There Is No Cat

As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly

Monday, March 27, 2006

Making WordPress Page Titles accessible

I don't use WordPress here, but I did as the basis for the site of the North American Shortwave Association when I recently overhauled the site. By default, WordPress uses the » character as a separator between the blog name and the page title. But Roger Johansson over at 456 Berea Street, in part three of his series on evaluating web site accessibility, mentions the use of this character and how it sounds to screen readers ("right pointing double angle quotation mark" to at least one, and "right double angle bracket" to JAWS, the most popular screen reader). Now, shortwave radio has a significant number of blind listeners, and the realization that they would have to sit through this lengthy bit of speech for one lousy character startled me, as I've tried my best to make the site as accessible as possible.

Roger points to a page on Peter Krantz's Standards schmandards that has sound files for how a number of possible separator characters would appear to JAWS. I decided that the · character (&middot;) would be the most appropriate. It's short to read, yet still provides a clear visual delimiter for sighted users. The fix was fairly easy; in my template, I found two instances of wp_title() in the header.php file used to define the header of all pages on the site. wp_title() can take a parameter to set the separator character, so in the <title> and <h1> tags, I replaced the bare wp_title() call with wp_title('&middot;'). Voila! The site is now ever-so-slightly less annoying for users accessing the content with screen readers. Thanks, Roger and Peter.

Now I just have to look through the rest of the site and see if the » character appears elsewhere, and if so, if it's important enough to change. I noticed quote a few of them sprinkled throughout the source code of the core files....

Posted at 4:03 PM
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Thursday, March 23, 2006

Next it'll be ponytails

Looks like I shaved off my beard just in time....

Posted at 7:43 PM
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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Too much!

Okay, this is running on two different computers (on one screen), but still....

Computer screen showing Mac OS X, Fedora Core 4, Mac OS 9, and Windows XP Pro in one screen

Mac OS X running X Windows to display the screen of a computer running Fedora Core 4, which is running Mac OS 9.0.4 using SheepShaver and Windows XP Professional using VMWare Server. Now I can test my sites with almost anything....

Posted at 5:20 PM
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RSS levels community

Jeneane Sessum writes about something that's been on my mind since my posts a few weeks ago about community or the lack thereof in Blogistan. At that time, some were saying that RSS was the great leveler, the development that would make Blogistan the same kind of community that Usenet was back in the day.

Jeneane disagrees.

Feed aggregators reduce every site to a dull grey lowest common denominator. Allied is Burningbird is Emergency Weblog is the New York Times; they all look the same in a feed reader. Most feeds don't include the associated comments from a post; if they did, the same item would come up as new over and over and over as comments were added, which would break the model on which feed readers are built. Some CMSes attempt to work around this by providing a separate comments feed for each post. Subscribe to all the comment feeds on all posts you read and see how your aggregator likes dealing with 10,000 feeds, most of which will be effectively dead after a week or three.

Feeds may make it possible to discover threads in conversation across weblogs; I'm unconvinced, but concede that there's a possibility. But at what cost? The feed aggregator model reduces readers to that horrible word that anti-marketers so despise, "consumers". It's hard enough to build a sense of community in this medium that I've argued doesn't lend itself to the task. In the process of potentially discovering links between weblogs, feeds make it less likely that we participate in conversations on a single weblog. The last thing we need to be doing is placing another barrier in the way of the conversations we so want to encourage.

I resisted using a feed aggregator for a long time. I tried and abandoned them a number of times. Only in the past month or so did I give in. I find it makes it easier to keep up with a wider variety of weblogs. Right now, I think that's important for me to do. I used my blogroll as my primary means of keeping up for a very long time, and enjoyed taking a leisurely stroll among my neighbors in Blogistan, but lately find I need the time I used to spend doing so for other pursuits. Aggregators make that possible. But I have to remind myself to leave comments, and even to read the ones others have read, because they don't show up in most feeds.

I don't think there's a solution for this. One reasonable band-aid I've seen in a few feeds is to list how many comments there are for a given post in a feed. I may try implementing this to see if it's not too disruptive to the aggregation process. But to my mind, the whole system is another way in which the structure of Blogistan and the web actively fight against the human desire to create community in a way that other tools on the net don't.

