateurish, it was way too hard to read. But a major overhaul seemed daunting, and I wasn’t quite sure how to fix it in the first place.

An Epiphany

Then I downloaded Safari 5, which comes with the famous Readability plugin built in, and tried it out on a couple of popular news sites. The effect of seeing the article without all the extra navigational crap was startling, and it jolted me into taking a hard look at my own site.

  • Why bother listing recent posts next to every entry? Especially since the posts aren’t necessarily so recent?
  • Why show the blogroll next to every entry? Giving a nod to friends and family is nice, but do all those links need to be there every time?
  • Why show my Delicious linkroll next to every entry? Is there a reason that Javascript needs to be loaded for every entry?
  • Why is the Creative Commons section so huge?
  • Does the site really need a site-specific search box? (Oops, it’s broken anyway.)

It occurred to me that just because blogs traditionally have linkrolls and tag clouds and thirty different “sharing” buttons and blog ads and God knows what else in the sidebar, doesn’t mean that’s how it has to be.

Now inspired, I read up a little on typography for the first time, well, ever. And the good news is that some of the principles of good typography are so simple that even knucklehead non-designers like myself can understand them. For instance, I had always believed that websites should let the main content area flow as wide as the user wanted. If the user wanted a narrower or wider view, they could just stretch their browser window. Oh sure, some websites force a particular column width — websites run by The Man! Why not be freaky and free?

However, now I realize that there is in fact an optimal range of width for English text. That’s why paperbacks are as wide as they are. That’s why newspapers and magazines have columns. And that’s why this site now uses a fixed width layout. If you don’t like it, take it up with the Commandant.

So What’s Changed?

A bunch of things:

  • As mentioned above, the sidebar is completely gone. All the stuff that was there has been either A) miniaturized or B) moved to a separate dedicated page.
  • Although the layout of the new site is actually much simpler, there are many changes to typography and general look-and-feel. The overall look I was going for was “book-like”.
  • The banner at the top has been refined. The images are larger, and I’ve eliminated a couple of the picture frames. The site’s color scheme still derives from the images (browns and other warm shades).
  • The comment form has been revamped according to the guidelines in Luke Wroblewski’s Web Form Design. That process might be worth a post all by itself.
  • The backend is still Movable Type, but upgraded from MT3 to MT5. I put a lot of thought into other options: staying on MT3 forever, migrating to WordPress, and even (briefly) rolling my own system. That process might be worth a separate post as well.
  • A number of performance improvements thanks to the slimmer design and some help from YSlow. Page weight is smaller, fewer HTTP requests, static assets have far-future Expires headers, etc. Most pages now fully load in subsecond time.
  • Finally, the site has migrated from HTML 4.01 Strict to HTML 5. Not that I’m using any major HTML 5 features yet, but I do like me that HTML 5 doctype.


This redesign probably would not have been possible without:

  • The engineers who support YSlow.
  • Luke Wroblewski, for writing Web Form Design.
  • The Yahoo! Search design team. I’m not a designer by any means, and my visual thinking is pretty weak. But thanks to being around some really talented people the last couple of years, I’ve managed to pick up a few tricks by osmosis. Remember, it’s not that the bear dances well, it’s that he dances at all.
  • My wife Sarah, who has a much keener eye for color and layout than I do, and can spot something that’s a pixel out of line without even straining.

And that’s about it! Here’s looking forward to 5.0, coming in 2014 to a browser near you.