Remember, remember

People in rich countries like the United Kingdom and the United States seem to have forgotten what the majority of human history has been. That is, the history of ceaseless conflict, war, and death. Sure, there were periods of relative peace, given grand names like Pax Romana and Pax Mongolica. However, the spread of humanity around the globe generally led to the spread of human conflict.

One hundred years ago, after centuries of conflict, civilizations had built themselves up to become immensely powerful and wealthy empires. They did this not just via the fine accomplishments of their arts, their learning, and their exploration, but also via colonialism, invasion, and exploitation. Rich, modern civilization had emerged, but it was sustained by yet more human conflict. Empires built in this way, all based on the same Continent, inevitably came into conflict themselves, and the Great War bloodied the world. We have forgotten.

People were sure at the time that World War I would end war. Surely humanity had just learned a great lesson, and the mistakes of the past would not be repeated. Meanwhile, the victors of that war imposed great penalty on the losers, and the stage was set for more conflict.

Seventy years ago, one of those losing nations was led by a sociopathic demagogue into believing that one group of people was particularly responsible for their troubles. “This group is not like us, and they are undermining and destroying us and our society,” they thought. To further “protect” themselves, they invaded and subjugated their neighbors, rather than joining with them in peace. We have forgotten.

The United Kingdom was all alone. They looked across the Channel, and saw nothing but invaded lands, controlled by the enemy. They could have asserted their own independence, and sued for peace with Germany. Sure, Hitler probably would have passed on that, but Britain could have tried to make a deal to remain free. Instead, Churchill said:

We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

They fought, and we fought with them. And they bent the great arc of human history away from conflict and towards enduring peace. I’m overly glorifying the victory, I know. Things haven’t been perfect since that time; conflict has still happened. However, we are now in an era of unprecedented peace, where fewer and fewer people per decade die by war, terrorism, or violence of any kind, despite what the media would have you believe. Those people who fought on the beaches and the landing grounds gave their lives so that we could have such peace. Our present world is the greatest achievement in human history so far, and it was built by Allies making a common cause. We have forgotten.

Institutions built since the War (especially the EU) have not just immeasurably enriched their country and most others as well. They have also stood as a bulwark against the senseless urges that led to the deaths of countless millions; not just in the last World War, but in all the long centuries of the past. The people of the UK have not just simply rejected a political arrangement. They have looked their forebears straight in the eye, and spit in their faces. It’s made even worse by the fact that many of those who voted this way are older voters. Their parents fought and continued fighting against all odds not just for themselves, but for free people everywhere who were not British.

These voters cast all of this aside, just because they’re afraid that someone with a different skin color is going to come and take their job. They have forgotten.


We must walk without fear

I only wish I could understand those who say that the solution to all of our problems is to close ourselves off from the world. Or, rather, to close the rest of the world out from us. I don’t rightly know where I first developed the aversion to such thinking. Perhaps during my Catholic education growing up, or perhaps realizing in college that there are so many valid philosophical viewpoints. Perhaps it came from traveling to another country for a time and really appreciating another culture.

Should we slip so easily into abject fear, even in the midst of loss? Surely our great society, and all sympathetic societies, are immune to collapse due to the crazed actions of fanatic zealots. They are the weak, the simple minded who cannot tolerate the idea that the world is not black and white. They lash out at us with their simple minded tools, their guns and bullets. These things cannot destroy the society built by Washington, Lincoln, Emerson, Hawthorne, Whitman, Roosevelt, Kennedy. Why should we react in a way that suggests that they have any real power?

The frightened in our midst want to close our borders, not realizing that the answer is not to reject others, but to embrace them. Foreigners do not pollute our culture; they enrich it. Every Syrian refugee who dreams of getting to America should be able to dream of becoming American. The more who come to add to and share in our culture, the stronger that culture becomes and the weaker the culture of the zealots. Together, we are complete. Edward R. Murrow said that “we will not walk in fear, one of another”. It is more true now than ever.

The burden of a free society with liberty and justice for all is heavy. It’s heavier than just a strong national defense. It includes a burden of spirit, of optimism, that we all must share even in the face of all of our society’s flaws and problems. It has to include a belief that no darkness can overcome the light. Do we have cold slime in our veins, or hot red blood? Do we believe the words on the Statue in the harbor?

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

When the towers burned and fell, the Statue remained there with her words, defiant, a symbol of us all. She is only as brave as all of us.

