Life is a Mystery

5 October 2011 . 1 Comment

Goodbye, Steve

I’ve followed Steve since 1977, maybe I’ll write about that soon. But right now I’m sad to see he’s left us. I’m trying to say goodbye. I was lucky enough to meet Steve a few times, but there is really only one time. One night Steve stayed at our house.

“House” is a bit of an understatement. At the time my dad was Governor of Ohio and we lived in the Governor’s Residence. It was probably 1989, though I’ve lost track of the actual date, and Steve was visiting Ohio for reasons of his own. I had been an Apple fan since there was an Apple, and at the time I was a Campus Consultant for NeXT, Steve’s new venture. I think that was part of why my dad found a way to invite Steve to spend the night while he was in town.

I have a terrible memory, even for things like this. But I do remember learning that Steve’s diet was quite different from mine, full of nuts and fruit, very specific. Yet he did sit at the table with us, and we were our usual fairly chaotic bunch. I have five brothers and sisters and our table could be somewhat unorthodox, full of politics, argument, and inside jokes. That night, though, I remember being in awe. I’d experience my share of celebrity and was pretty nonchalant around Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul, and Mary, or Jimmy Carter, but this was Steve Jobs. I suddenly felt starstruck, unable to think clearly, unable to speak. After dinner, I remember shooting hoops in the driveway with Steve. How odd, normal, and calm it all was. It was a precious moment for me.

What I didn’t learn until much later was that it was a moment that may have had an impact on Steve as well. A story eventually came back to me that Steve had once had this great evening with the Governor of Ohio and his family. Steve, who had been totally focussed on his businesses to that point, the story went, realized that evening that even a high pressure life of denting the universe could have room in it for family. He began to look for a way to let family into his life. A few years later he was married. Much more recently he watched his son graduate from high school.

I have no idea how close to the truth that story lies. God knows, our cauldron of a family on the fires of public life had severe flaws, but we did have fun too. Getting to have Steve over for the night was fun. If our joy helped nudge him toward opening his life to his own family, I am even more grateful for that night.

I expect his family was around him today. I pray, even though none could follow him where he went, that they gathered close to assure him that all was well, that he could let go, that we would all remember him. I am grateful that he had a chance to build more than a business.

Steve Jobs at NeXT

27 July 2011 . Comments Off on A kitchen full of RAM and HD

A kitchen full of RAM and HD

I often use a kitchen metaphor for RAM (random access memory) and HD (hard disk) that might be comprehensible to mere mortals, at least if they cook. RAM and HD space are both “memory” of sorts in your computer, but what is the function of each?

In your kitchen you have both counter space and cabinets. Your cabinets and refrigerator are where you store things you use to make meals. Your counters are where you do the actual prep work. You might pull a bowl and spoon from some cabinets, along with some ingredients to mix from the fridge, you do the mixing and cooking, then you put the bowl and ingredients away again. You might even store the leftovers of what you cooked back in the fridge.

If you imagine a kitchen with tons of counter space and very few cabinets, that would present a certain challenge. You could have four cooks in the kitchen, but you might not have the space to store four bowls. On the other hand, you might have a kitchen with tons of cabinet space, but very little counter space. Even though the chef may have every gadget imaginable available to aid in the cooking, he or she would still be bumping elbows into the walls and finding it hard to prepare a large meal.

Each element has a role to play: cabinets are great for long term storage, counters are great for getting work done. The key to a functional kitchen lies in the proper balance.

In your computer, the hard disk (HD, or these days maybe the “SSD” solid state disk) plays the role of the cabinets, the long term storage. The RAM (or “memory”) plays the role of the counters. RAM is where the work gets done, if you don’t have enough, the work slows down. HD is where the tools used to do that work and the product of that work get stored, if you run out of HD then you can’t properly save the work you’ve done or add new gadgets to make that work easier.

The metaphor could be extended, maybe the stove is the CPU, but let’s not get into that. For now, just think: my cabinets are the hard drive, my counters are the memory. You need enough of both to get the job done. Running out of either will either slow down the work or make a mess of the kitchen (as the pots come crashing onto the floor).


27 July 2011 . Comments Off on Interact with Web Standards

Interact with Web Standards

Many months ago I had the privilege to be part of an OCLC Webinar on the use of HTML5 and CSS3 standards for web design. It was a great session by Christopher Schmitt and the slides are available online (HTML5 slides, CSS3 slides). But for me, the best part was that I also got a couple books by Schmitt out of the deal: the O’Reilly CSS3 Cookbook and a wonderful collaborative work called InterACT With Web Standards: A Holistic Approach to Web Design. It is this latter book I wanted to bring to your attention.

