April 12, 2006
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Getting your hand wet

We had a little item last issue about the advertising business, and how there are bunches of companies sticking their hands in the revenue stream just to get a little bit of it. Except for some inefficiencies -- and the embarrasment to some big company whose ad appears on a site that many might not consider appropriate -- there's nothing really wrong with that.

Over the last month or so, though, we've seen a lot of discussion of "Net neutrality", the idea that the major pipeline providers of Internet traffic should not be allowed to determine whose packets are more important than others based on the willingness of the people sending those packets to pay for it. In other words, if you want your website delivered at the same speed as (for example) www.TheBigCompanyThatWillPayForIt.com, then you not only pay for access to the pipeline and for the volume of data you send, but you also pay for it to not go through a broadband provider's traffic control system that would slow it down. Think of the idea this way: Today, everyone can get on the interstate highway. Tomorrow, unless you pay, you'll eventually get on the highway, but first you'll go through an onramp that features two traffic lights, a construction zone including two flagmen and an Attenuator Vehicle, and a broken railroad crossing guard.

The idea of sticking your hand into a river of money to get it a little bit wet is nothing new. AOL ran into a buzz saw a few weeks back with a plan to "certify" email, meaning that if you want, you can pay AOL to guarantee delivery. Spam is still spam, and AOL knows that people are making a ton of money by shoving it through AOL's filters, so the company figures, "if you can't beat 'em, make a few bucks off 'em." Will it cut down on spam? Well, put it this way. The US Postal Service, over the last 20 years or so, has raised the per piece price of bulk mail tenfold, and newspapers still mail out "shoppers". Why? Because advertisers know they work. Spam won't disappear until the cost of doing business outstrips the return.

So what does this have to do with "Net neutrality"? Plenty. An antitrust ruling notwithstanding, The Company Formerly Known As Ma Bell is gradually regaining her former shape, while Verizon includes two of the remaining three Bell companies. Comcast (which owns what was once AT&T Broadband) is the nation's second largest Internet provider. What these two companies do will generally set the trend for the rest of the country, and they're thinking of telling high bandwidth customers (think Yahoo, Microsoft, eBay and Google) that if they don't pay, the delivery of their web pages might just take a little while longer than what people are accustomed to.

And it's not just web pages; it's anything that uses the pipeline. Most of us won't notice it directly; our email will still work, and our ISPs -- the ones who don't own the pipelines, like ours -- will either raise the price a bit or absorb the cost. But we'll all eventually notice it in the prices we pay elsewhere. Either the rates Google charges will go up, or the commission we pay to eBay will increase, or the margin on Vista will be a little slimmer.

For their part, the broadband companies say that they're actually doing Yahoo, Microsoft and the others a favor by offering them a "virtual pipeline" of their own -- at a price, of course. But the real concern is that they will start competing with their customers; for example, Comcast can tell ABC/Disney that it will have to pay for a video pipeline in order to compete with the video pipeline that Comcast uses for its own products, notably OLN, which has the exclusive rights to both the NHL and the Tour de France, and films distributed by MGM/UA.

Where's it going to all end? Good question. Republicans in the House of Representatives have written a bill that the Democrats say doesn't go far enough; the big broadband providers are saying that the Federal Communications Commission can already put restrictions on them, so there's really nothing to worry about. And the chairman of the FCC, Michael Powell, says that Congress knows less about how the Internet works than almost anyone. One thing that's certain: the issue isn't going to go away.


MHenry, the Page Editor for all things Macromedia, usually writes about what bugs him. We assume the configuration of his email filters works.

So, I went to the doctor this week. I keep waking up in the middle of the night feeling like John Hurt in Alien, like something is trying to claw its way out of my belly. Not a pleasant feeling, but maybe it explains why I'm in such a foul mood and just aching to write something guaranteed to make the people write incendiary emails. Yeah, I don't have enough grief in my life.

First off, I should say that I like the idea of having web standards. It would be a huge benefit to all of us if we didn't have to write three different versions of everything, or, if you're a talented programmer, write the equivalent of two different versions in JavaScript. I think all of us would get behind any effort that would fulfill that utopian goal. And CSS does have some great points: smaller pages, more flexibility, keeping coding/layout organized and handy, etc.

But wouldn't it be nice if the stuff we are backing actually worked?