Chrome for Mac – Thoughts

I’ll start out saying that I really want to like Chrome on the Mac. After seeing it blow away the competition on the PC, I looked forward for months to having a fully baked version on OS X. Even though I’m an unabashed Apple partisan, I’m eager to see Google competing with Apple on so many fronts. Even though Chrome and its open source foundation, Chromium, are based on Apple’s pioneering WebKit project, I think Chrome has admirably differentiated itself from Safari. Unfortunately, I cannot acclimate myself to daily use of Chrome, for several reasons. First, however, I should mention some strengths that Chrome has going for it.

The Good

The big thing that Chrome offers on the PC, its speed, is its strength on the Mac as well. While I did not do any actual measurements, pseudo-scientific or otherwise, to compare the performance of Chrome versus that of Safari, Chrome just feels faster. Actual numbers have been crunched by others, but these results may be significantly changed now that Safari 5 is in the wild. Numbers aside, Google has managed to craft a browser that feels lighter and faster than the already minimalist Safari – no small feat.

The other great thing about Chrome is its search bar. This thing is a fantastic innovation, and yet it’s also no surprise that Google would implement such a feature. The ability to search from Google right within the search bar is very nice and convenient. Also, until last week, the ability to search one’s history in a natural way (i.e. not depending on URL syntax) was a major win for Google as well. Fortunately, this ability is now baked into Safari 5. We’ll therefore call this but a narrow win for Chrome.

The Bad

Now then, despite these positives from Chrome, I can’t make myself switch to it for everyday use. After using it regularly for about a week, there were too many little annoyances that kept getting in the way of my browsing workflow (leisure-flow?). Here are all the deficiencies that I found annoying:

  • Zero support for AppleScript. This is a major sticking point. I use AppleScripts all the time to send bookmarks and archives to Yojimbo. Not supporting AppleScript means that Chrome is not a fully fledged OS X citizen. Google has got to fix that.
  • No ClickToFlash. This is such an integral part of my Safari browsing sessions that I barely remember that it’s an add-on. I know that there are ways to partially block Flash in Chrome as well, but ClickToFlash is the whole enchilada, it works fantastically, and it’s only for Safari.
  • Speaking of add-ons, I find that Chrome extensions are a bit pokey in general. More in line with my actual usage, though, is the lack of a good 1Password implementation in Chrome. I know that Agile is working hard on getting this fantastic product to work with Chrome, but I’m spoiled by how flawlessly it works in Safari.
  • Lastly, the Find dialogue in Chrome. You know, the standard Command-F shortcut. While it sometimes works just fine, there have been times when I’m looking for a word on a site, and Chrome refuses to show me a Find dialogue, no matter how many times I try to invoke it. This is a bug that will be fixed, I’m confident, but Safari wins here.
  • No Readability-like feature. This is a recent addition, but I have to mention the amazing utility of the newly-added Safari Reader feature in Safari 5. While I had the Readability bookmarklet installed before having Safari 5, I never used it. Building this ability into the browser and having it just a shortcut away was a great move on Apple’s part.

I admit that two of these issue stem from my use of particular add-ons in Safari, so I’m not trying to claim that Chrome is useless by any means. These are simply the things that kept me from keeping Chrome as my daily browser. With that said, I’m leaving it installed, and will periodically update it. I’m very confident that Google will keep making Chrome for Mac better and better.

You’d think Apple broke up with Adobe

Much has been made in recent weeks about Flash, Adobe, Apple, and the iPhone OS. Collating a list of links here pertaining to the debate would take all day, and it seems like everyone has their two cents to throw in. This is not even accounting for the protracted geek debates that I’ve seen on Twitter on the subject.

My opinion is this: Flash gives me nothing, as a user of the Internet. Actually, I take that back: Flash gives me crappy ads that have a good chance at crashing my browser, even on the relatively crash-proof OS X. Even with an add-on like Click2Flash installed, Flash gives me ugly, randomly sized gray boxes in the middle of websites. The Internet didn’t always have this shabby look that many sites have taken on due to Flash.

Think back 10-15 years, to a much earlier Internet. Sites specializing in displaying text (a vast majority of sites at that time) did not have anywhere near as many obtrusive animated ads that brought one’s computer to its knees. Yes, I admit the era’s animated .gifs were annoying, but it was nothing like today, where I can’t even read a newspaper article without Flash ads being shoved in my face in three different sections of the text. Google might be an evil empire trying to seed its ads to the all the ends of the Earth, but at least their text ads don’t bother me and don’t crash my browser.

