inessential by Brent Simmons

February 2002


Years ago Sheila and I worked in a biology lab in France. There was a French graduate student, a clean-cut young man and a clothes-horse, who spoke English well but imperfectly.

One feature of clean-cut young men is that they’re frequently shocked by things.

This young man missed one of the fine points of English. Whenever he was shocked, he would declare, loudly and indignantly, “I’m shocking!”

We never corrected him because it was so funny. He was the farthest thing from shocking, a most un-shocking young man. So to hear him stand up and declare, with Gallic indignation and a French accent, that he was shocking—well, it made us laugh like the crazy hamburger-eaters we were.

I’ve found that even native English speakers make a similar mistake with the word nauseous.

Whenever someone says or writes that they’re nauseous, I laugh, because it’s the same mistake my French friend made.

Something that’s nauseous is something that causes nausea.

If you’ve been affected by something that’s nauseous, then you have been nauseated.

Get it? Saying “I’m nauseous” is like saying “I’m shocking!”


“Commas go inside the quotes,” he said. “In the U.S.A, that is. Periods too.”

I’m going from a T1 to a cable modem connection. Today the cable gets installed here. It’s been a long time since I had a regular consumer connection. Before the T1 I had ISDN. (Remember ISDN?)

But I don’t mind as much as you might think. I look forward to it, even. In a weird way it feels more democratic.


I had thought Adobe killed GoLive’s workgroup Web server—but now it’s shipping as part of GoLive 6.0.

I just read Christopher Hitchens’ Letters to a Young Contrarian. I recommend it to every weblogger who strives to be skeptical and critical of received opinion.

I was once the victim of racial profiling at an airport.

It was a few years ago, an anniversary of the bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma.

I was at Sea-Tac, a 30-year-old white guy in the Northwest travelling alone. Dressed in black. Short hair. Very little baggage. My tickets had been purchased only a few days before.

I was escorted from the check-in counter to security where my bags were searched. I was told to go to the gate and stay there until boarding.

I have no doubt they were only searching white guys that day.

If they could have searched my brain they’d have known how much I am the opposite of those psychotic teabags who blow up buildings. But I’m glad they can’t search my brain.

Anyway, I’m not complaining, or stating an opinion one way or the other about racial profiling, I’m just noting the irony.


The early flowers are blooming. Buds appear on the trees. I’ve mowed the lawn once already.

Every year Spring comes with these little surprises. I enjoy it no less for the repetition.


I was rooting for Michelle Kwan last night. But then Sarah Hughes skated so damn well. I was blown away. Wow. So cool.

Don’t make me touch that thing!

I took that What D&D Character Are You? test that’s been going around. I’ve never been so delighted with the results of an online quiz.

I Am A: Chaotic Neutral Human Fighter Ranger

Chaotic Neutral characters are unstable, and frequently insane. They believe in disorder first and foremost, and will thus strive for that disorder in everything they do. This means that they will do whatever seems 'fun' or 'novel' at any given time.

Humans are the 'average' race. They have the shortest life spans, and because of this, they tend to avoid the racial prejudices that other races are known for. They are also very curious and tend to live 'for the moment'.

Primary Class:
Fighters are the warriors. They use weapons to accomplish their goals. This isn't to say that they aren't intelligent, but that they do, in fact, believe that violence is frequently the answer.

Secondary Class:
Rangers are the defenders of nature and the elements. They are in tune with the Earth, and work to keep it safe and healthy.


Don’t make me touch that thing!

Were I to found a famous school of Web design—yeah, right, as if that would ever happen—it would be called Minimalist.

In interviews I would complain about the name, I’d say, “No, really it’s about focus and context, blah blah blah.” But secretly I’d be quite happy with the Minimalist name.

In this fantasy world of mine, is there a reason for this minimalism other than aesthetic?

Here’s what I’ve been thinking:

Many sites take a kitchen-sink approach. They have polls, news boxes, top-ten lists, stock quotes, and on and on. The thing is, when I go to such a site I’m going for whatever the main point of the site is.

For weblogs that would be the news.

My revelation is that sites do not exist alone, every site is part of the World Wide Web, part of a much larger context.

But when designing a site, many designers act as if it’s the only Web site in the world, or at least the first place people will turn to for news.

I’m under no illusions that any of my sites are the primary news sources for anybody. Or that people see them as somehow separate from the mass of weblogs.

I’m not sure I’m getting my point across, so I’ll re-state it: You don’t need a kitchen-sink approach, since your Web site is part of a huge family, it’s part of the entire Web. Allow the rest of the Web to do the things that you don’t do.