Posted at 9:32 AM
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Monday, March 20, 2006

Inspired by SXSW

SXSW seems to have energized me to add a couple of features to my homegrown blogging CMS, some long planned and others inspired by what I saw there. One of the most interesting sessions I attended there was the one on Microformats. Basically, these are just conventions for XHTML markup to mimic the kind of structured data available in custom XML schemas. Tantek Çelik moderated the session, and his slides are up on the web. The panelists demoed a number of cool hacks based on the concept. I've added support for the hCard microformat here in a couple of places; first, my name in the "Me" section of my right navigation bar is now an hCard. I haven't included anything other than my name and URL in the hCard because I don't really want to expose my address, phone number, or e-mail here on the web. Oh, and there's a picture of me there that's not displayed on the page, but that will show up in anything that consumes the hCard. The second location in which I've implemented hCards is in comments; the information people enter for name and URL are also marked up as an hCard. If you use a tool like Tails, the Firefox extension for microformats, you'll see the hCards on my pages. Obviously, the information in them is incomplete, because I don't ask people to register, verify, or provide too much identifying information, but at least those tools that understand the hCard conventions will understand that the names on my site refer to people rather than just being random words. I don't know that there's a significant use for that in this context at the moment, but I suspect that some day there may be. hCard is really intended for exchanging fuller address book information than I provide here, but I think it can still be useful in providing improved semantics even without all of that information. I think the next thing I do with microformats may be to mark up my resume (currently password protected, but I'll probably open it up in the near future as I start looking for a new job) with hResume.

The second new feature I've added is tagging. Yeah, okay, I'm only a year or two behind the crowd. So sue me. That's one of the joys of writing your own CMS: you get to implement the latest fads yourself. So maybe it takes a little longer. Or a lot longer, in my case. It didn't seem all that important before, but while I was mucking about in the code, I figured I'd add tags. Didn't take long. And tagging is a microformat, too, although I think its development predated the common usage of the term.

The third and final feature is that I've upgraded my Atom feed from the deprecated version 0.3 to 1.0. In the process, I stomped a bug that was causing my feed to have incorrect timestamps on its items, and even to use identical timestamps for items posted on the same day. Oops. That's fixed now. I hope that the tools out there support Atom 1.0; the ones I looked at seem to, but I'm sure there are some laggards. I actually did most of the development work on this several months ago, but held off deploying it to give the feed readers a chance to catch up.

Posted at 9:32 PM
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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Notes to a future self

I tried writing a wrapup of SXSW on the plane on the way home, but it didn't ring true, so I'm not going to post it. This is my second try as we approach Newark airport. I have distinctly mixed feelings about the experience. On the one hand, I don't think I took enough advantage of the opportunity to network. I tried, and I succeeded to some degree. I met almost everyone I wanted to at one point or another. I met a number of people I had no idea existed before SXSW, and they were all fascinating. I had some excellent conversations with people like Virginia DeBolt about the quality of light in the southwest where she lives; Elizabeth Perry about giving yourself permission to be creative; Jakob Heuser about online community; Vanessa Tan and Lucien Teo about job frustrations; Raines Cohen about flying toasters, real-life community building and co-housing; Andy Baio about the Dave Winer Remix Contest and side projects taking over your life; Doc Searls (who looked at my name tag and greeted me like an old friend) about radio geekery; Derek Powazek and Eric Rice (separately) about storytelling; Dori Smith about the (improving, hallelujah) health of her husband Tom Negrino; Maggie Arganbright about broadcasting, accessibility, Amtrak, football, and wine and cheese; Jeneane Sessum about a bunch of stuff including the Fray Cafe; Molly Holzschlag (very briefly) about getting involved with the Web Standards Project; Derek Featherstone about how to test for accessibility and if following the guidelines is enough; Gordon Montgomery about kicking ass and taking names in accessibility; Andy Budd about how to reach the point where people listen to what you say; Rick McCauley about photography, appropriate tech, and how to network and run a business; Trey Piepmeier about the life of a solo practitioner; Jenaro Diaz about photography and awards (congratulations, Jenaro, I saw that your site won!); Georgy Cohen about the nuisance of people always telling you the same "joke" that stopped being funny, oh, ever; and most of all Elaine Nelson about a bunch of stuff that can't adquately be explained here. And I'm certainly forgetting a bunch of people.

