Monday, 16 January 2017

Browser Vendors And Business Interests

On Twitter it has been said that "browser-vendors support web-standards when and only when those standards align with their own business interests". That's not always true, and even if it was, "business interests" are broad enough to make surprising results possible in a competitive browser market.

Mozilla, as a nonprofit, isn't entirely driven by "business interests". Mozilla often acts for "the good of the Web" even when that costs them money. (Example: pressing on with their own browser engine instead of switching to Chromium.)

Other vendors perceive (rightly or wrongly) that being seen to "do the right thing" has some business value. There is a PR and marketing effect, but also a recruiting effect; being seen as an evil empire makes it harder to recruit talented staff when other good options are available. To some extent Mozilla's existence has encouraged other vendors to compete on virtue.

Competitive markets can force vendors to implement standards they otherwise might not want to. For example, Apple needs an iOS browser that can render the modern Web or they'll leak market share to Android, so they're forced to implement Web platform improvements that you might think are not in the interests of their App Store business.

Decisions about Web standards and implementations are often made by individuals keen to "do the right thing" even if it might clash with corporate priorities. Everyone's good at rationalizing their decisions to themselves and others.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Browser Vendors Are Responsible For The State Of Web Standards

The W3C and WHATWG are mainly just forums. They have some policies that may help or hurt standards work a little bit, but most responsibility for the state of Web standards rests on the participants in standards groups, especially browser vendors, who drive the development of most Web standards and are responsible for implementing most of them too. Therefore, most of the blame for problems in Web standards should be assigned to the specific browser vendors who generated and implemented those standards, and influenced them in various directions.

For example, the reason media element playback, Web Audio and MediaStreams are all quite different APIs is because when I proposed a MediaStream-based alternative to Web Audio, no other browser vendors were interested. Google already had separate teams working on Web Audio and MediaStreams and was already shipping behind a prefix, Apple was barely engaged at all in the Web Audio working group, and Microsoft was completely disengaged. It's not because of anything specifically wrong with the W3C or WHATWG. (FWIW I'm not saying my proposal was necessarily better than what we got; there are technical reasons why it's hard to unify these APIs.)

In fact, even assigning responsibility to individual browser vendors glosses over important distinctions. For example, even within the Chrome team you've got teams who care a lot about Web standards and teams who care a bit less.

One way to make positive change for Web standards is to single out specific undesirable behavior by specific vendors and call them out on it. I know (from both giving and receiving :-) ) that that has an impact. Assigning blame more generally is less likely to have impact.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Parenting Notes

  • My oldest son just got a new phone. By mutual agreement, it's a dumbphone. He's trying to activate it and feels obliged to read the terms and conditions before agreeing to them. Somehow he's even more of a stickler for rules than I am; I've been trying to teach him how you sometimes need to break rules, but it's tricky work without wounding his conscience. He's struggling through the obtuse legalese. It's a real coming-of-age moment.
  • My children don't watch much TV and their Internet usage is restricted, but they read a lot of books and I'm supposed to keep track of them. I try hard to get them to read books I've already read and liked, but I still end up having to read a lot of popular child-oriented fiction, much of which is trash. Why aren't more of the ultra-popular teen series better written? There are some good writers, like J.K. Rowling, but so many others just churn out formula with mediocre writing and people lap it up. Right now I'm in Michael Grant's Gone series, which has very average writing but at least combines some good ideas in interesting ways. Could be worse; there's Rick Riordan, who writes similarly but without the ideas. The same rubbish exists in adult fiction, but I don't have to read that.
  • My kids don't like movies. I struggle to get them to go and see any movie, Star Wars, whatever, or even watch them at home. I don't understand it.
  • On the flip side, they love modern board games. That's excellent because my wife and I do too. It's a bit tough trying to work during the school holidays while they're constantly playing great games like Dominion, Lords of Waterdeep, Settlers, etc.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Cheltenham Beach

Today we drove to Devonport to walk around North Head and Cheltenham Beach. It was a lovely summer day and Cheltenham Beach looked amazing, especially for a beach that's more or less in the heart of Auckland.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

How China Can Pressure North Korea

This CNN article claims that there's very little even China can do to influence North Korea. I wonder why that is, because (though I'm relatively uninformed) it seems to me China could have a big impact on North Korea by reforming their policy for handling North Korean escapees.