Sure, CSS works for the most part. And I understand that it will take time to actually get all the bugs worked out but for cryin' out loud, when will we be able to get a three-column layout that works across all the major browsers? And when I say work, I mean you don't have to tie a dead cat to a string and twirl it over your head in a graveyard at midnight just so it will look the same in Exploder and FireFox. (Yes, I hear you now. It's the browsers' fault! They're not compliant! It's Microsoft, they're evil and can only be killed with a stake through their black hearts.) So far, the closest I've come to finding a three-column layout that really works is found at http://glish.com/css/7.asp. Funny thing; he has a "Does it validate" link. And no, it doesn't. It's only one line that causes the error and it's just something minor but it does kind of illustrate my frustration. When a guru can't even get his page to validate, what chance do mere mortals have? And I did get close. I managed to get the three columns to top align in two out of three; with a header AND a footer.

Here's my short list of complaints:

  1. It's almost impossible to do layouts. As mentioned above, three-column layouts are tough but what if you wanted to do a six-column layout? Newsletters (invented in the PlasticinePorter era) have been using six-column layouts forever. I know web is different than print, but you can do a six-column with tables -- and it works! With CSS, anything above two columns is in the realm of fantasy.
  2. That annoying Flash of Unstyled Content (FOUC). As soon as your stylesheets get too complex, you get that lovely FOUC. Can you imagine if that happened with tables? The compliance folks would be pointing and laughing! "See," they would exclaim, "Tables don't work. They look weird when they first load. And, by the way, you really should sit up straight when coding. Maybe you should get outside and exercise." (Yes, they do talk like that. Kinda creepy really.) What's the solution? Another workaround. If only you purists would have been so forgiving of tables' limitations, I wouldn't have to learn CSS!
  3. In a three-column layout, I want the left and/or right column to stretch to the end of the page with the center content. I can do that in a table. I can even specify that I want text to flow from the bottom up so that it can be bottom-aligned. And I don't want to hear, "There is a workaround." That's what we've been dealing with for tables for so long. If CSS is the answer, why does it seem like there are just as many workarounds?
  4. Too damn complex. Don't believe me? Try this: I found a great little menu system at http://www.xs4all.nl/~peterned/examples/cssmenu.html. (Actually found the link at Listamatic. Great resource for anyone trying to create a menu.) In order to get this hover menu to work, you have CSS, Javascript, and use html unordered lists. It works great. But when I tried to use a plain unordered list on a different page, all hell broke loose. I tried going back to the CSS and changing the list references to something else but I couldn't figure it out. I eventually wound up styling a different class for regular lists. Took me the better part of a full day to get it working. And yes, I know some of you out there are screaming, "You should have made your own." My answer? Some of us didn't go to Stanford and major in computer science. Some of us are still learning over here. And why the hell should it take an engineering degree to understand this stuff? Have you ever seen websites designed by engineers? Ugh! No one wants that!

Okay, here's where I really upset some folks -- What's wrong with Flash? So everyone has to install a plugin, but after that everything works. And yes, some people abuse it creating useless animations, but let's be honest -- it works. Some major benefits of working in Flash include:

  1. ANY layout you create will render across all browsers. Even bad layouts will still look bad.
  2. You can embed fonts. You don't have to worry whether the user has myUselessFont.ttf installed.
  3. Flash has Actionscript for those of you who just have to code.
  4. If you stay away from overly complex animations and huge graphics, you can make small, fast-loading pages.
  5. In one tool you can make your graphics, do your layout, and publish your pages. What the heck's wrong with that?

Of course, the biggest drawback to using Flash or any other kind of plugin is with the search engines. But let me ask you something: Whose problem is it, really? All the people who are ranting at Microsoft over Internet Explorer should be ranting at the search engines. We've already got the tool that will work; why don't we just insist the search engines find a way to work with Flash? We know that we can supply text versions to the search engines. Maybe Adobe and Google should get together and figure out a way to automatically generate code that search engines can use. And yeah, I imagine they've been trying and haven't figured out a way yet, but again, I think it's the search engines problem, not the developers.

It seems like web development has always had this "Too bad, just do it like this anyway," attitude, all the way back to MS Front Page changing your code for you, because MS always knows better, to today's boring CSS layouts. And they are boring. Even the brilliant designs at http://www.csszengarden.com/ are more a function of working within the bounds rather than pushing the envelope.

There are many other reasons. I could plagiarize them for you but I prefer to just point the way. In one of the more well thought out CSS articles I've read http://www.cybergrain.com/archives/2004/12/css_considered.html, Jon Meyer points out that virtually every piece of design software out there (InDesign, Quark, etc) allows for "based-on styles." Man, I'm all for that. In the case of that menu system I mentioned above, all I would have to do is make a little tweak to one class instead of writing a complete new one. Doesn't that just make sense? He also makes a case for drag and drop functionality -- more of a WYSIWYG approach to CSS. I can hear all the purists howling now...

