{From an old email, source unknown}

Customer: I’m having some problems, can you help?

Customer Service Rep: Yes, I can help. Can you install

Customer: I can do that. I’m not very technical, but I
think I am ready to install now. What do I
do first?

CS Rep: The first step is to open your HEART. Have you
located your HEART ma’am?

Customer: Yes I have, but there are several programs
running right now. Is it okay to install while
they are running?

CS Rep: What programs are running ma’am?

Customer: Let me see …. I have PASTHURT.EXE,
RESENTMENT.COM running right now.

CS Rep: No problem. LOVE will automatically erase
PASTHURT.EXE from your current operating
system. It may remain in your permanent
memory, but it will no longer disrupt other
programs. LOVE will eventually overwrite
LOWESTEEM.EXE with a module of its own
called HIGHESTEEM.EXE. However, you have
to completely turn off GRUDGE.EXE and
RESENTMENT.COM. Those programs prevent
LOVE from being properly installed. Can you
turn those off ma’am?

Customer: I don’t know how to turn them off. Can
you tell me how?

CS Rep: Sure. Go to your Start menu and invoke
FORGIVENESS.EXE. Do this as many times
as necessary until GRUDGE.EXE and
RESENTMENT.COM have been completely

Customer: Okay, I’m done. LOVE has started installing
itself automatically. Is that normal?

CS Rep: Yes it is. You should receive a message that
says it will reinstall for the life of your HEART.
Do you see that message?

Customer: Yes I do. Is it completely installed?

CS Rep: Yes, but remember that you have only the
base program. You need to begin connecting
to other HEARTS in order to get the upgrades.

Customer: Oh no, I have an error message already.
What should I do?

CS Rep: What does the message say?

Customer: It says “ERROR 412 – PROGRAM HAS NOT
What does that mean?

CS Rep: Don’t worry ma’am, that’s a common problem.
It means that the LOVE program is set up to
run on external HEARTS, but has not yet been
run on your HEART. It is one of those
complicated programming things, but In non
technical terms it means you have to “LOVE”
your own machine before it can “LOVE” others.

Customer: So what should I do?

CS Rep: Can you find the directory called “SELF

Customer: Yes, I have it.

CS Rep: Click on the following files and then copy them
to the “MYHEART” directory:
The system will overwrite any conflicting files
and begin patching any faulty programming.
Also, you need to delete SELFCRITIC.EXE from
all directories, and then empty your recycle bin
afterwards to make sure it is completely gone
and never comes back.

Customer: Got it. Hey! My HEART is filling up with
really neat files.
SMILE.MPG is playing on my monitor right
now and it shows that WARMTH.COM,
copying themselves all over my HEART!

CS Rep: Then LOVE is installed and running. You
should be able to handle it from here. One
more thing before I go…

Customer: Yes?

CS Rep: LOVE is freeware. Be sure to give it and its
various modules to everybody you meet. They
will in turn share it with other people and
they will return some really neat modules back
to you.

Top 10 Most Embarrassing Website Mistakes

First, I’m being kind in calling these mistakes. You don’t just do these “by mistake” — it requires a willful action to do something that to most people is a blaring faux pas. As the web matures, I see these less and less often, but new, enthusiastic web designers who are primarily technical people aren’t always wired in to what users expect when they visit a site.

So here they are: the top 10 things that will wreck the credibility of your site. Please note I am not ranking them by how ridiculous they are because any of them should get you fired if the website project is paid work, and possibly are in violation of the Geneva Convention.

#1 Visitor Counters

These went on life support at the end of the last century and died with kiddies using MySpace finally becoming adults. Almost anything a counter says is a potential embarrassment: either the number is really low and tells you no one cares about the site; it’s moderate, meaning one or more people keep hitting refresh to jack the number up; or high, meaning you started the counter at an inflated, fake number. Nothing screams liar like being visitor number 10004.

It’s more modern cousin is less puerile, but still awkward — the “click here for stats” link. Sure the data is more interesting — to you, maybe. But unless you are selling ad space, keep it under the hood. It still evokes the question to the average user, “Why is this here”?