Here’s an example: Mac OS X Hints. It’s one of my favorite sites. Great content. I’ve even donated money to it. I point to it often from

Yet, before I go to the site, I ask myself if I have the energy to do all the filtering I need to do in order to read it. There’s so much stuff I don’t care about, so many boxes and things. It’s definitely a kitchen-sink site.

There’s a cost: it takes mental effort on the part of the user to filter out all the extraneous stuff. Rather than make your site sticky, all this extra stuff can drive down traffic.

And there’s a cost to the person or people who run the site, too. All this extra stuff has to be built in the first place and then maintained. The cost of maintenance is always higher than you think it will be. (In this area Murphy shines brightest.)

So my advice would be: your site is not the only Web site. Concentrate on what’s unique about it and what it does best. Trust that the Web will take up the slack. Whatever you’re not doing, someone else is doing.

That’s a good thing.

It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway—you don’t have to listen to me. I’m not going to flame anyone for having a kitchen-sink site. These are just my thoughts. I expect widespread disagreement.

Theory: RSS is popular in part because it routes around the kitchen-sink designs of many news sites.

Maybe I’m just a kind of modern day Amish person. When Sheila and I went to buy a washing machine and clothes dryer, we deliberately bought models with less features, since they were simpler.

We could easily have bought fancier machines with more knobs and buttons and settings, but we didn’t. It wasn’t about the money, it was about user interface.

Similarly we have no plans to buy a Tivo. It may be wonderful, but it’s yet another box with another user interface to learn. Ugh. Not worth it.

The problem in 2002 and in the foreseeable future is the overwhelming crush of user interfaces, both on the Web and off.

One day my Dad was visiting Seattle. He rented a car with one of those computerized navigation systems.

I was in the passenger seat, and he encouraged me to try it out, to play with it.

I said, “Don’t make me touch that thing!”

That’s a reaction I have frequently on the Web. Busy sites with too much stuff on them make me say, “Don’t make me touch that thing!"

And then I hit the back button.


My boss posits a false opposition between CSS and Dogma 2000. “If you believe the Web is a come-as-you-are, we’re-all-just-folks writing and reading environment, why bother with CSS?”

My questions: why not bother with CSS? Or, why bother with a table-based layout?

In other words, Dogma 2000 suggests to me that I can work how I want to work. If I find CSS makes it easier to design and maintain my sites, then I’ll use it.

Yes, that means learning CSS in the first place. But, once learned, I’ve found it easier to deal with than table-based layouts.

It’s all about making my work easier. I like CSS for the same reasons I like Manila and Radio: separation of form and content.

But I’m not going to tell you what to do. You choose.


Last night I dreamt of a beer tree. A mighty oak with cans of beer hung like Christmas ornaments from its limbs.

We started by picking off and drinking the low-hanging beer. As we drank more we had to climb more. People fell down laughing. It was okay.

Then somehow I was running house to house through people’s gardens and everything as some mean people were shooting arrows at me.

I escaped by throwing handfuls of diamonds in their faces.

Then I bought movie tickets for me and Sheila.

I just discovered the real reason Apple discontinued the G4 Cube.

With the touch-sensitive power button on top of the cube, it’s not cat-proof.


I was happy to see this white paper on the differences between Carbon and Cocoa.

There’s alot of religion on this topic; this paper is a nice antidote.

I myself like Carbon and Cocoa both. They’re both good.

I’ve often wondered about tech religion. I’ve often wondered about the kind of mind that can’t like two things, that has always to proclaim one is great and the other evil.

What’s so hard about liking two things? (Or three things or four?)

From where comes the need to make everyone think the same as you?

After spam, tech zealots are the most unpleasant thing on the Internet.

With as much irony as I can muster, I call zealots “the herd of independent thinkers.”

Every time you behead Marie Antoinette you end up with Napoleon.


My boss asks why use CSS instead of tables for layout? My response:

It’s nothing more or less than separating form from content.

It is now possible to make your HTML completely free of style and layout information. It can be purely structural. No font tags; no b, i, u; no tables.

All style and layout can be done in a style sheet.

It’s irresistible (for me) for the exact same reason a CMS is irresistible—it makes it much easier to maintain a site.

But it’s not a cause (for me). I don’t care how Joe Blow works; I care about how I work.

There are some additional side benefits of using CSS over tables—it’s far easier to create accessible pages, which many people must do by law or by their organization’s guidelines.

It also means you can do things like print-friendly pages without any server-side work—the print-friendly page is just a different style sheet, another view of the exact same page.

Now you might wonder why this site still uses tables. Simple: because I haven’t had time to re-do it.

Plus it makes your clothes brighter and your smile whiter.

As far as standards go, my favorite isn’t CSS but DCCP—Distributed Cold Cuts Protocol—which makes possible Web Salamis, server-side prosciutto processing, and so on.