But I'm disappointed in myself for a few missed opportunities. I went to the Web Standards Project annual meeting, the first open one ever. It was very interesting, and I even got my two cents in on the topic of how you get web developers to use web standards (one-on-one evangelism was my answer; I've seen it work in one or two cases in my current job). But I didn't put myself forward to participate in any of the after-meeting conversations, and I'm not sure why I didn't. I think I was feeling a little stunod by the end of the day and my judgement was not so great, and I'm sure there's a good reason for it, but I'm still less than pleased with myself on that count. I had an opportunity to join some interesting people in an important discussion and I dropped the ball and wound up going to bed early that evening after doing not much of anything. Wasted evening, and there weren't enough evenings available that I could afford to do that. I'm sure three straight nights of three and a half hours of sleep played into that, which was weird, because I didn't stay out later than midnight on any given night.

I suppose I'm probably beating myself up too much. That incomplete list in the first paragraph is pretty long, so I was doing something right. For a first time attendee, I did okay.

In the Macintosh development community several years ago, there was the concept of SmartFriends™, "A network of people who know what they're doing. A network that survives corporate blunders, reorgs, and failures." SXSW has that kind of feel.

I'm sure I'll write more about the sessions that energized me later. But, like soylent green, SXSW is made of people, and it seemed most important to write about that.

Posted at 8:49 AM
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Monday, March 13, 2006

And if you're a woman, try being reincarnated as a man

I'm holding off writing about any of the sessions at SXSW until I can digest my notes and all, but I'd just like to say that the hint that was the least helpful (and probably no less true for that) I heard from a panelist, who I will do the favor of not naming here, about how to raise ones profile online was to move to the Bay Area.

Sometimes the Interwebs feel like high school, and the rest of us just live on the wrong side of the tracks. I'm sure someone somewhere has done a Silicon Valley version of Saul Steinberg's "View of the World from 9th Avenue". Feh.

Posted at 9:35 AM
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Drinking tadpoles

This is what it looks like from behind the microphone on stage at the Red Eyed Fly in Austin, Texas, when you've just told a story at the Fray Cafe (as I mentioned in my last post, Fray Cafe is a live storytelling event and the real life instantiation of the online Fray). I saw a lot of cameras this evening, but most of them were pointed at the stage. I didn't see any pointing from the stage, so I thought this would make an interesting shot.

Looking out at the audience at Fray Cafe in Austin

This was without a question the best part of the trip so far. I got to the location pretty early and found Derek Powazek, Founder Emeritus of the Fray and Fray Cafe, and Eric Rice, who has made the event continue to happen for the past three years after Derek stepped down from producing them. I introduced myself to Derek and told him about my recent post where I credited him with being the Ernie Kovacs of the web (at least for me), and he got all excited and said, "You wrote that? I read that! That's the nicest thing anyone's ever said about me!" Well, I'm sure that his wife Heather has said nicer things, and I don't take hyperbole literally, but it was sweet to know that he had seen and appreciated it. Derek just seems like one of the genuinely nicest people I've met here.

We talked for a while out in front of the bar. I told him a story about my time in startup hell, and he got a kick out of it, which gave me the courage to sign up for an open mic slot and tell the story to everyone else. Which is, of course, how I got the photo above. I sucked, but that was okay, even though pretty much everyone else didn't suck. Next time I'll plan something out in advance and hopefully not suck nearly so hard. It's different telling a story to a microphone and 150 people than telling it to a guy in front of a bar.

Derek Powazek on stage at Fray Cafe in Austin

Derek actually got up and told a story, for the first time in a few years from what I understand. He talked about how he met his wife at SXSW several years ago, how he tried to propose to her at SXSW a few years later, and how he eventually did propose to her on a Fray-related New Year's Eve.

The stories seemed to be mostly about love or technology. Baratunde Thurston, who I was sitting next to most of the night, is a gigging comedian and was hysterically funny and touching talking about his late mother's last days.