The flip side is that on that same early Internet, online video was essentially limited to playing in RealPlayer, usually at convenient postage stamp resolution. Yes, Flash eventually allowed better solutions to this problem, and yes, we should remember Flash fondly for that. However, HTML5 has solved this issue. Go to YouTube and turn on the experimental HTML5 feature – the videos are no different, except now you won’t have to engage in an aural battle with the din of your laptop’s fans, since Flash won’t be busy kicking your computer in the CPU.

The real issue is that developers have invested time in using Flash. I’m not saying that Flash is completely useless, but it certainly has no relevance on a platform like the iPad, whereupon a developer can write a native app that looks, feels, and functions ten times better than a Flash equivalent would. Cross-platform development tools, speaking from a user’s point of view, are rubbish. Have you ever preferred using a Java-based app on your Mac (or PC, for that matter) over using a native application?

The iPad and the iPhone present an environment on which we can finally start leaving a dated development model and tool behind us.

Steam for Mac cannot…

  • minimize properly and on command using command-M
  • close properly all the time, giving crash notices
  • have a “Start when I log in” item that is not checked by default
  • download reliably, for some reason liking to pause active downloads
  • avoid installing game data in my ~/Documents folder as though that makes sense

I know it’s just a version 1.0 for the Mac, and I’m really excited about having access to my games, but heavens. It feels like a Windows app with a Halloween costume on.

Thrift store find:
Two pair of Allen Edmonds. In black and brown, balmoral style, with brogued toe caps. Same size (mine). $12.75 a pair. The black pair will be worn at my wedding.

Also picked up: Florsheim shoe trees, for storage and polishing. Circa $4.50

Here’s a snippet of Markdown code from the homework schedule on my class web page. You can get a good feel from this how Markdown allows you to simply do what you’re trying to do instead of worry about web formatting minutiae. One asterisk is italic, two is bold, and pound signs represent heading levels. Easy-peasy.

Geeky tech = easy course webpages

One of my duties as a teaching assistant is to maintain a website for my class section that lists information about me, useful links, and all the homework for the next two weeks. The solution that foreign language learning support tech service provides is Dreamweaver, installed on all of the office computers.

I’ve got two problems with this approach to course website design. To wit:

  1. Dreamweaver is complete overkill for editing the webpage equivalent to a form letter.

    The way these pages work is quite simple – every teaching assistant uses the same page, with all the same resources (button images, navigational headers, etc.). The only difference is the information for the individual TA’s class, and his or her picture.

    Editing a webpage like this is trivial for Dreamweaver, yes, but also causes complete confusion about how Dreamweaver, and web editing in general, works on the part of non-techheads.

  2. Using Dreamweaver on office computers means that the TA has to be in the office, on the office computer, to edit their site.

    This is what initally pushed me away from using Dreamweaver completely to edit my own site. My distate for Windows really does run that deep. Seriously though, why shouldn’t the TA be able to make these (trivial) edits on his or her own computer?

My initial solution to this (admittedly small) problem was to simply use Bare Bones Software’s great TextWrangler, a free text editor, to edit the HTML code of my site directly. That way, I could work on it whereever I wanted.

The other day, I taught one of my fellow TAs how to edit the code of her own site as well. It was then that I realized that the edit-the-code-yourself method can only go so far, inasmuch as you’ve got to be a techhead to find your way confidently around the sea of HTML code that comprises the stock site in order to get to your homework schedule (i.e. your editable content).

I’ve known about John Gruber’s Markdown language for a while, but I had never seen the utility of it before now. I spent some time using it tonight, editing my class homework schedule, and I’m now a convert. It’s a complete solution for editing small bits of websites by hand without the need to know full HTML or the intricacies of big programs like Dreamweaver. In a department full of literary folks, not having to know any confusing code to do basic web editing could go far.

I’m still using TextWrangler as my editor of choice, but I’ve added the script to it to allow it to turn Markdown-formatted text into HTML in one keystroke. I’ve now got two files open all the time – the index.htm file of my webpage itself, and what I call hwk-mrkdwn.txt, where I write the edits to my page in Markdown. From there it’s a simple copy & paste, then a shortcut to convert Markdown to HTML.

When I add this nice trick to storing both files in my Dropbox, I’ve now got a way to quickly and easily update my students’ homework, in simple plain text, from any of my computers. Another win for technology.