#2 “Best Viewed With {Firefox, IE, Chrome, etc.}”

The browser wars are not your concern. Stop telling people what browser you decided they need to use based on your design. Making a site functional and looking reasonably good in all modern browsers is your job.

#3 Monitor Contrast Test

Seriously? The job of your website is for people to make sure their monitor is calibrated? I haven’t seen this one in over a decade for a reason, so enough said.

#4 “Best Viewed in {some WxH screen resolution}”

Really? Okay, this is forgivable, given you live in a TARDIS stuck between 1984 and 2005. From the start, HTML was designed to be flexible enough to accommodate multiple resolutions, and life was good considering monitor sizes were limited and slowly got larger. But in a world where most web viewers are mobile devices of any number of sizes, you can’t target any one slice of the range. The solution is to optimize for a moderate screen size (fixed width being less than average monitor resolution on laptops and tablets), or better yet use responsive design. Whatever. The point is you can’t expect people to put down their phone and find a PC at the local library to look at your site. Which brings us to:

#5 Oversized Web Pages

I can always tell when someone made a website using a monitor that doubles as a screen for a drive-in theater. I’m sure it looks normal to them, and every other page on the Net was obviously made too small. Sorry, no soup for you. If people using the typical screen resolution du jour and have to scroll sideways to see it all, you did something wrong, not them. It could be layout or oversized images, usually both. Fix it and test on your grandmother’s PC.

#6 Huge File Sizes (images)

Like the oversized monitor warning sign, I can tell when people either have a screaming-fast connection or only test the copy of their website on their computer. Today’s almost ubiquitous broadband made download times almost a non-issue, but increasingly insane and uncalled-for camera photo resolutions have brought back the headache. The most important thing that people get wrong is that IMAGE SIZE IS NOT FILE SIZE. What you see on the screen is surprisingly irrelevant to how much space the file takes up on your computer, and more importantly, how long it takes to load.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that you can “resize” how an image is on a webpage without changing the dimensions of the file itself. People who do not understand that a “thumbnail” is a separate, SMALLER VERSION of the original need to learn this pronto. The second is that two photos (or other graphics even) that are the same dimensions in pixels can be different file sized by a scale of 100 timers or more. Seriously. It’s too much to get into here, but file type and compression make all the difference in the world, and done right will show no difference in quality. Usually resizing the (non-thumbnail) image to be no wider than a typical screen and re-saving as a JPEG with even slight compression will do the job.

#7 Background Music

If you are making a site for a movie or band, feel free to push a video or audio clip in the visitor’s face. Better yet, allow them to choose whether or not to play it and not alert their co-workers you’re surfing on company time. Otherwise, don’t think about it. I’ve broken this rule a couple times over the years at the client’s insistence and threatened to take my company name off the credits. And if you use MIDI music, ever, anywhere, I will hunt you down. I will find you. And I will kill you.

#8 Painful Text-Background Color Combinations

Either you are color-blind in this respect or you are not. If someone says “it’s kinda hard to read”, and the font set and size is typical, they’re probably being nice by not requesting you be a ward of the state so someone can dress you at taxpayer expense before you go outside. So listen carefully when people say this. Test trial it out with people you don’t know. Do it. For the children.

#9 Animated GIFs

No one objects to a waving flag once in a while. On a page for a personal hobby or organization not expected to have a budget to do things right, it doesn’t look so dumb. Now add in more waving flags, hands popping in and out of mailboxes, starbursts announcing “NEW!” and “UPDATE!”, flashing horizontal bar separators, and congratulate yourself. You’ve just created an ADHD circus. Which when combined so often with MIDI music, the 1990s truly was the Dark Ages of the Web. That, and the fact that people who made such web sites worked from their parent’s basements. For the love of all that is wholesome, it’s time to get out of the basement.

#10 Excessive Stock Graphics

This is a grey area. First, let’s be clear we’re not talking about official logos, but generic images that either accent or distract from content. Secondly, let’s distinguish between CLIP ART and STOCK PHOTOGRAPHY, the former a definite step below the latter in terms of professionalism. They can be used sparingly — as in one or two images per page. But any more than that and it’s obvious filler, or someone still recovering from changing times not allowing them to use a bombardment of animated GIFs.