Currently Chinese policy is that any escapees are returned to North Korea. This is inhumane because those returnees are jailed and often tortured, not to mention the hardships endured by escapees trying to reach South Korea traveling in secret. I understand that China doesn't want to host a flood of North Korean refugees, but I don't know why they couldn't coordinate with South Korea to efficiently ship any and all North Korean escapees to South Korea. (Maybe South Korea doesn't want this, but they could be made to accept it.) This would probably lead to people pouring out of North Korea, which would put significant pressure on the regime. Not only would this give political leverage, but it's also a far more humane policy.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Is CMS Software Generally Really Bad?

I'm helping overhaul our church Website. The old site was built in Joomla 1.5, and the new site is in Joomla 3.6 (I didn't choose the tech). Joomla's supposed to be a pretty popular system so I'm amazed at how much I dislike it and wondering whether there are better options available. There are a lot of small annoyances, some major design issues, and some really bad bugs.

One fundamental issue is that it's very difficult to work backwards from viewing a page on the site to being able to change the content on that page, until you've studied Joomla and the site internals to figure out how the pages are assembled. I had to read a lot of not-particularly-well-organised documentation to grasp the concepts of menus, articles, components, modules and templates, then do hours of spelunking with Firefox devtools, browsing the administrator interface and making educated guesses to figure out which page parts were generated by which Joomla entities. It seems to me that this could be a lot easier, either by offering WYSIWYG tools that show you visually how a page is assembled (and let you edit those parts in-place!), or at least by leaving consistent notes in the generated DOM to indicate where pieces came from. Simplifying the assembly model would also help a lot.

Another fundamental issue is that there's no version control or change preview. As far as I know the only way to figure out what impact a change is going to have is to make it on the live site. It might be possible to set up a staging server, but that looks difficult, and probably impractical for a small-ish project like ours. If you don't like the effects of the change you have to reverse it manually, which is horrible and error-prone. Without version control there's no way to view changes made by others, make experimental branches, etc. The two latter problems would not be improved by a staging server.

Those issues seem so fundamental to me I'm surprised a major CMS fails on them.

Then there are the bugs. My least favourite bug right now is that often, when I edit HTML using the WYSIWYG HTML editor, upon saving the article the targets of all links are replaced with the target of the last link (destroying my work in a non-undoable way, see above). I assume such a terrible bug must be specific to our installation somehow, but the system is complex and opaque enough that debugging it seems impractical.

Our church's needs are not complicated. The site is mostly static and there isn't a huge amount of content. Nevertheless the pages load quite slowly and the generated HTML/CSS/JS is bloated. It's tempting to start over with a completely different approach. Then again, I know there's a plethora of CMSes and Web frameworks and Joomla is very popular (at least in absolute terms) so I feel like there must be something I'm missing.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

On "Arrival"

Summary: beautifully shot, thought-provoking nonsense that's worth watching. High marks for imagination, but can't we have a science fiction movie that is imaginative, thought-provoking and stays logical for the entire duration?

Some spoiler-laden complaints follow...

The arrow of time is not a Sapir-Whorf phenomenon.

No-one builds high technology without acquiring the same basic mathematics we have.

There aren't indestructible substances that we can't figure out anything about.

Presented with a technology that controls gravity, you'd have scientists and their equipment jam-packed around it monitoring and experimenting 24-7 for years.

We don't need to worry about how to communicate with alien visitors. They'd learn our languages with ease and talk to us if and only if they want to.

I hope in real life the USA would put together a decent-sized science team instead of relying on a couple of quirky individuals.

Why would Louise tell Ian about their daughter's future if she knew he'd leave?

What happens if Louise tries to prevent what she forsees? Maybe this is connected to the previous question.

It was a nice change to have a leading couple in which the man was the superfluous accessory/love interest.