Window into WebKitLand.

Thursday, September 29th, 2005

There’s a window open to a world largely alien to me on my desktop—it’s a Colloquy window hooked up to an IRC channel, and this one (at this moment) is populated by chatting people hard at work on a fundamental part of the Mac OS X experience you may take for granted. In fact, if you’re using Safari, you’re using it right now. You’re soaking in it!

WebKit is Apple’s underlying framework for displaying web-based content—not just in a browser window, but in an email, or text editor—anywhere within the OS. By making the underlying engine a common one with common ways to access it, and by basing WebKit and thus Safari on an open-source framework common to Unix/Linux systems, many different applications end up with a powerful engine that benefits from open-source collaboration and the synergy that comes from a lot of folks contributing their energies to smash bugs and figure out better ways to do this or that.

Of course if Apple had simply made use of the open framework but then moved further development inside their cloak of secrecy, they (and others) would have lost that synergistic power…and that’s just what happened at first. But then this last June, Apple “did the right thing” and released WebKit as an open source project, and in a sense opened the curtain, allowing anyone to look at the source code, report bugs, and (anyone with actual coding skills) contribute patches and new chunks of code.

One of the benefits of all of this is that you could, if you want, download the source code (there’s a ton of it) and the appropriate free developer tools and build your own, absolutely-up-to-date version of WebKit and thus Safari every day…which I’ve done several times. (As changes are made, the collection of code is updated, and there are ways to just get the new stuff—every hour or so, if you want.) It’s an amazingly geeky command-line process that is all the more amazing because it really “just works” like most of the rest of the Mac experience.

Or, more simply, you could download the latest nightly version (that’s the actual disk image link) of Webkit, which really looks like a slightly newer, faster Safari. It is, again, a constantly changing work in progress, some nights the build (that’s the term for a compiled bunch of source code—in other words—the actual application you run) is more buggy than others. This build, by the way, is cobbled together and posted by a guy in New Zealand—just one more selfless contribution to the community at large.

Or, of course, you can just wait for updates to Safari distributed by Apple the old-fashioned way. But you get a lot more by downloading these new versions and monitoring the weblog and wiki and listening/chatting on the IRC channel (#WebKit) where these developers—some key Apple people, many more just coders from around the world—chat and try to work out the problems and talk a bit about their lives and express frustration and get inspired. It’s a 24-hour-a-day worldwide conversation (40-50 people are “there” at any one time) to listen in on—sometimes just hugely technical and opaque—sometimes just silly…and sometimes, I even have something useful to contribute and I’ve been impressed and grateful that these folks are largely free of the “what a pointless newbie question” attitude I’ve seen in some other places where developers and ordinary users get together.

And some of what they’ve been working on—like dramatically better JavaScript implementation and integrating SVGScalable Vector Graphics—a wonderful, XMLy, standards based way of drawing stuff on the screen—right into the core of the browser—actually, right into the core of the framework, so again, SVG stuff will one day be painlessly displayed without plugins in Mail, RSS readers, and so on—is really exciting.

Yeah, I do think this is a big thing! And it’s certainly an (ongoing) education to me.

Special fall preview issue.

Monday, September 19th, 2005

I think we’ve come a long way from the days of the special TV Guide fall preview issue and everyone settling down more-or-less simultaneously to sample the wonders of the new TV season…at least as offered to us by the networks..uh, I mean ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX. And yeah, that WB thing, and UP..uh..see what a slippery slope this becomes?
Sam and I sat down with a nice beverage and tried to give one or two of the new non-reality-based shows (comedies, ok, sitcoms) a try.

We watched the season premiere of Arrested Development and witnessed a quirky show in fine form, jumped into Kitchen Confidential for a moment or two and weren’t hooked, and witnessed the birth of How I Met Your Mother, and kinda said ehh, it just doesn’t quite hang together…but then enjoyed the twist at the end in the sense of “behold, writers yanking you in a new direction!” Also, we watched their attempt to use some of the Arrested Development components (gimmicks?) such as the wacky-straight narrator and jarring shifts in time and space to demonstrate, well, that more than one show can do that.

