Aaron Swartz wrote a thought-provoking weblog entry about Jon Postel’s famous advice to “be liberal in what you accept, and conservative in what you send”. Once removed from its usual protocol-design context, one of the first things it made me think about was web-page design. The issue of designing for different browsers, each with their different special features and quirks and levels of adherence to various standards, is one that comes up constantly. On one side you usually have people who think any new feature is worth using, and to heck with anyone using an “obsolete” browser or one that doesn’t conform to the latest greatest standards (including the “de facto standard” of what’s most popular). On the other side you have people who think it’s a crime to use any feature that didn’t exist in 1996, because some people are still using browsers that old. These are the kind of “competing imperatives” that often characterize technical matters, and there are all kinds of in-between positions that make more practical sense than either extreme.

One important thing to remember in this case is that users have relatively little control over their browsers. They can only choose from among a small fixed set of alternatives. Web authors, on the other hand, have almost infinite control over the content they produce, and it is to them that the liberal/conservative maxim most applies. If there’s a bug in a particular browser, but that bug can be worked around by presenting content in a slightly different way, implementing the workaround is worth it. Unfortunately, there seems to be a growing community of “Internet Explorer haters” out there who refuse to accomodate the most common browser in the world. Interestingly, many of these very same people can often be found screaming bloody murder about pages that don’t display properly in their two-day-old custom build of Mozilla. Tell them about a layout flaw in their own pages, though, and their first response is “what browser do you use”. If the answer is IE, they just won’t bother fixing the problem. Sure, IE has bugs. So does Mozilla. So does Opera. Every browser will have bugs, from now until the end of time. The question in any web author’s mind should not be whether a reader has made the “right choice” of which browser to use, but whether there’s an alternative way to lay out pages that will work better for them without affecting others. There usually is.

FYI, I check pages on this site using IE and at least one other browser – usually Opera because it’s easiest to install and has a reputation for being one of the most standards-compliant browsers. I’m sorry that I don’t use the same browser you do, but if you let me know of a problem I’ll generally either find a way to fix it or at least explain why a fix would be too difficult to implement.

More Australia Updates

I’ve added a bunch of bird sounds from the trip, plus some semi-permanent links (on the left) to them and the pictures I posted earlier.

Australia: Wild Places

Here are some impressions on some of the places – other than cities – that we visited.