From time to time over the past few years I’ve had to teach courses in web standards and web design. I’ve found all the books on the topic wanting. Many are so basic as to be essentially wrong in the advice they give, others are too technical, and most are very narrowly scoped, so that it is hard to get a grasp on the incredibly broad set of skills one needs to effectively design for the web. InterACT With Web Standards is the first book I’ve found that combines a solid introduction to the way the web works with fantastic advice on how to leverage web standards toward your design goals.

This book helps the reader through all stages of web design. From internet fundamentals to writing for the web to site planning and considering content, the book builds a foundation of good, practical approaches to the task of conceiving a web site. The book offers a great grounding in HTML and CSS that is both legible to a newcomer and serves as a solid reference even for the seasoned pro. All those basic hints I look to the web for again and again (just what is the best way to build a two-column design, how do I style a list again, what accessibility issues should I watch out for) are covered with concise clarity.

The volume is well illustrated and printed in a format that easily stays open on a desk (thank you!). It is in every way (except, perhaps, its cover) a handsome edition.

Best of all, the whole text is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA agreement, so you can use it as you like in most educational settings. In fact, the authors and publisher have set up very nice website which includes sample chapters, all the code exercises, and a sample web project.

If you are teaching a course on web design or standards, consider InterACT With Web Standards as a potential backbone text. If you are someone who already builds websites, I bet you will still learn something from this text and certainly appreciate the wealth of information it puts at your fingertips even more effectively than Google.


30 June 2011 . Comments Off on Down the rabbit hole

Down the rabbit hole

Things we do every day can be very hard for computers to emulate. I’ve loved the game Sprouts since first encountering it in Macroscope by Piers Anthony. It is a simple game that even small kids can play, yet it allows for endless doodling. The resulting designs are beautiful. I often play it solo. I’ve yearned for an iPad version that captures some of the beauty of the game, but not found one. (Well, I found one, but it is so ugly I had to delete it.) I’ve decided to try to write my own.

Sprouts is about connecting dots with lines. How do you draw lines? In sprouts the lines may not cross. How do you detect that they will? I’ve had to go down the rabbit hole of iOS programming the past couple weeks and I’m loving it. In the process, I’ve learned that StackOverflow is a blessing for anyone getting wet with code. I even had a chance to share a sample app there.

Bottom line, I’m having a blast. But you probably won’t hear much about it here! Maybe someday I’ll be able to point you to the app. Next step: implementing this awesome vector brush in iOS.


8 June 2011 . Comments Off on Mothership


I recently spent a few weeks at a new house my brother and his partner built on Martha’s Vineyard. One of the things that struck me as I wandered the house and grounds was how much the spaces exposed of my brothers mind. I felt like he was turned inside out and spread on the walls and gardens for me to see, his values and dreams gleaming in the light of day, suffering the wash of rain. This was not easy, in fact I was a bit spooked and am still processing what I learned or failed to learn on this visit, but it was an extraordinary chance to get to know my brother better.

Today I had a similar, if much less intense, response as I watched Steve Jobs present Apple’s vision for a new corporate headquarters to the Cupertino city council. The vision is pretty spectacular, many commentators describe it as the “mothership landing.” Indeed, the circular building designed to house 12,000 employees does look like a spaceship landed in the old HP haunts of Cupertino. The 20 minute video of Steve presenting the plan and responding to questions is well worth the time for the glimpse it gives of Steve’s values and how those have become part of the corporate culture he shepherds.

Steve has been simplifying Apple since he arrived again in 1996. From simplifying product lines to simplifying products, Apple has been about doing as much as possible with as little as possible. This building is an expression of that simplicity. We build our world from fundamental forms: points and lines. We push these into curves and intersections. But there are few expressions more basic than the circle. This new headquarters would simply be a circle. Not only a circle, but a circle with an empty center: a zero, a null. It expresses the essential of Apple’s genius and Steve’s vision: what you leave out is as important as what you put in.


In fact, the center of the building is not empty, it is full of trees. This reveals another value held dear: trying to create a sustainable organization. In this case the building plan calls for more than doubling the number of trees on the site, reducing surface parking by 90% and building footprint by 30% from what exists now, while increasing the number of people by 40% and office space by 20%. More with less. The amount of land devoted to landscape increases by 350%. Steve also mentions his hope that the natural gas energy plant the build on site will be the primary power source for the campus, relegating the “grid” to backup power status. More trees, more landscape, less building, more people, quite a powerful set of contradictions, but who doubts Apple could pull this off?