Iconic images directly related to the topic can be exceptions to this rule, especially if it’s artwork emblematic of the subject. Again, sparingly. Heck, you can even get away with a line-drawn hot dog if it’s on a post announcing a picnic. Just remember, the website is not a street sale flier. Unless it’s for a street sale, in which case professionalism isn’t expected. But again, less is more, and sometimes none is better than one.

A Young Woman, An Inspiration




Browser Wars – Bill Gates, Sir Jim, and You

IE-Haters Anonymous

Finally, there is help — and hope — for you.

Heeding this article may not keep you in good standing with the IT community, but the rest of the world — and your checkbook — will thank you for it. The first part is a 5-step program to letting go of what’s been holding you back. The goal is to shift your perspective from emotional to realistic and from a programming-engineering mentality to that of a business person in the real world.

But first, I am reminded of what may be no more than an urban legend, but makes the point nonetheless. Engineers at NASA supposedly spent millions of dollars developing an ink pen that could write in zero gravity, as ink pens are gravity-fed. Like so many other things, they engineered it and over-engineered it, making sure it met every possible specification for every possible use. The Russians used a pencil.

I’m able to share all this with you because I’m a business person with IT knowledge, not the other way around. And a business person is worth his salt only in how well they accurately perceive and deal with market reality. Being an uber-geek or the Alpha male in the IT department is the top of the wrong ladder when it comes to this. You are a skilled craftsman — an engineer. But the success of your product is only in small part determined by the prowess of your craft, and certainly not by doing what is “best” from a purely technical standpoint. It is determined by its usability, and in particular ACCEPTANCE by the users in the real world target audience.

Remember, Bill Gates is the richest man in the world, because of business sense, not programming skill. But I’m going too far, too fast. Let’s start with baby steps.

I. Give up your idealistic crusading — you are not a general in the browser wars.

This is not some ancestral wrong to be righted, as if Bill Gates stole someone’s sacred penguin in a former life and now his corporate heirs are living off its golden eggs. There is no open source holy land to win back. No one cares if someone bought up Boardwalk and Park Place before Netscape had the chance. Since when did brand names get dragged into socio-political debates, anyway? Who cares by what means of voodoo and buccaneering Bill dominated the market. While we are busy hating the capitalist rich and praising the … well … not-so-rich-just-yet other players, the marketplace whooshes past us. They don’t lose sleep over it — they’re too busy playing the game. We need to get our own game on.

But if it helps, think of Microsoft as the new Roman Empire. They were hated by most of the then-known world (regardless of the fact it brought peace and accessibility of things like plumbing and eduction to all, whether they liked it or not). They were bullies; they were saviors. There will always be a king of the hill to be despised and knocked down, whether it be Redmond on Wall Street or America in the United Nations. Straighten your tie, leave the water cooler tribe, and get over it. Why? Next point, if you please.

II. Realize you do not own a browser company

Once you get off the high horse of step 1 — and only then — will you be ready for this step. In the battle of the browsers, who wins the browser wars is NOT your concern. Market reality is, but we’ll get back to that in a later point.

Unless you own stock in it or work for MS, AOL, et alia, you have no reason to push brands on other people with taglines and “best viewed with” whore-links. The few people who care already made up their minds. People who don’t, such as your CUSTOMERS, think it’s geekish and pointless at best, annoying and unprofessional at worst. No one is switching browsers because they see “Take Back the Web” on a bunch of random web pages, except the politically fickle. But the point is … repeat after me: IT IS NOT MY CONCERN. My concern is to deal with market reality, not be the ant who tries to push the SUV of the web to the gas station of my preference.

III. Understand that standards are not always standards

Are your sites W3C compliant? Congratulations — you win a pocket protector. And if you sell it on eBay, you might get a few pennies more than you would from a rusty slide rule. That’s because W3C, no matter how well thought out in theory, is just an artificial, arbitrary standard. Yes, the IDEA of standards are really useful. But they are only helpful in the real world when they are ESTABLISHED in the real world, as in the case of say, metric (IS) weights and measures. At some point, they became “the” standard and not just “a” standard (a proposed standard).