Taronga Zoo
A great zoo, and easily accessible from downtown Sydney. Needless to say, we spent a great deal of time in the platypus house. My first picture was actually a mistake (the camera had reset its flash setting) and a violation of the rules which prohibit flash photography. The other picture was deliberate, but carefully taken when the platypus was under water and thus had its eyes closed. The one thing I was truly surprised by was how totally hyperactive platypi are. They just never stop moving, except for a few seconds now and then to chew. Watching the platypus paddle around constantly was pretty awesome.
Blue Mountains
In any other context, a trip there would have been a real treat. Compared either to our expectations or to the other things we saw on the trip, I’d have to say the Blue Mountains were a little disappointing. For one thing, they’re not really mountains but mesas formed by erosion from a high flat plateau. The walls are thus very steep and the views dramatic, but at the same time this creates some drawbacks for people who actually like to walk through a place instead of just looking at it from a parking lot. There are very few vertical trails (“tracks” to an Aussie) because of the steep walls, and most of the serious horizontal ones seem to be at the bottom rather than the top.
Jenolan Caves
This was another surprise gem. It hadn’t been on our itinerary, but most of the Blue Mountains NP was closed because of fire danger and it was oppressively hot, so we ended up going to Jenolan on the spur of the moment. The caves are fantastic. There are nine “show caves” big enough for guided tours lasting one or two hours, plus many smaller ones. Due to time constraints we only toured one (Chifley, formerly West Imperial). Pictures just can’t do the place justice, because they capture neither the luminous quality of the rocks nor the ambience – cold air, echoes, utter darkness except right near the lights – of such large underground spaces. This trip also provided a little “adventure” as we found out that the Great Western Highway back to our hotel was blocked due to brushfires…at both ends. We ended up spending the night in another hotel and picking up our stuff in the morning.
Botany Bay
Most of the Botany Bay park (near Sydney) is actually on the southern side of the bay, but just to be different we visited the northern section – named “La Perouse” after a French explorer whose later mysterious disappearance has me quite intrigued. This picture was taken there, along with others I’ll post some day. It was a blustery day and we pretty much had the place to ourselves to inspect the many weird and wonderful things that erosion has done to the rocks in the area. We were really killing time before our flight and hadn’t really been expecting much, but this little gem really surprised us.
Mount Wellington
Not much to say here, really, except that I envy the people of Hobart for having such a place literally within walking distance of downtown.
Mount Field
Unfortunately, the day we went there was really a travel day so we didn’t have much time, and it was drizzly besides, so we didn’t get to see that much. This was, however, our first chance to see a pademelon (rufous wallaby) complete with a joey in her pouch.
Lake St. Clair
Another short stop on our travel day. The exciting thing here is that it’s where we saw a platypus in the wild. They’d set up a platypus blind on one of the walking tracks near where platypus are often seen, and we patiently waited to see something. Eventually Cindy commented that two bumps she’d seen on the water and dismissed as rocks no longer seemed to be there. Thus attuned to what we were looking for, we patiently waited and were rewarded with several more sightings of the bumps as our monotreme friend came up to the surface before diving again. It wasn’t much of a show, to be honest, but to us it was very exciting.
Lyell Highway
It’s not truly a natural vista, and in some ways it’s truly horrid, but the scenery coming into Queenstown is too striking to omit mention. Extensive mining in the area has created a surreal and colorful landscape, and a pretty scary road. If Cradle Mountain looked like the ramparts that guard Mordor, the scarred land near Queenstown must be the slag heaps before the Gate. Unfortunately both camera batteries were dead at that point, so I couldn’t get any pictures.
Cradle Mountain
Fantastic, but too bad about the weather. Three of our four days were grey and wet and dreary. Apparently that’s the norm; for reasons only a meteorologist could fully appreciate, only about one day in ten is truly clear without at least some mist or rain. I imagine a lot of people who’ve gone there for only a couple of days and not seen a good one have been disappointed…but what a glorious day that one clear one was! Climbing up from Dove Lake – in any direction, but particularly toward the Cradle Mountain summit – is a physical challenge and a sensory experience not soon forgotten. I love rock scrambles, and even I had my fill on the final stretch. Looking at some of the pictures, I’m still amazed at how still the water of Dove Lake was to give such clear reflections. That one good day made up for any number of dreary ones.
Mole Creek
We visited King Solomon’s and Maracoopa caves near Mole Creek during one of the dreary days at Cradle Mountain. Being in Cradle Mountain’s “rain shadow”, Mole Creek provided a welcome break in the weather. The caves themselves, though much smaller than Jenolan, were also very worthwhile. See previous note about the inadequacy of pictures (or words) for capturing the experience.
These are the kind of mountains I’d like to have near where I live – lots of different trails to explore, many providing excellent views, with interesting rock formations and wildlife. The suddenness with which the Grampians rise out of the surrounding plain is quite astounding. Halls Gap is a nice little town to use as a base, with corellas making a constant racket and other avian visitors – rozellas, sulphur-crested and black cockatoos, honey eaters – providing variety.
Great Ocean Road
There were stretches that seemed a little far from the ocean, but the ocean parts were wonderful. I liked the rock stacks in the Bay of Islands, swimming in the Southern Ocean at Lorne, and most of what lay in between. Another great asset for Melbourne residents.
Once I’ve mentioned that Healesville had not one but three platypi, what more is there to say? ;-) There were a lot of other wonderful animals to see, but the “World of Platypus” was the one we kept coming back to. They had two females in one tank, and a significantly larger male in another. Watching the two females fight over a yabbie was fantastic, as was watching one or the other “park” under a rock shelf to chew for a while. It’s a little bit of a trip from downtown Melbourne, but well worth it even for those who aren’t platypus fanatics. I hope the park staff succeeded in getting their wedge-tailed eagle back after she decided she didn’t feel like doing a show for us. ;-)