Mothership path

Still, I wonder about the blindspots in this vision. One city council member asked about safety, and I’m sure Apple will build a facility that keeps its staff safe. But the question raised a vision in my head of a fire on site, a segment of the circle destroyed and needing to be rebuilt, a seam in the perfect fabric of its symmetry. Has the building been designed to age? Pull out your old laptops, look at the cracks, the missing keys, the broken hinges, the clean lines and breathtaking design that is Apple does not always age well. The iPhone 4 glass breaks. Building small retail sites to this standard of perfection and clean line works, because those can also be redesigned and renovated in 10 years or so, we don’t expect them to last decades. But a building of the scale of Apple’s new campus? That is more like my brother’s “hundred year house.” What will time, failure, renovation, and patching do to it? Will it seem alive and loved or faded and dull? I hope some of the spirit of Pixar where the people who live in the spaces get to fill them with expressions of their own dreams and creativity.

Mothership dining

15 April 2011 . Comments Off on Do librarians sound like Ted Nelson?

Do librarians sound like Ted Nelson?

Oh, you don’t know who Ted Nelson is? He is the inventor of hypertext. You thought that was Tim Berners-Lee? Nope, Tim invented the World Wide Web. Ted began working on what would become project Xanadu in 1960, the 1.0 version of Xanadu was shipped in 2007. Along the way Ted defined hypertext, servers sharing content with one another, visible links, even search engines, concepts that would become familiar to us all. Why do we all use the World Wide Web instead of Xanadu?

Tim began work on the World Wide Web in 1989, got it working in 1990, and shared it with the world in 1991. By 1993 Tim’s employer, CERN in Switzerland, announced that the World Wide Web software would be free and open to anyone. By 2007 the World Wide Web was truly a world wide web.

WWW was incredibly simple compared to Xanadu. Xanadu defined 17 essential rules originally, including securely identified servers (and users), explicit permission to link to documents, royalty mechanisms that could be granular to the sentence, redundant storage, and much more. WWW just defined three technologies: the URL (which is now the URI) to identify resources, HTML to mark up pages, and HTTP to transfer content from one computer to another. Xanadu took 47 years to gestate and emerged as a commercial product. WWW took four years to emerge as an open standard for anyone to implement. Although Xanadu began long before WWW, WWW extracted the barest essentials from Ted’s ideas and was released long before Xanadu.

When the web first emerged people hailed it as the embodiment of Ted Nelson’s dream, but I remember thinking that Ted Nelson would hate the World Wide Web. It was brain-dead compared to Xanadu. It had none of the intelligence or authority Ted had built into his vision. The web was anarchy. Indeed, today I read an article where Ted pretty much calls the web “totally archaic” and “completely wrong.”

And yet, here we are in a world where millions know and depend on the web and hardly anyone pines for the glories of Xanadu. Those who know the wonders of Ted’s vision nod sagely at the advertising and spam issues the web faces, at the demise of paid journalism, and note that Xanadu would be much better solution, without many of the downsides we now face. But they miss the fact that simplicity, even when flawed, often triumphs. Right and wrong depend on a frame of reference. From some abstract frame of ideals, perhaps Ted is right and Tim is wrong. But from the very concrete frame of what gets used in the world today, it is pretty clear that Tim was right: the world needed a simple way to share resources stored on computers openly and easily.

Which brings me to librarians. We, like Ted, are experts of a domain. We have been working to build collections and facilitate searching long before either of those things were done on computers. Even the current generation of librarians can recall the world before Google and we know in our bones that there is a “better way” to search for information than the way being pursued all around us. We know that libraries can be the “gateway” to a better search experience and the worry that too many people are approaching information with embarrassingly blunt instruments instead of our refined methods. How awful it is to see the world trend the wrong way.

Do me a favor: if you are a librarian, read this article about Ted Nelson’s view of the web. Try to understand what he is saying. Then reflect on our own rhetoric about the information habits of the people we serve. Realize that often we sound as out of touch as Ted sounds about the web. Of course the world is trending the wrong way from our expert frame of reference, but our frame may also be trapping us, and if we want to be relevant to the next generation of seekers, we need to wrench ourselves into the present, look with clear eyes at the landscape, and get about the business of being of service! Would you rather be part of Xanadu or the World Wide Web?


