Infrequently Noted

Alex Russell on browsers, standards, and the process of progress.

Fascinating Data

Note: this post is far afield of my usual discussions. In the interest of not distracting those who read this blog because I usually discuss web-oriented things, the content of the post is beyond the jump.

Via Mark Thoma, the SF Fed's briefing numbers look really odd. The inflation expectation numbers look to depend on an extreme version of the commonly held assumption that workers have lost their collective bargaining power, thereby removing the wage/price linkage that caused so much damage in the 70's. That might be good for "the economy" (as defined by what's good for bankers), but if true, it seems bad for you and me.

What it means to you and I is that our economy has a chance of beating the rap on the fundamental inability of private markets (bankers) to judge risk accurately only because some percentage of our annual incomes will be shaved off and there's nothing we can do about it. And that is the good news. Put another way, we're staring down the last of the Bush Administration's regressive taxes and we just have to take it. The well-off pay a 17%-ish percent maginal tax rate on investment income, while those in "the productive economy" (the people those stimulus checks are designed to help out) pay well above that on every additional dollar they earn. Of course, it's basic economics that if you are in a situation in which you spend more of your marginal income than you save, then any tax on consumption hits you much harder than those who can afford to save. So prices increases without attendant wage increases hurt the middle and lower classes, particularly when the price increases aren't related to "core" inflation. When "core" inflation goes up, it really starts to squeeze asset values, but non-core inflation simply implies that it costs more to buy things like food, fuel, and all of the other daily necessities. While "core" inflation seems a good metric to talk about projected long-term inflation rates and linkages and embedding, its effects aren't the ones currently being felt by Americans.

Inflation is generically decried most heartily by the wealthy because it hurts them by reducing the real interest rate on savings, i.e. it reduces the return on assets invested. But not all inflation is created equal. The current situation is laying bare the difference between the average person's concerns about non-core inflation (the price of gas) and economists concerns about asset allocation (what's the rate of return on investment?). Put tersely: the current bout of inflation is hurting the people who can least afford it and those who can afford it are using the occasion to decry policies which they personally dislike even if their relationship is tenuous to the current trouble. There seems to be a lack of proportionality at work in the public dialog which I find deeply unsettling. Where did our conception of an adversarial press corps go?

The odd take-away is that inflation isn't so bad when it's tied to increases in productive output and income for those most at risk and when those increases promote stability, a fact that the "Washington Consensus" missed time and time again in its disastrous large-scale experiments in emerging economies. If those most at risk of income shocks are insulated by very low unemployment rates and a system that allows those in trouble to keep most of their (minimal) wealth in times of trouble (employment insurance, bankruptcy laws that don't strip people of fixed assets, etc.), then inflation is a tax that hurts the rich more, who incidentally are much more able to cope with such effects.

But inflation like we're experiencing? It's of a different sort. Non-core inflation is still in-check, which is good, but headline inflation is hurting those least able to cope at a rate not seen in decades. It's the last, grandest, "fuck you" of the current administration's policies to those who need to work for a living. Logic and data suggest that voting for regressive taxes isn't in my interest, or nearly anyone else's. Why then does a party looking to cling to power field bumbling fools who stand up for regressive taxation when logic, electability concerns, and basic math skills make plain how foolish that really is?

I'm a "right tools for the job" kinda guy. John McCain's economic and fiscal policy proposals certainly are making him look like a tool, but absolutely the wrong one.

Dojo Developer Day Boston, Sept. 28-29

As Dylan just posted over on the official Dojo blog, we're having our next bi-annual Dojo Developer Day event in Boston just prior to the Ajax Experience conference.

Like previous DDD events, the first day will be somewhat contributor-oriented, and many decisions about the direction of the project are likely to get made there. The Monday event will be community focused with tutorials, presentations of new work, time to present your Dojo-based apps, and opportunities for Q&A with the developers who are hacking on the features you use every day.

Sound interesting? Sign up!