Australia: Cities

Sydney has many of the attributes of a great city – a picturesque harbor, the bridge, the opera house, lively downtown areas, great beaches, etc. What’s missing is a soul, a gestalt, a sense of being designed for the long-term residents as well as short-term tourists; lacking that, it’s just Miami without the cultural diversity. It’s a wonderful, spectacular city to visit, and if I could I’d spend a few more weeks or months exploring its treasures. I’m sure there are many people who are deliriously happy living there – there better be, for them to be paying rents and real-estate prices that seem high even to this jaded Boston-area eye.

Hobart, by contrast, seemed to be a city with a purpose other than to look pretty. It certainly had its charming areas (Battery Park) and lively downtown markets (Salamanca) and there’s definitely something nice about having a pretty serious mountain (Mt. Wellington) right on the outskirts. In fact, Hobart reminded me a lot of Wellington NZ (where I grew up). Hobart’s greatest asset, though, might be that it’s in Tasmania, just a drive away from a stunning wealth and variety of natural wonders from wine country and beaches to mountains and rivers and near-virgin forests.

Strahan. Yeah, it was a quaint little fishing town. Yippee.

I couldn’t quite make up my mind about Melbourne. On the one hand, the King’s Domain (of which the renowned botanical gardens are only a part) is a huge asset, and “foodies” cannot but love having Victoria Street Market nearby, and there seems to be a top-notch public transportation system tying it together. There’s good access to good beaches and several notable mountain areas. What’s not to like? Well, how about that incredibly modern-ugly development across from the arts pavilion? Or the amazing array of overhead tram and power lines? The awful traffic? It’s hard to tell on only a three days’ exposure whether the positives or negatives would be more noticeable to a long-term resident.

Sydney is almost definitely the best of the three cities to visit. For a sabbatical I’d choose Hobart and for long-term regular living probably Melbourne. I wish we’d had time to see Adelaide, or Darwin or Perth or even Brisbane. Launceston, on Tasmania’s north coast, might well be the best little city nobody outside Australia ever heard of. Australia’s cities seem to be quite a smorgasbord, with something to offer for just about everyone.

CSS Question

If you define a style attribute “display: table-cell” for something that is not part of (but does contain) a table, how should it be displayed? Someone who shall remain nameless has defined a “sidebar” that way, and maybe it works in their browser, but it certainly doesn’t in others and it doesn’t seem from the spec that it should. Yet another CSS glitch – what a surprise.

Logic Lesson #317

Steven Den Beste continues to provide excellent examples of logical fallacies as they occur in real-world conversations. Some day I should thank him for that, because his examples of “how not to do it” serve a valuable educational purpose. In today’s example, he’s responding to the following from William J. Beck:

How on earth does it happen that people like Steven Den Beste will actually, seriously, say something like: “The people of this nation are now more free than they’ve ever been, and we are closer to fulfilling the philosophical promise of our founding charter than we ever have been.”

How, indeed? In this age of the DMCA and USA PATRIOT acts, abridged freedom of speech, secret tribunals, etc. ad nauseam, Den Beste’s claim seems quite strange. Even I can remember when we were freer, and I’m younger than he is. Here’s Den Beste’s defense (or counterattack):

I think the problem here is that Beck is assuming that I’m trying to say that freedom in this country has been uniformly, universally, monotonically improving and that therefore we are at this moment more free in every conceivable way than we’ve ever been before, and that’s not really what I meant at all.