The Red Eyed Fly was a really neat place to have this (I understand it's where it happens every year). It's a pleasantly divey bar, and the back room where the stories were told had a really cozy ambiance. I felt a whole lot more comfortable here than I have at the conference itself, which is large and a bit overwhelming. A lot of the people here have clearly been friends for a long time, but I didn't get the sense of intruding the way I have in some other similar situations. Fray Cafe at SXSW was an incredible way to spend an evening.

Posted at 3:17 AM
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Sunday, March 12, 2006

An ass kicking

SXSW kicks ass. Specifically, it's kicking my ass. I had read before I got here that it could be an overwhelming experience, and boy, ain't that the truth. It's Saturday and I'm exhausted, more mentally than physically. If I ever had any doubt that I'm an introvert, the opening party squashed that. Loud, hot, crowded, all the things that make for a pretty lousy time. In that particular situation, I'm just not that good at walking up to random strangers and introducing myself. I can do it on the bus, I can do it in sessions during the conference, and I can do it in smaller groups (it wasn't quite so hard at Breaking Bread with Brad last night, for example), but in this particular atmosphere, it just doesn't work for me. Loud and crowded and me just don't get along. Here's hoping that Sunday and Monday let up on the loudness and the crowdness.

I did meet a few interesting people there, though. I ran into Elaine, and she was talking with a local guy named Paco Link, who works at a local agency, Terra Incognita. (Elaine, I hope I didn't take over the conversation; I'm sorry if I did.) Paco was an interesting guy. His agency works with SXSW pro bono, and in return, they get gratis Gold passes that give him access to the Interactive, Film, and Music threads of SXSW. He also serves as a screener for documentaries in the Film festival; documentaries have long been a passion of mine, so we had a very interesting conversation about that. I also had a brief conversation with Jeremy Keith, author of DOM Scripting, a book I found really turned my head around about Javascript. When I mentioned my name and site, he remembered having an e-mail exchange with me a few years ago, and seeing this site and the Einstein quote in particular. I didn't even remember that e-mail. Go figure. I didn't get a chance to tell him and his wife Jessica that I appreciated their blogging the hurricane that hit St. Augustine when they were visiting last year. I remember paying close attention to both of their sites at the time, since my parents live in St. Augustine now. On the bus on the way back to downtown, I met an interesting guy named Trey Piepmeier, a solo practitioner in Tennessee who operates under the excellent name Synthetic Rabbit. He's called Trey because he's a "third", just like Bill Gates (whose family calls him Trey), thereby neatly sidestepping the annoying problem of always having to ask anyone who telephones and asks for so-and-so which so-and-so they want (not to mention the problem of not being able to forward mail when one of the so-and-sos moves. Yeah, I know a little something about that from personal experience...)

After that, though, I was ready to call it a night. I passed on the later nighttime activity, something about digital art and electronic music. Could have been fun, but after that party, I was just too frazzled to think about it. I walked down 6th Street and bought Laura a little present to bring home. (No, honey, I'm not going to tell you what it is; you'll have to wait until I get home.)

The sessions during the day were pretty good on the whole. I took notes, but they're not really coherent at this point, so I'm going to hold off on posting them until I can massage them into text I feel good about writing. Andy Budd and Andy Clarke had an interesting session about Web Designers as Superheroes that used a very clever conceit to make some interesting points. I spoke with Andy Budd for a while after the session. One of the points he made during the questions afterward was about how his greatest victory was that now people listen to him when he talks about the importance of web standards and what the best solution for their particular situation would be and such, and that it had been a long, hard slog to get to that point. My experience in that particular endeavor has been rough. I've found that over time, I can get my clients to trust me and accept my suggestions in a way that they don't when I first start working with them. Unfortunately for me, the people I've managed to pull this trick off with have then been laid off, leaving me to start more or less from scratch (and giving the lesson that if you want to keep your job, it's probably best to not pay me any attention). And some people aren't as succeptible to my charms as others. So I asked Andy about what it had taken to get to the point where his clientele is to some extent self-selecting; they choose him and clear:left, the consultancy partnership he has with Jeremy Keith and Richard Rutter, because of their commitment to standards. I don't think we came up with a clear path there; Andy admitted that luck was a significant component. And there's the fact that he's a consultant while I'm an internal captive developer (familiarity breeding contempt and all). But I think it's also that he's just wicked clever and comes up with neat hacks and lets the world know about them. I think a lack of self-confidence has kept me from writing about some of the things I've done. I think I may try to rectify that. When I get back from SXSW, I think I'm going to write up how I added a little something to the standard AJAX stuff for the NASWA site to give users the ability to turn it off (and keep it off) if they find the information not accessible.