Power vs. Authority

More than a year ago I had the pleasure meeting a man by the name of Amit Green. At the time we got to talking about lots of things, and eventually his arguments helped turn the tide on making the big changes required for Dojo 0.9. As a part of of those discussions, he convinced me to read this book, which in 2007 read as part wise tome and part time-capsule from a simpler, slower time in business. Perhaps the most important thing I took away from it was the difference between power and authority. To quickly summarize, "power" is the ability to affect change while "authority" is the right to make any given decision. It's easy to see how these are different: the person actually doing the work has all the power while the person who signed off on the spec has the authority. Sometimes these things are embodied in the same person but the minute they're not you have a "management problem". The solution isn't to just assume that one person will do everything; you'll get no division of labor that way which defeats the entire point of modern economics. Instead, you have to get everyone to respect the other parties such that authorized decisions represent the interests of those with power and that those with power have some agency.

But what happens when that process breaks down? When those with power forget that they have (or should have) instigating new decisions or framing them correctly? Or when everyone on the outside assumes that those with authority are the ones who can really make something happen? I'll argue that you get the web as we know it today.

As a case study in putting your faith in the wrong idols, you can't do better than posts like this which "blame the W3C" (via Molly). Blaming the W3C for not pushing the web forward is both humorously off-target and distressingly common. I've written about this before, but fundamentally you can't blame the W3C for failing to act because it's not the W3C's job to act. An MBA should be able to tease this out a bit more effectively – any decision only requires that you have answers for five questions: why? what? how? when? who?

Answering these for pushing the web forward is straightforward, even on a simplistic level:

Figuring out "how" leads you directly to "who" in this case. The action we all want is the sole purview and responsibility of the browser vendors and they alone have the power to push the web forward. The "web standards community" has made it clear that they'll need the imprimatur of some authoritative body where agreement can be forced, but that hasn't kept the browser vendors from taking the initiative there, either. The big, open questions then center around how the "web standards community" can make enough room for renderer vendors to try out new stuff, since that's how we get new things. Demanding agreement on what to do before trying it out demonstrably doesn't work, so it's then imperative that there be a mechanism for the web to iterate prior to standardization. In fact, I'll argue that this is now the biggest reason that Paul Ellis isn't getting the improvements he wants out of the web: there's no mechanism in place by which any browser vendor can take significant risks without incurring the wrath of a swarm of WaSPs, or worse. Attempts to even begin to lay the groundwork for such a mechanism have been shot down forcefully by may folks who, like Paul, view "fixing the web" as the W3C's job.

Standards bodies are animated only by the needs of industry to reduce costs by forcing vendors to agree on things. Like Open Source, they can act as a back-stop to the monopoly-creating power of network effects by ensuring that the price of software commodities eventually does reach zero. In this context, then, the W3C's only effective function is to drive consensus when visions for how to go forward diverge or lead down proprietary ratholes. Asking the W3C for more is the fast path to continued disappointment.

The W3C is just a sail and all sails need the wind to function. You can't blame the sail for the wind not blowing.

A Lovely Box For Your Toolkit

I'm incredibly excited about the SitePen Dojo Toolbox AIR app that just launched. I've been using early versions for a couple of weeks now, and in that time it has earned a privileged place on my desktop. Being able to make local builds without delving to the command line is something that I've wanted to be able to show new Dojo users for years and this tool finally makes it easy. There's more work to do around configuring the profiles themselves, but the new tool demystifies many of the build configuration options significantly. Having a searchable API viewer available is also a godsend. Huge props to the team that put it together!

Edit: I forgot to note one of my favorite parts of the project, namely that because the Dojo build system is written in JavaScript (thanks to James Burke's awesome work), the build system in the Toolbox doesn't require Java. Instead, SitePen was able to port the few Rhino dependencies in the build tool to work with the native JavaScript engine in AIR. It's a minor thing, but it speaks to the excellent engineering behind Dojo's tooling and the power of having actual web-native technologies inside a desktop app.