Can you name that fallacy? Try straw man. Beck never said or appeared to assume anything like what Den Beste attributes to him. Beck quotes Den Beste directly, and a phrase like “more free than they’ve ever been” is pretty unambiguous. This isn’t just a regular strawman, though; SDB is a sophisticated escape artist, and garden-variety strawmen are strictly for amateurs. This is really a sacrificial strawman – a decoy of sorts. The idea is to make up an obviously absurd version of the original claim, claim that it was only the decoy that was destroyed, and then bring out the supposedly-unscathed original claim for another round. Sorry, Steven. Beck really was aiming at the original, and he hit it pretty squarely.

To wind up, SDB plays a bit with definitions:

If you look in too narrow an area, or over too narrow a scope of time, or with too much emphasis on a certain concept, you can come away with a deeply distorted view of the long term progress we’ve been making.

When SDB said “more free than they’ve ever been” there was no such reference to time periods or trend lines. It’s quite reasonable to interpret “more than ever” as meaning “more than four years ago” (for example). Only now, when the absurdity of the original statement has already been noted, is “four years ago” being redefined as part of the present so that it can be contrasted with a bygone era. With such a convenient definition of “now” ready to hand, I wonder what Den Beste thinks “is” is.

Eerie Silence

I’m a little bit surprised that nobody in my immediate online circle – which I know includes many free-speech activists and at least a couple of outright lawyer-larvae – seems to have had anything to say about the Gutnick case. In a nutshell, the Australian high court ruled that material published on the internet could be considered to’ve been published where it is read, not necessarily at the server, thereby placing it in the reader’s jurisdiction. Sure, it’s only Australia, but it’s the first time a national-level court has issued a clear ruling on such jurisdictional matters, and it sets an important precedent for others.

Was there some commentary I missed? Or is it that what happens in Australia really isn’t of any interest or import in either America or Europe? Or is it that supposedly independent-minded people don’t really pay attention to anything that hasn’t been predigested for them by the “authorities” they idolize?

First Australia Pictures

I kind of had to do this for people at work anyway, so here’s the first batch of pictures. Consider them highlights or teasers. Over the next couple of weeks I plan to post more of the pictures according to time/location. Now that I’ve found a good program to clean up the results from my rather cheap designed-for-voice sound recorder I’ll also be posting those clips, and of course some written commentary. In my mind I’ve already broken it down as follows:

  • People
  • Cities
  • Other Places
  • Wildlife
  • Miscellanea

Back in the US

Yes, I’m back. I’m also exhausted; traveling all the way from Melbourne to Boston in one (40-hour) day will do that to you. Don’t worry, though. I have 300+ pictures, 40+ sound recordings, and a bunch of random notes/thoughts that I’ll surely be posting over the next while.

Welcome to Sunny Tasmania

It’s an unusually dreary morning here at Cradle Mountain National Park, so it seemed like a good time to check out one of these Internet kiosks that seem to be everywhere. They have some glitches, which is why I get to type this a second time :-( but hopefully it’ll be good enough.

Sydney was hot, sunny and dry – a little too much so. We went to the Taronga Zoo and watched a very active platypus for about half an hour. A couple of days later we were in the Blue Mountains, which are actually more like mesas. On the way back from the very impressive Jenolan caves, we found that the road to our hotel had been closed by brush fires, so we had to spend the night at another place down the road. Fortunately the historic hotel with all of our stuff in it did not burn down, so everything worked out OK.

Hobart was extremely nice, with an active outdoor market and a reasonably-sized mountain right behind offering excellent views. On the way from there to Strahan (“strawn” to the locals) we stopped at Lake St. Claire and saw a platypus in the wild. It wasn’t really all that much to look at – just a couple of unremarkable-looking bumps on the water – but we were very excited nonetheless.

Yesterday we hiked the very scenic Dove Canyon track. If the weather shows any signs of being even part-way reasonable in the next couple of days we might actually hike Cradle Mountain itself.