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Monthly Archives: August 2010

Why not to use Internet Explorer (even IE8)  §

Yesterday I was in a meeting with my chair and attempted to show him something on the website here. Naturally, he uses Internet Explorer 8, so that's what fell to hand. Unfortunately, all we got was a black page.

I was a bit bewildered and loaded up the administrative URL to see what was going on in Drupal but of course that page was black also.

So we moved on. I assumed it was something about his machine/installation and/or something odd about that particular temporal moment at my hosting provider that would clear itself up.

This morning, however, I needed to share the website address with my students. As an afterthought, I decided to test the site again in IE8 just to be sure. I rebooted into Windows and loaded up the page to see… a black page.


I had fully tested the site for rendering bugs in IE8 already, and everything was fine. What's more, Salamander is a standards-compliant theme. What could be wrong? No javascript errors logged, so I started looking at the DOM and at the code and trying to see what was up.

Something wonderful and efficient in my subconscious mind told me to stop being so damned technical and try a different IE8 install, so I went to my wife's computer and loaded the site there.

It worked as usual, no black pages.

Again, WTF?

A few minutes of clicking around in IE8 menus led to the difference: "compatibility view." Compatibility view was disabled on her machine but enabled on mine. I disabled it on my install of IE8 and all was well again. Funny thing, though, was that I'd had compatibility view on the last several times I logged into the site for testing using IE8 and had no trouble at all.

A bit of research yielded both an answer and a fix.

Answer: Microsoft distributes automatic compatibility view updates for IE8. One of these clearly broke Drupal+Salamander, despite their standards compliance. Grr.

Fix: Add a META tag to the header giving a user agent compatibility hint:

<meta http-equiv="X-UA-Compatible" content="IE=EmulateIE8" />

This basically forces IE8 out of compatibility view mode when the page is loaded. I just stuck it, quick and dirty, into page.tpl.

But once again, IE breaks something without warning, for no reason, despite standards, in a bewildering way, while Firefox, Chrome, and WebKit (Safari/Konq) continue to simply display things correctly from the start.


Don't like being embarrassed when your sites suddenly go dark for IE users? Tell everyone you know how much IE continues to suck, and use META tag hints to dictate a particular rendering engine iteration for IE users.

Cloud time  §

I'm spending part of the break between summer and fall semesters quickly "onlining" my entire digital life, even the parts of it that have previously not been amenable to such action.

The entire home directory, including files dating back twenty years, has gone onto Dropbox where everything I'm currently working on and everything I have ever worked on can be instantly accessible to me not only at my own desk or laptop but also on my iPhone, in my office cubicle(s), and at any public computer where I care to pause for a moment and work on whatever it is I'm currently "working on."

Same thing is happening to my email folders, which contain mail dating back to the mid '90s and have been migrated a dozen times between a dozen different local email clients over the years. Today there's a process running in the background uploading some 100,000 messages at about 20GB into my Gmail box, including (hopefully) folder structure. For anyone wondering how I'm doing this, no, it's not using the (painful) single-folder copy method from within Thunderbird or similar. Tried that, failed. Also didn't want to set up my own POP server and fetch via Gmail (too much information loss). Instead, I'm using an IMAP script called imap_upload.py (Google it) wrapped in a couple scripts of my own. Working like a charm.

As a part of the project I've also run scripts with some shaky command line tools like unoconv to convert all of the OpenOffice files and attachments in my life to Microsoft Office formats. That kills me, almost more than anything else, but there is no point trying to challenge the power of the social. MS Office files, despite open source advocates' claims tot he contrary, are destined to be more transparent for a longer period of time (hence more "open") simply because there are so many more people using them today. If I had to bet on either MS Office or OpenOffice files being readable in 1,000 years, the choice is beyond easy: MS Office, if either. OpenOffice, no chance. And since OpenOffice files require what is "special" software by most peoples' and devices' standards, it had to go if working in the cloud is my goal.

The only things that aren't going online and/or aren't getting converted to the "most exchangeable" formats are the "big media" archives right now… music collection, videos, photos, disk images, and other multi-terabyte stores. Those will just have to wait until bandwidth and processing power for conversions catch up (I'm doing this all on Verizon with a <1Mbps upstream using an aging laptop).

It's all a little scary. I'm not from the cloud generation; I'm from the computer generation. It still feels more secure to me to have the "master copy" of all my stuff on my very own hard drive, though intellectually I realize that this is folly. Google is far less likely to experience downtime, and Dropbox is hosted on Amazon S3.

The benefit is that I will be entirely mobile and, for the first time in my life, essentially computer-agnostic. Sit down anywhere, at any device, Linux, Mac, Windows, Smartphone, or other mobile device, and pick up all of my work and communication mid-stream, transparently and seamlessly.

Grades submitted  §

after spending the better part of an entire work week grading the endless stack of exams and papers. Each semester I promise myself that I will never assign anything in essay form again. The following semester I return and demand nearly every assignment in essay form.

I think I'm falling in love with Mac OS, which runs better as a hack on my Thinkpad than either Linux or Windows have ever run. In a few hours I get to a wildly functional, stable, and well-thought-out desktop that's easy on the eyes in Mac OS, even with the need to "hack" to get it to boot and run. Linux takes days and you still don't get where you'd like to be. Windows doesn't even pretend; it refuses to offer anything you're after from the outset.

But Mac OS, well… It's just a beautiful, beautiful Unix operating system. Well thought out, well executed, fast, lean, elegant. And inexpensive!

I've been a Linux user for nearly two decades and have been a strong advocate of open source during that time. I even wrote a few books about Linux, I was so happy with it. I've run 18 versions of a Red Hat inspired Linux, beginning with Red Hat 5. Before that I ran Slackware, starting at Slackware 2 installed from floppies. And before that, self-rolled/self-hosted installs cobbled together from netparts.

And here it is 2010 and I've had a summer spent feeling the limits of GNOME (a sensation made more acute by my test encounter with the upcoming GNOME Shell) and a kind of total frustration and exasperation with KDE, which has totally gone off the tracks. I think it may be time to make a switch.

If only Apple had built what Apple has built whilst being more like Red Hat. But oh well. I still have bash and X, and what I gain is stability, functionality, and freedom from the total field of distraction, fragmentation, and instability that the Linux desktop has recently become, all without having to make the serious sacrifices that would come with a switch to Windows 7.

Next question: hardware. When the time comes to refresh the hardware, is it time to shell out for a Mac? Or do I continue to risk running Mac OS on non-Apple hardware under the "fair use and jailbroken iPhone" theory of legal homology, possibly suffering decreased stability and less future-proofing as a result?

Only a brief moment before begins the intensity that will be the upcoming academic year. Rather than sleep through it, I'm scheduled to labor through it in a panic.

We'll see how it goes.