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Kimberly Blessing Hi, my name is Kimberly Blessing. I'm a computer scientist, Web developer, standards evangelist, feminist, and geek. This is where I write about life, the Web, technology, women's issues, and whatever else comes to mind.

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February 2009 Blog Archive

IE8 Compatibility Mode is not the problem

I’ve spent most of my career working at large Web-focused companies which typically have multiple Web development teams to handle their sites. While the Web may be the vehicle that makes their business viable, most of the business people in these companies are ignorant oblivious too busy to follow the developments of the browser market space.

These companies, while all different, handled the release of new browsers using the same wait-and-see approach: wait until the browser comes out, see how much of the site’s traffic moves to that browser, then invest on bug-fixing only if n% of users are on that browser. Most, if not all, of the alpha/beta/RC testing was done by developers who were interested enough to test and possibly bug fix (assuming the issues weren’t major shared template problems). And they were probably doing this on their own time, because the business wasn’t going to stop business-supporting, revenue-generating development work in order to support a new browser!

I often owned the browser support matrix at the companies I worked for, but just because I owned it didn’t mean I could change it whenever I wanted. I had to convince the business teams that preparing for a new browser was worth our time and money. If I didn’t walk into meetings with current and historical browser usage statistics and demonstrations of bugs in the new browser, I would have been laughed out of the room. Simply stating that “a new browser is coming and we’d better be ready” just wasn’t, and isn’t, enough.

Other than a handful of companies, businesses aren’t in the browser business, or even in the browser support business (even though we developers may feel differently). Microsoft is right to not expect all businesses and Web sites to jump just because they have a new browser coming out, and I think that IE8′s Compatibility Mode provides a decent solution to bridging the gap for users between the old, crappily coded sites and the nice, new(er), standards-compliant sites.

I’m not jumping for joy over it, of course, because it signals that we standardistas haven’t succeeded in our education mission. There still aren’t enough designers and developers out there building standards-compliant Web sites, with or without business support, to withstand an event such as this. There certainly aren’t enough business people who understand the Web well enough to simplify the business case for standards-based development. Community and education tie into this as well.

Those who think that IE8 is going to be a wake-up call to businesses dependent on the Web are wrong — it won’t be. But it should be one to all of those designers and developers and business people who do understand the benefits of sticking with the standards: we still need to get out there and talk to our colleagues and community about standards, and help move the Web forward!

Last week’s links

The Seventh Grade

While reading another story about the lack of diversity in STEM I was newly struck by the following statement, which I’ve heard in various forms over the years (emphasis mine):

“I think science is seen as a man’s world by a lot of people,” said Candy DeBerry, associate professor of biology at Washington & Jefferson College. “All the studies show that somewhere around sixth or seventh grade, girls start losing their interest in science but might be equally interested in it in the third or fourth grade.”

For me, sixth grade was spent in elementary school. I had one teacher, unless you counted the music, art, or gym teachers. We almost always had one computer (a TRS-80 or an Apple II/IIe) in our classroom, which the teacher actually knew something about and which we kids would typically fight over using. Even the few kids who had computers at home (like me) wanted to use the computer at school, and we’d rush to finish an assignment so we could get in some computer time.

Seventh grade was the start of junior high school for me, and thus began the hourly switching of subjects, teachers, and classrooms. In none of these classrooms did we have a computer, and I don’t ever remember my teachers mentioning computers. In junior high, the only computers I can recall were in the library, and they weren’t the sort that you “played” with. In addition, all of the extra-curricular activities I was starting took away from potential computer time at home.

So when I keep hearing about this crucial sixth/seventh grade time period for young girls, I can’t help but think back to my own experience around these grades. I didn’t lose interest in computers (or science or math) in seventh grade, but I was certainly separated from them. As time went on, I had less time to pursue those interests myself, and in some cases I was discouraged from pursuing them.

Sure, times have changed, but as the old saying goes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Thus I’m inclined to assume that my experience may not really be that different from what kids experience today. Kids can’t stay in the elementary school environment forever, but with middle schools now starting at fifth and sixth grade, are we pushing change — not just academic and environmental, but social! — on them too soon, thus potentially losing more future scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians?

Programming, Old-School Style

I have a fascination with old computers. Growing up, I heard stories of archaic devices used by my grandfather and his colleagues to accomplish their math and engineering work. Then I went through a few machines myself: the stand-alone Pong console, various TRS-80s, an Atari 2600, multiple Commodore 64s and a 128, finally making it into the x86 line. When I got a new computer, the old one didn’t become obsolete trash; it gained a sort of revered status. I’d leave it hooked up, always at the ready, and occasionally I’d take a trip down memory lane and load up some old programs, tinker with something new, or perhaps just bask in the glow of the TV screen/monochrome monitor. Yes, I’m a strange girl.

A DEC PDP-11 Ever since my first visit to the Computer History Museum, I’ve been fascinated by the DEC PDP-11. The PDP-11 was a series of 16-bit minicomputers which were programmed with toggles. Their design was strangely attractive. I saw plenty of PDP-11 parts for sale on eBay and wondered what it would take to build one. I figured there had to be an emulator out there, but I didn’t take much time to look around.

Well, it turns out there is. And there are instructions! Inspired by DePauw University’s (slightly cheesy, but fun) videos on programming the PDP-11, lab[oratory] is posting detailed instructions on using the SIMH simulator to program a simulated PDP-11! So join along in the play and experimentation, and program your very own PDP-11. It may not be as cool as handling those purple toggles, but it’s still fun.

Speaking up for Women in STEM

With the Obama administration finally in office, women’s issues have gained new focus. Of particular interest and importance to me is the focus on the lack of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

The New York Times is writing about it (In ‘Geek Chic’ and Obama, New Hope for Lifting Women in Science) and public radio is talking about it (Breaking the glass ceiling for women scientists), as are so many other media outlets. So far I’m not hearing anything new — meaning I’m not hearing any new ideas on how to affect change and bring in/retain women — but I’m trying to remain positive. I have to hope that more coverage means more eyes and ears will consume this information, and that it may start to take hold with those unfamiliar with the issue.

Unfortunately, events of the recent past make that hope difficult to drum up sometimes. When pointing out statements made by men that were (intentionally or unintentionally) offensive or hurtful or discouraging towards women, I was told, in various ways, to shush and not get so emotional. Now, I have pretty tough skin, so I’m not pointing out statements and actions to defend myself, but to inform others of what their statements and actions may mean to other women. Maybe that’s why I get the reaction I do — perhaps my statements aren’t seen as genuine, because I’m really not expressing emotion, and thus they are dismissed. Maybe I’m over-thinking this, but it does bother me, because I want to be a good servant in this area to my fellow women. Your suggestions and thoughts on how I can accomplish this are most welcome.

More reading…