Finally, we watched Out of Practice which was kind of like going to see a Broadway play with actors you admire (for me, that may be limited to Stockard Channing and Paula Marshall) and they’re working hard up there and there are moments and…well.

That’s the theater for you.

Aching for improvement.

Friday, September 16th, 2005

My aunt, uncle, and cousins live on the part of the coast of North Carolina that is now being pounded by Ophelia, and although we haven’t heard from them since landfall, we chatted before and my aunt said that they made the kind of preparations that you’ve got to make when you live on the coast.

And we’re two weeks plus from the awful march of Katrina, and the more awful aftermath, the consequences of a tone-deaf, class-bound government that can’t conceive of citizens who can’t drive away from any disaster.

It’s about half past midnight, and CNN is replaying George Bush’s speech from Jackson Square, his most clear-cut attempt at an apology yet. It’s a moment of engineered Rovean theater, complete with dramatic lighting on the buildings and Jackson’s statue, and a boom-shot down from the trees to the strolling President and I’ll try not to say much more about it, because I do think there’s a germ of “we screwed up, we have to do better” in their orchestrations. Better late than ever? Oh, I don’t know. Too late, I think, for many, for this time.

So I hope that Ophelia doesn’t give George a chance for version 2.0 of his administration’s efforts.

I remember how Hurricane Hugo in 1989 slashed through Charleston South Carolina and the miles of coast north from that colonial city, and months later, Sammy and I visited a town that was a cacophony of hammers and power tools and a riot of blue tarps. Multiply that a hundredfold, and I think I have an idea of what the rebuilding of New Orleans will look like, if the government’s promises mean anything.

It’s huge.

Good. Evil. Corporate.

Wednesday, September 14th, 2005

It seems increasingly the fashion to talk about modern technology-based firms in extreme terms. Google is “good.” Microsoft is “evil.” The founders of Google swear to do no evil. Steve Jobs is the antichrist…or is he our saviour?

Maybe it’s just because we’ve entered a time where the higher-ups at these huge, otherwise undefinable firms project personalities that are caricatures of themselves…they bely the white bread calm that most actually must embody in order to run a behemoth of the corporate world. In the age of really white-bread guys like IBM’s Thomas Watson, it takes a lot of stretching to declare a company so inertially “there” as embodying all that is great about our selves, or the worst qualities of man, tucked behind a Paul Rand logo.

Or maybe it’s just because it gives people something to write about when Google ends up doing something “evil”, or Microsoft is unexpectedly angelic. Not happens that often. The web this morning was filled with mocking at Microsoft for developing ‘Gadgets‘ (Steve Jobs originally announced this term for what are now known as Dashboard ‘Widgets‘, which of course is what Konfabulator called these little javascript confections before Apple usurped the (un-trademarked?) name.

And I know that’s what the web was filled with because good ol’ (evil ol’) Google introduced Google Blog Search, which apparently checks feeds very, very often for new ruminations, and you know the one thing we need in life these days is fresh ruminations…right out of the oven. Heck, maybe even half-baked ruminations can be satisfying.

They even have an RSS feed available for the results of a particular search. What this does, by the way, is to add more capability, to turn a good RSS Reader like NetNewsWire into something about as close to a newsroom system like the pros use as you can get for, well, mostly free. So when four different stories break (Roberts!! Blackout! New Orleans! We’re eating more beets!) you have your own desktop Situation Room, minus all that pesky Blitzerage.


This was not “unimaginable.”

Thursday, September 1st, 2005

The sad reality of New Orleans is turning into a story of how governments make decisions now…and it’s not the way that the United States used to do business.

But governments—state, local, national—knew a lot of what to expect. Check out the study done at LSU—two years into a five-year study using New Orleans as a test case—and it was dead on in most of its predictions.

The Times Picayune covered this extensively back in 2002-2003.

Folks who were in a position to keep an eye on these things had this information—and made decisions that diverted funds from preparedness and levee reinforcement and other decisions that will make a difference.

“It’s possible to protect New Orleans from a Category 5 hurricane,” said a Corps of Engineers guy in this 2004 article. “But we’ve got to start. To do nothing is tantamount to negligence.”

Yes, it is.