28 March 2011 . Comments Off on Remembering: New Technology

Remembering: New Technology

Once I landed in the States again, my incentive grew for making sure that those of us over here could communicate with her in Austria. Stephen had helped Dagmar install a Skype phone, now I really needed to use it. Here was an early success, on 3/27:

I spoke with Dagmar this morning and she said Oma was having a very good day. Oma ate breakfast by herself today. As I was on the phone, Oma started lunch. Attached is a set of images from today’s lunch. Oma eating. That is a wonderful sight to me.


It was really wonderful to be able to talk with Dagmar and Oma this way. We had also set up a frame in Oma’s room that rotated through pictures family could add to using a Flickr tag.

One of my sisters noted:

Mom’s been a little harder to catch since Natalie returned, but I have caught her once or twice on Skype to check in.

Apple was about to release the iPad as well. We had decided that Mary, Nate, Alex, and I would hold a “biggest loser” contest with the winner winning an iPad, but that would be a 3G iPad not even due out for another month. So I unilaterally decided to buy a wifi iPad and sell it in Austria at the tail end of my next visit. I really wanted something I could use to both communicate, share pictures, and read on while sitting with Oma. I’d put in my order just before leaving Vienna, now I was just hoping it would ship in time.

5 February 2011 . Comments Off on Colors without a profile

Colors without a profile

I learned something new about trying to match CSS colors with images this week. It turns out that Chrome, Firefox, and Safari differ in how they reproduce the colors of images. If you are trying to match an RGB color defined in CSS to the color of a particular image, this difference may haunt you.

Chrome (9.0.597.84) appears to automatically apply a color profile matching the device displaying the image to images without a color profile while Safari (5.0.3) and Firefox (3.6.8) appear to display such images with a generic profile. If you want colors in an image to match RGB colors you define in CSS, you must assign the image a color profile matching the device on which you are doing the designing.

Yeah, I know, hard to visualize. I’ve set up a color experiment page to show this effect. Enjoy!


2 February 2011 . Comments Off on Off by one pixel

Off by one pixel

I’ve been working on a theme for WordPress and ran into an interesting CSS positioning bug in WebKit today. For some reason an background image I was positioning with “center” was not lining up with a div being centered by “auto”. No problem in Firefox, but in WebKit the two would jump out of alignment with one another as I changed the window size. They would pop in and out of alignment by a single pixel.

Luckily I found a brilliant post about the problem that contained a simple demonstration. Even better, the author offered this suggestion:

In some cases, realizing what causes the problem is a clue towards a workaround. For example, you could use a wrapper div that has the background image, and is exactly as wide as the background image itself. Center it with auto margins, and there should not be any offset bugs.

That took me a few readings, but it resulted in this change to my own CSS code. Since I already had a “wrapper div” I just changed it so that instead of positioning the background image like this:

   background-image: url(images/rea-back.png);
   background-position: center top;

I used an explicit width and auto like this:

   background-image: url(images/rea-back.png);
   width: 1020px;
   margin: 0px auto;

Problem solved! Gotta love the web! Oh, and yes, the bug has been reported to the WebKit project.

one pixel

24 January 2011 . Comments Off on Setting up tweets of the week

Setting up tweets of the week

Some of you may have noticed, or been annoyed by, the TotD posts on my blog. I’ve slowly become more of a twitterer than a blogger. I find that I often tweet something brief just to remember it myself. Unfortunately, Twitter does not remember, or at least makes it awfully hard to recall. Many of my early tweets can only be recovered by paging through lots of cruft on their site.

Since I have my own blog I decided, earlier this month, to make sure my tweets also landed in my blog to be saved “for the record” as it were. This also means that I can do one search on my blog and find an idea whether I expressed it in a tweet or a blog posting. That’s what the TotD stuff was about. I used Twitter Digest (a WordPress plugin) to query Twitter every day and put together an automatic blog post of all my tweets. Sweet!

Only, I got annoyed. It turns out once a day was way too frequent for the amount of tweeting and blogging I do. So today I changed the settings of Twitter Digest to try a once-a-week format instead. Ironically, some fine tuning of that lead to a few extra posts. But I think it is set now. Instead of the daily tweets, a post should be generated once a week with all my tweets.

Oh, and also for the record, most of my Facebook updates are also generated from Twitter. I either post with TweetDeck for the desktop (I wish they’d fix their iPad app) or using the #fb hashtag and the Selective Tweets Facebook app from just about anywhere else.

I’m sure that is all way more information than you needed!


Eric Celeste / Saint Paul, Minnesota / 651.323.2009 /