In closing, I just want to say that I expect a flood of email from everyone for writing this. I can even list their objections:

  1. Learn how to use the tools before you complain. (I bought three CSS books. I still can't write something that will work across all the browsers. I just don't know enough about the ins and outs and idiosyncrasies. I know, I know, that's my fault. But why the hell can't CSS make my life easier instead of harder?)
  2. It's the browsers, not the language. (And it always will be.)
  3. We're trying to build a better Internet and jerks like you are killing our efforts. (Talk about delusional. I can barely control my children let alone the Internet.)
  4. You must be trying to short-sell CSS stock, sell your own software or are just a Microsoft goon. (What the hell. Guilty to all three if it will make you feel better.)

As I stated at the beginning, I fully support standards. I don't even mind learning CSS. I am just questioning whether this is truly the best alternative we have. CSS is complex, and they're already talking about version 3.0. If you've been around web design for any length of time, you know that a new version only means one thing: More complexity, not less.

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Following up on April Fools Day

Last issue, we brought you some information about a few news items that could have been April Fools jokes, but weren't. This time, we have a few items where the line between a good joke and a bad reality is pretty blurry.

Topping the list is the site of the newly-formed Music And Film Industry Association of America, which is the result of a merger of the Motion Picture Association of America -- more on them in a minute -- and the Recording Industry Association of America. Neither has ever really had the interests of the people who pay for their products at heart, but if there were ever a merger that made sense, it's this one.

As promised, the latest from those friendly people who want you to keep supporting lousy films: six of the major studios are now going to sell you movies you can download the same day they're released for sale on DVD. Of course, they're also going about it in a manner guaranteed to fail, which will give them an excuse to keep suing 12-year-olds. First, the movies will cost more to download than they will cost to buy on DVD -- about 50 per cent more for new releases. That alone makes it worth heading to the local Wal-Mart, but it gets better: the downloads won't have all the other stuff that comes on the DVD. We'll admit that most of the time, we're not interested in hearing a director tell us about the quality of the art exhibited in the acting of Jean-Claude Van Damme, but still, some of the features are at least as entertaining as some of the films. Finally, while you can burn a backup copy, you won't be able to play the DVD in the DVD player attached to your television. You have to play it on your computer and hook THAT to your television. Somehow, the prospect of seeing Lord Of The Rings on my laptop while my new 50-inch Hi-Def plasma TV collects dust doesn't seem right.

Next on our list was an April Fools article on the Web 2.0 ... is it a fad? who knows... . What is particularly prescient about the article is that it looks like so many sites that suckered people six or seven years ago (anyone remember WebVan?). The joke would have been a lot better had someone actually come up with pictures of boxes for Fluff and HotAir software; after all, someone somewhere had to decide that Breeze describes communications software.

April Fools Day is a tradition around Google, and this year's prank was no exception. We spent the weekend with some friends; the 16-year-old daughter of one told us she rarely actually uses her cell phone to talk to anyone, and that she stays in touch with text-messaging. We're just not sure what Ann Landers would say about a "context-based relationship".

Finally, we couldn't let the good folks in the Microsoft Access topic area think we weren't paying attention. harfang celebrated his recent assent to the ranks of the Geniuses with his own modest proposal regarding how difficult it is to crack the Top 15. Our only comment: be careful what you wish for...

Tip from the Moderators: Three more from Community Support

So you've just earned your first Certificate, and you want it to say your real name instead of the witty username (Netminder, or Lunchy, or even Computer101) you registered when you joined Experts Exchange. Here's what you do. Click on your username, and then click the Edit button. Put the appropriate information in the First Name and Last Name boxes, fill in the checkbox that says Display my Personal Settings, and then click Submit. When you click on the icon for your Certificate, you'll see your name there instead of your username. Once you've printed your Certificate, you can change the settings back to the way they were.

Lost your question?: You know you posted it in the VB Controls topic area, but you've looked high and low and can't find it on the list of Questions Awaiting Answers, right? It's there, trust us. For you, as the Asker, the question will appear at the top of the Topic Area page under the heading Your Questions, but to everyone else, it will be listed in the Open Questions. If you're not sure where you posted it, you can click on the link below your username that says My Open Questions. The number turns red once you have more than five open.

Oops...: Every once in a while, someone selects the wrong commment as the Answer to a question, or he means to split the points and hits the Accept button instead. What to do? Simple: post a request in the Community Support topic area. The Moderators watch that topic area more than any other, and can help you solve your problem more quickly than by any other method available.

Page Two: More News and Notes
Nata's Corner: So small you can't see them

woman in specticalsHave you ever wondered what all those tiny little clear GIF images that fill up your Temporary Internet Files folders are? For a long time, I thought they were just some designer's way of making things show up in the right place on the page.