Anyway, the whole thing is overwhelming. I'm doing my best to keep up. But at a certain point tonight, I just felt like I needed to pull the plug. I think tomorrow night, I'm probably going to go to the Fray Cafe, a live instantiation of the storytelling site I wrote about a few weeks ago. I suspect that given that the stories are the draw, it'll be a quieter and more enjoyable experience.

Posted at 1:14 AM
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Saturday, March 11, 2006

Well, hey, web geeks are hot

Brief conversation with one of a group of five women on 4th Street while waiting at a stop light on the way back to the hotel from Break Bread With Brad tonight:

Woman (upon seeing my SXSW badge): Oh, is South by Southwest starting already?

Me: Yup. Started today.

Woman: (something about musicians that I don't remember exactly).

Me: Well, that starts later in the week. Right now it's just film people and web geeks.

Woman: Oh, web geeks get me so hot!

Woman 2: You're a film person, right?

Me: Sorry ladies, I'm married. :-)

Woman 2: We are too. :-)

Posted at 1:20 AM
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Friday, March 10, 2006

Why yes, I think I am insane

Four-thirty in the morning is an hour when no sane human is awake. Therefore, I must be insane, because that's when my eyes popped open this morning. Not that it was that much of a loss; the alarm was set for five a.m. so I could go strap myself into an exploding tin can for five hours and head for the one drop of hip in an ocean of Texas. Yes, it's true, I'm at SXSW, just like every other self-respecting blogger in the western hemisphere. I wonder why it is that a shy, introverted person like me puts himself in a position that can best be enjoyed by an extroverted hail fellow, well met. (I used to be one of those extroverts, but I think I used up my life supply of extroversion by the age of nine. Long story.)

Anyway, I hope to be here tonight. You can see what I look like in this post here, except that my hair's probably a bit messier thanks to the eighty-seven degree heat. Didn't anyone tell these people that it's March, and that spring doesn't even start for a couple of weeks yet, never mind summer? I should have brought more shorts.... Anyway, if you're insane too and you see me, say hi. I have a hard time getting started, but once I do, I can talk as well as any other insane person who straps themselves into an exploding tin can. I'll even be happy to explain why there's a sticker with the letter "Z" on my SXSW badge.

Posted at 6:58 PM
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Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Geek Glasses

I got my geek glasses last week and thought I should share.

Geek glasses

For the first few days, I did a double take every time I saw myself in the mirror (not surprising, given that I had my previous glasses for more than ten years), but now I think I'm used to seeing these on my face, and I like them. Not crazy about this particular photograph, but it's the best one of a bunch I took, so here you go.

Posted at 12:01 AM
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Tuesday, March 7, 2006


The U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research issued a forecast today that states that the upcoming solar cycle, Cycle 24, is expected to start about a year late and to be 30-50% stronger at its height than the current solar cycle. Interestingly, this is the first time they've had a model with which they could forecast a solar cycle's intensity with enough certainty to issue a forecast.

Looking at the graphs on their press release page, the prediction shows the cycle being about equal or maybe slightly stronger than cycles 21 (1979) and 22 (1990), although not as strong as the legendary cycle 19 of 1957. I wasn't born in 1957, but I got my start in shortwave listening as cycle 21 was starting up, and can say that reception at the peaks of 21 and 22 was excellent.

Good news for shortwave radio DXers, maybe not quite so good for mediumwave DXers and satellite users. If there are any stations left on shortwave by 2011, anyway.

Posted at 3:14 PM
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This site is copyright © 2002-2024, Ralph Brandi. (E-mail address removed due to virus proliferation.)

What do you mean there is no cat?

"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."

- Albert Einstein, explaining radio

There used to be a cat

[ photo of Mischief, a black and white cat ]

Mischief, 1988 - December 20, 2003

[ photo of Sylvester, a black and white cat ]

Sylvester (the Dorito Fiend), who died at Thanksgiving, 2000.


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