But it seems some of you need the news flash again. W3C is not THE standard. A committee of armchair political techies who think they are saving the virtual world with their own IT wisdom does not establish a standard, no matter who they are and how good it may be. What is requires is wholesale compliance, starting with ALL the biggest players, which they do not have. In other words, it is more accurate to say that a significantly dominant practice, code, even brand, is the real standard, not a paper one. Right now it’s code that works in Internet Explorer.

Since all standards are established by action and not merely decree, we go back to the Romans. 2000 years ago, they did something genius. They made all their vehicles with a particular axle width (incidentally, the same width of American railroads once they became standardized). On one hand, if they didn’t do this instead of just making it a “law” (standard by agreement), it would have meant nothing. But they did.

The result? It was pointless for the leaders of other nations to “make” (declare) a standard of their own, even if some followed it, because most roads not only led to Rome, but were built by Rome. And most carts and such created grooves of the (true) standard width when using dirt roads. If your chariot axle width was your own choosing, you were likely to get stuck, and those complying to the less common “standard” would be passed by those who used the standard established by real life practice. So Rome didn’t merely decide on a standard when there wasn’t one — they actually did it, and it therefore became THE standard. But back to the present, as I think the reader is capable of seeing this as a clear analogy of the history of web standards and browsers.

So what about design considerations then? The above understanding doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ideally create design to work in other browsers. And it’s too easy in my opinion to make a site text-only friendly for the visually impaired not to. (In fact, a certain Microsoft web editing tool does most of that work automatically.) But common sense means doing two things.

Put down your cross and holy water if you haven’t already and design for Internet Explorer FISRT. If you are a web developer by profession, it may be a good idea to use that as your browser by default (O, the horror!) so you can see the web the way most people do. Use Firefox or Opera on your iMac or whatever you use for your personal machine if you have one, but seeing with the eyes of your audience goes a long way when at work. (Of course this goes the same for screen resolutions — you can always tell when someone designs page on a huge monitor and isn’t paying attention to this factor.)

The point is to NEVER ignore how IE renders your pages — like it or not, the people who use it are the lion’s share of any website’s target audience. You may as well put your best foot forward there if you can’t make a code or design work on all browsers. That would be like a French company tending a global market not having their website in English first, with French and other language options second, or worse yet not having it in English at all. To defy the market that way would be pride, not sense. So if it doesn’t work in IE and it’s necessary, drop it without hesitation or regret.

Now with your priorities finally straight, the question is how much time to spend on less-used browser compatibility? You have to decide case by case what is worth the trouble and what is not based on many factors. In the example of Rome, is your particular journey worth having an extra axle width in the trunk to more easily transfer a neighboring country’s lands? Some people today would have a cart for each one, or rather a separate page that pulls up depending on detected browser. It’s a lot of work for some low-paying projects, and not always necessary for big ones if you cross-design design and keep it simple. You have to weigh what your time is worth, and know it’s not always reasonable to expect to please everyone.

As long as essential features work and don’t look bad in the other browsers, you’ve done your job. My rule of thumb? If code or design that is very common doesn’t render on a rare browser (or similarly at a very large or small screen resolution) the viewer has these problem with everyone else’s web pages as well, so wont think ill of it.

IV. Stop making (and taking it) personal.

This step separates the men from the boys. It separates opinion from fact. What browser is best is opinion; which one is used most if fact.

Because most geeks never can make it past Step 2, doing something like defending the IE standard over W3C compliance is heresy. You will be burned at various user groups’ stakes, but not in the board room. So try to live with that. The W3C isn’t buying from your shopping cart or giving you visitors to beef up the worth of your ad space — real people are. Think of them first. Think of the children (COPPA compliance as needed, of course).

But if you defend this point to geeks, they think they are hurting your feelings when they use the term “good browsers” to your face to refer to non-IR clients. “Good” is an opinion, valid or not. “Dominant” is a statistical fact they can take up with God, the universe, and everything, if they don’t like it, but IT’S NOT YOUR BATTLE anymore. You’ve overcome your own denial. And “standard” is something business people and HTML jockeys will never agree on. But now you have the edge. Don’t rub it in their face.

Trust me — it doesn’t win friends.