Turns out they're a lot more than that. They're commonly called web bugs, and they're usually used by web sites, just like cookies are; they tell the site who you are. But they can also be a little more evil. Say you visit a site, and there's an ad on it for the XYZ Software Company, and the ad has a bug in it. Then you visit a totally different, unrelated site, and there's an ad for a different software company, but the ad is served by the same advertising company, and it uses the same bug. The ad company knows that you saw both ads, and also knows what sites you visited to see them. Over a period of time -- and not a very long period of time at that -- the company can get a pretty good idea of what you're interested in, and can use the information, and the bug, to show you ads that you're more likely to respond to.

The bugs can even be used to return information. Say you enter your email address on one of those websites. The bug can send it back to the ad company, and when you visit site B, and enter your email address, it can send you the ad it wants to send. Spammers use the same trick to get your email address.

Want to stop the little bloodsuckers? Well, it isn't easy. A lot of them are disguised within the HTML, but all of the major browsers allow you to set the configuration so that you're prompted before a cookie is set. If you get the chance, take a look at all the cookies on your computer. Some of them are helpful -- like the one that stores your username and password at Experts Exchange -- but others might not be. If you're like me, and visit a lot of different sites, then being a little more careful might be worth the time.

Inside the numbers
ameba, one of EE's prominent Experts, provides us with a list of newly earned Certificates. His list of all of the Certified Experts is located at his site. The list below covers the period from March 27 through April 10.
Expert Certified in Topic Area
harfang matthewspatrick jerryb30 hnasr DeadlyTrev MilanKM aiklamha BriCrowe imran_fast luani JMattias peterxlane nschafer kevp75 TheLearnedOne adathelad dbaduck Solar_Flare irps20001 Havagan Joesmail masnrock cooledit irwinpks ebjers Antunb Jonvee elvin66 Zyloch AlexFM sumix devsolns AlexCode Genius Sage Sage Master Master Master Master Sage Master Master Master Guru Guru Master Guru Master Master Master Master Master Guru Master Master Master Master Master Master Master Sage Sage Guru Master Master MS Access MS Access MS Access MS Access Visual Basic Visual Basic Visual Basic Microsoft SQL Microsoft SQL Microsoft SQL Microsoft SQL ASP ASP ASP ASP.NET ASP.NET ASP.NET ASP.NET ASP.NET ASP.NET Networking Networking Networking Networking Networking Windows XP Windows XP Windows XP JavaScript C# C# C# C#
Expert Certified in Topic Area
carl_tawn graye Microtech f_umar aa230002 TechSoEasy leew Webstorm actonwang stmani2005 radarsh ptakja PockyMaster Joe_Griffith pcsentinel kfoster11 TheCleaner Jay_Jay70 Housenet CiaranDolan BogoJoker theonlygoodisknowledge gamebits Michael701 GinEric pinaldave margant nayernaguib nepostojeci_email gabeso Focusyn ikework digicidal Master Master Wizard Master Master Master Sage Wizard Guru Master Master Wizard Master Master Guru Master Wizard Guru Master Master Master Master Master Master Master Guru Master Guru Master Master Master Master Master C# C# Exchange_Server Exchange_Server Exchange_Server Exchange_Server Windows 2000 Java Java Java Java VB.NET VB.NET VB.NET Delphi Delphi Win. Server 2003 Win. Server 2003 Win. Server 2003 Win. Server 2003 PHP PHP PHP PHP Hardware Web Development Web Development Programming Programming Programming Programming C++ ColdFusion
Expert Certified in Topic Area
Fatal_Exception sirbounty DeadNight ecszone acperkins giltjr snoyes_jw todd_farmer nobus mreuring war1 bruintje p_partha Infinity08 TimYates rrz@871311 radarsh dopyiii EricFletcher leew sparkmaker dnojcd Tim_Utschig ravenpl pjedmond mahesh1402 OnegaZhang pgm554 ashishjvw _b_h shalomc dimitry aqua9880 Sage Guru Master Master Guru Master Wizard Genius Wizard Guru Sage Guru Wizard Master Sage Guru Master Guru Guru Master Master Master Master Guru Master Master Master Master Master Master Master Guru Master Microsoft Network Microsoft Network Microsoft Network Microsoft Network Databases Operating Systems PHP and Databases Mysql Desktops CSS Applications Applications Lotus Notes/Domino C JSP JSP JSP Word Word Laptops/Notebooks Laptops/Notebooks IIS Linux Net. Linux Admin. Linux Admin. Visual C++.NET Visual C++.NET Netware Online Marketing AS/400 AS/400 Assembly Game Dev.
2042 experts have 3418 certifications: Genius:88 Sage:159 Wizard:207 Guru:605 Master:2359
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