I’ve got this keyboard thing that can do lots of different sounds. With 66 keys it’s pretty big for one of these, though not quite as big as a piano.

So I select sound 12 which is a nasty organ sound and I turn it up. I sing “There is...” and hit a big two-handed A minor chord. I keep singing, with my best but sucky white-boy-blues imitation—as if I’m Eric Burdon or something—“There is... a house... in New Orleans,” I sing.

My kitten Papa is there. By the time I get to “My mother was a tailor” I swear to God he starts barking. Sort of like chirping but more like barking. He keeps doing it and I keep singing and doing these simple loud organ arpeggios with my right hand.

Then I’m swaying back and forth like I’m Ray Charles; I’m totally into it, and Papa’s still barking. “The only thing a gambler needs is a suitcase and a trunk. And the only time he feels satisfied is when he’s on a drunk.”

By the time I get to “With one foot on the platform and one foot on the train” Papa can’t take it anymore, he takes off running downstairs.

I finish the song and conclude the only thing I can conclude, that Papa was just too emotionally affected by the lyrics and my performance to be able to stay through the entire song. This was the first time he’d heard this song, after all, and I think the ending was just too sad and ironic for him.

“I’m going back to New Orleans—to wear that ball and chain.”

He’s a sensitive, artistic young fella with a great appreciation for music.

As I was typing this he jumped up on my lap and started purring. See?


If I had a time machine, where would I go? Top ten list of places.

1. The liberation of Paris. Does anything else compare, for pure joy? I doubt it.

2. The Library of Alexandria. I’d back up a bunch of moving vans and bring all the books back to the present.

3. Gertrude Stein’s Paris, 1900-1927. Hang out with Picasso in his studio; go drinking with Hemingway. I’d take a side trip to New York City for the Armory Show.

4. The American Revolution. I could spend hours and hours talking to Jefferson and Hamilton.

5. Athens at the time of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. (Socrates, don’t drink that! It’s poison, dude!)

6. Studio 54 in the pre-AIDS, pre-Just-Say-No ’70s.

7. New York City in the ’50s and ’60s. Hang out with the Abstract Expressionists, then move on to Andy Warhol’s Factory.

8. Paris at the time of Voltaire and Denis Diderot.

9. The Roman Empire before Christianity took hold. (Nothing against Christianity, mind you, I just want to see what the empire was like.)

10. Shakespeare’s England. Who wouldn’t want to see the original productions at the Globe theater?


People who let their dogs roam free to shit in other people’s yards suck.

Note to whoever owns those big standard poodles here in Ballard: I will find you and I will put you to sleep. And you will go to Hell.

I will then shoot your dogs, and they will join you in Hell. I’m not kidding.

I just spent half an hour shovelling shit. No jury in the world would convict me.

I’m more likely to get a medal for service to humanity.

If you, dear reader, have been letting your dogs roam free into other people’s yards, don’t kid yourself: you are making some people murderously mad.


You can read de-classified CIA documents about UFOs—go to and search for ufo.

My grandfather once told me a story—I think it was about a cousin of his, but I’m not sure—about a man working for the OSS in New York City during World War II. (The OSS was the precursor to the CIA.)

This guy’s job wasn’t doing covert operations: he mostly sat at a desk.

Except one time he was tasked with searching the apartment of a Nazi spy living in the city.

So he entered the darkened apartment, gun drawn, afraid that the spy was still there. The spy didn’t seem to be there, but he didn’t know for sure.

He was afraid the drumming of his heart would give him away.

My grandfather said—you’ve seen this in movies and TV shows, but imagine doing it in real life. Imagine really being there, and there’s maybe a man who will shoot you, and maybe you’ll have to shoot him. This was a real war.

And you’re just a regular guy, a man with a job, with a wife and children, and you’re in your own city. Most days you sit at a desk. But today you’re afraid for your life.

The dark of the apartment reminds you of what will happen if the spy gets the drop on you. And it reminds you of what will happen if the spy’s masters win the war.

The spy wasn’t there after all. He went slowly from room to room, got what he wanted and left.


I checked out Mozilla 0.9.8 for OS X last night—and was very pleased with how it looked much more like an OS X application than did previous releases. It doesn’t seem like so much of an oddball anymore.

However, on my machine there’s still something jerky and slow about the interface that’s just a bit too annoying to make it my main browser. I want to use it, but for now I’m still using IE, which feels smoother and faster. Nuts.


Radio Wiredfool: “Why buy cat toys, when they can have the cardboard box that your toys come in?”

I’ve often asked myself the same question. Some of Papa’s favorite toys have been pieces of tape and plastic and crumpled-up magazine subscription cards.

I think we buy the toys because we think they’re cute. Papa, he’ll just bite anything.