So now you graduate. This last one is like the last of Buddhism’s “Ten Bulls” when the enlightened one (that’s you now, silly) goes back out into the world to shine for others.

V. Now you are ready to deal constructively with marketplace reality.

Recap what you’ve learned. It doesn’t matter what browser sucks more than another and by how much. It doesn’t matter if the richest man in the world dictates the direction of the web right now. What matters is that until you accept it — and make the best of it — you are still mentally in your parents basement fighting over why your PS-whatever is better than your best friend’s XBOX instead of doing your job.

The Roman Empire fell, as do all empires in politics and the corporate world. And if you did your homework above, it wont matter what is the dominant browser, platform, whatever. Garden of Eden or the New Babylon, following the “when in Rome” principle just makes business sense.

There. Is the monkey off your back, or should I expect hate mail?

The Techno-Racial Divide

{published in April 2004 issue of Western New York Catholic monthly periodical}


It was a pleasure reading your article in the Feb’04 WNY Catholic, “Work to equalize the technological racial divide,” as it raises an issue I as a professional in the IT industry have always been concerned with. Globally, it is disappointing the scale of technological (and economic) disparity, where only half the people in the world have even used a telephone, but the problem in our own backyard is something we can no longer ignore and we can all do something about.

But before offering some helpful suggestions to addressing the problem, another problem was brought out unintentionally by what you wrote. You state that the “haves” are responsible for the development of products inaccessible to the “have-nots” which paints an inaccurate picture of intentional class war or the technological equivalent of the “Jim Crow” laws. This paints the Internet as a white-controlled environment, which is not only simply not true, but creates discouragement toward a medium that has the nearly infinite potential to level all playing fields.

The fact is that like every other ethnicity in America and around the world, African-Americans have made contributions to all aspects of “high technology” from positions such as software or hardware engineer, marketer, manufacturer-laborer, all the way up to CEO of various technology companies. Technology is not the exclusive realm of any demographic, at least in America. Some of the poorest neighborhoods in Buffalo may even have more cell phones and other electronic gadgets per person that my own neighborhood.

So isn’t it misleading to say simply that the rich are making things the poor can’t afford? If that was the problem, why are there no complaints about more and more expensive vehicles in an America where personal transportation can mean the difference between gainful and ungainful unemployment? Taking it one step further, don’t lower and middle class families deserve side airbags, like those who can afford such vehicles? The problem with these arguments are that is can become finger-pointing or an excuse to not address the real problem. Ironically, the richest man in the world, Bill Gates, owner of the Microsoft empire, spends countless billions of dollars on providing computers and Internet access to the country’s poorest neighborhoods, in particular in the Northwest.

None of us have the “right” to a car with OnStar GPS service and airbags in every direction, or to a cutting-edge computer at our fingertips, but your article points to the truth — in an age where access to technology can be a major contributing factor (though I don’t say a determining one) in a child’s or older individual’s success, there is a economic and racial divide that must be addressed.

But there are solutions. Existing public access at libraries and free computer training at various agencies is a good start. At least in theory, every one of us has access.

But we must establish a measurable watermark as to the minimum degree and amount of access and EDUCATION relating to computers and the Internet. Some neighborhood schools will have the newest toys and it would be ridiculous to knock them for it as unfair if they can afford it, but there should be a minimum requirement for all schools, and programs or incentives to ensure they all reach this watermark. This approach should be applied to the whole neighborhood — the schools, libraries, even homes. The Church is a pervasive social force in most places, and could establish initiative to study the problem in detail and develop programs accordingly, even if it means public education about and promoting existing programs in the community.

And there are many things we can all do to help. What about sponsoring a needy child on your street, letting them use the computer in your home for Internet homework resources? What about suburban parishes with schools pairing up with an urban school to provide occasional classes or even regular access to (more up to date) computer labs? As a business owner, I would offer access to my office for anyone in the neighborhood who needed access for job searching online. How could I refuse? Many businesses have an extra desk or PC around at times, and could use them to increase access in their respective communities.

So your article touches on a real issue that deserves serious attention. Let’s take that step forward and start the dialogue between the “haves” and “have-nots”, and put our faith into practice by creating and using any means necessary to share such resources.

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