LHB: Same Story, Different Tune

I'm not sure how I missed it for so long, but I'm now reading every word of the Linux Hater's Blog. It's beautiful catharsis, and I say that as someone who used to serve as President of a university LUG and who writes open source software for a living.

Like the author of LHB, I've written my share of low-level Linux stuff and shudder in horror and how backward the linux desktop still is. X11 is an abomination and configuring sound or wifi or some new-ish device...well, I still have those scars. It wasn't that long ago that I was hacking together bits of kernel patches to get an early firewire iPod (a gift from Jennifer) working on my SuSE desktop. And I was using SuSE because it usually required the least futzing of the then-available distros. Even when Linux was my desktop OS of choice – I had since climbed down from my brief flirtation with OpenBSD – it was blindingly clear to me that building my own packages was a fool's game. My time is simply worth more than that. Perhaps the most cogent point I took away from reading the LHB archives is that building professional code for the "Linux Platform" is nearly impossible, not because it can't be done, but because it costs too damned much to justify the costs. The Linux crowd seems to mis-value the immediate vs. long term costs of choice. By failing to provide a binary-friendly environment, the Linux world creates conditions only friendly to Open Source software, crippling their platform and robbing it of the capital investment that would allow it to truly compete. Many people who suffer through some Linux distro as their desktop environment no doubt see this as a good thing. I, however, need to get some work done. The LHB cogently lays out why everyone else on the planet whose time is worth more than what Amazon charges for a CPU-hour on EC2 similarly dismisses Linux for anything but servers.

The almost religious belief that choice is good ignores the inability of most people (myself included) to fully judge the long-run costs of any given technology decision. Oddly, the web browser world seems stuck in a similar position. Choice in browsers is promoted like some sort of panacea, when in fact our big problem isn't choice, it's that browsers simply can't natively attempt the feats we need them to accomplish. Smart people don't replace their browsers, they use what works until it doesn't any more. No wonder it's taken Firefox so long to gain market share. Like linux distros, browsers evolve in hodge-podge was, never quite tracing a straight line toward real progress. The refrain of "standards will save us" seems to ignore the reality that, like the LSB, the existing W3C standards are absolutely insufficient to address the problems at-hand. Both CSS3 and HTML5 are nice first-stabs, but they don't get us "there". For Linux, the LHB points out that there's zero reason to not ship "the same bits", and for the web, the issue is that content can't tell the browser "no, really, use that renderer". Interestingly, Microsoft tried to convince the world that we should version our content and the standards zealots just shot them down without really considering the consequences. Instead of making the world safe for a better web, the HTML standards geeks instead did the most powerful thing they could do to prevent it from materializing. In essence, they preserved "choice" at the expense of utility. What a waste. Seriously, if these are the deep thinkers on "our team", why not go just use Flash to build everything?

Many people have gotten worked up about Microsoft's role in killing Netscape (although they tend to minimize Netscape's role in its own demise), but ISTM that the real long-term harm done here has been to remove the renderer as a profit center. Once Microsoft set the price of the browser at "free" they effectively killed browser evolution as part of anything but an OS-based platform play (in part, to preserve their existing OS-based platform play). Interestingly, then, web-based services have routed around the difficulties of the platform to date to deliver apps that seemed well out of reach of HTML 4.01 as implemented by IE 6, but well, we're a plucky lot, aren't we? The most progress being made right now seems to be coming from a large software vendor in Cupertino with an OS-based platform play that absolutely needs the web to sparkle in order to drive adoption of their OS and hardware.

Like Linux, the web will probably lurch forward this way for the forseeable future. The standards zealots smacked down the IE team so hard on content versioning that I don't think anyone else will have the testicular fortitude to try again for a good while. It's down to the whole "vision thing", and the web standards crowd doesn't seem to have any. It's about time someone took the punch bowl away from them once and for all. The open web needs real progress too badly to stall any longer.

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