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September 28, 2008: Odd Lots

  • A chemical found in red wine may slow aging in mammals. Reservatrol is a hot item these days, and whereas there probably isn't enough in wine to have measurable effects on health or longevity, Big Pharma firm GlaxoSmithKlein paid $720M for Sirtris, a biotech firm doing research on the reservatrol family of chemicals. Thanks to Frank Glover for the link.
  • Larry Steckler, who had worked for the Gernsback organization from 1957 until its bitter end in 2003, has published a 700-page biography of Hugo Gernsback. We've been waiting for a decent biography of our man Hugo for a long time, and I'll post my reaction here once I've read it.
  • Bruce Baker sent me a link to photos of a (more or less) scale model of the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman built entirely in Lego. The story has been written up (in English) on the Make Blog, with more photos here. My big question with Lego (having grown up on Meccano, in which everything is bolted together with real bolts) is how such monumental Lego sculptures stay intact. Is it all friction? I've built small things with Lego, but models that come apart in your hands don't seem to me to be anything near as good as the (admittedly holey) things you make with Meccano/Erector and their ilk.
  • From Don Doerres comes a link to a software defined radio (SDR) on the Web, covering a portion of the 80, 20, and 40 meter ham bands. The "waterfall" visualization is fascinating, and something that "real" radios just can't do. We're good at matching patterns, and I was able to see when a new signal appeared anywhere on the covered band out of the corner of my eye. Contesters must love SDRs!
  • Michael Covington suggested that unnecessary animations are a far bigger distraction and degradation of the computing experience than windowing, and I have to agree. This is one reason I continue to use older software: Its moving parts don't move unless they have to.
  • Also from Michael comes a story from the UK about the fact that 2% of the 1£ coins in circulation are counterfeit. This boggles the mind: 1£ won't even buy lunch, and making enough coins to be worthwhile must take a lot of time and work, considering that you can and probably will do time if they catch you. (Does anybody remember Bernard Wolfe's wry short story "The Never-Ending Penny"?)

September 27, 2008: Setting the Ether on Fire

I finally finished my attic shortwave antenna a few days ago, after puzzling over how to do it for almost four years. It was both easier and harder than I thought. The project took up most of my spare time for a week, and required me to practice tossing a tethered tennis ball around up there between the two attic hatches.

I had to get the antenna up in the attic, above the walls of the house here, because the walls are stucco-coated chicken wire and thus form a very effective shield can. Even a 40' dipole in my workshop could pull in only some of the strong local AM broadcast stations. The new antenna works extremely well, and scanning the bands on Wednesday night with the Icom 736 brought in all the usual suspects from Europe at 9 MHz, along with an amateur station in Costa Rica at 7220 and another one that was (I think; copy on that one was poor) in Argentina. The quiet sun means that the bands above 14 MHz are basically dead, but assuming that we're not headed into the next ice age, they'll be back in a couple of years.

The wire was cut for 7200 KHz, and the measured SWR minimum was at 7130 (with another potentially useful one at 21400) so I got pretty close. Seeing if I could get a signal out was the next test. I tuned around on 40M to find a quiet spot, pressed push-to-talk, opened my mouth...

...and the fire alarm went off. I tore upstairs to find Carol in a panic and QBit barking furiously at the cold-air return where the siren lives. I didn't assume that the transmitter was at fault, but took a quick run around the house and garage to make sure nothing was burning, and by the time I reset the siren, the alarm system had already called the fire department. Nothing was burning, and with a red face I had to tell the firemen who came up in a truck (not a huge one, fortunately) that my transmitter had triggered a false alarm.

The garage smoke detector is perhaps 5' below the south leg of the dipole, and I may have to have the company that installed the alarm system run shielded cable to it. We think that the dipole was inducing sufficient current in the smoke detector cable to trigger the system, so the shielded cable may be enough. If the dipole is inducing currents in the smoke detector itself, the detector may have to go into a Faraday cage of some sort. The fact that the vulnerable detector is in the garage is fortunate. Out there a Faraday cage would be almost stylish; but maybe not so stylish on our livingroom ceiling.

So amateur radio station K7JPD will remain off the air for a little while longer. Damn. Hiram Percy Maxim didn't have this problem. Ubiquitous computing—and the wires that make it work—are a two-edged sword.

September 26, 2008: Scarcity Leaves Its Mark

Whether or not an unexamined life is worth living, examining what goes on inside your head is a lot of fun. I've become interested in psychology late in life (after treating it with contempt when I was a cocksure young rationalist) and identifying my biases and tracing them back down to their sources has become a minor hobby here.

My recent study of CSS reminded me of one of those biases: I hate windowing. I just hate it, and hate it so deeply I don't even notice the hatred anymore. If you were to look over my shoulder as I work, you'd notice that I don't use it. Whatever app I'm working in gets the whole screen, and when you can see the desktop at all, it means I'm in neutral and nothing useful is going on. I came to the insight after practicing fluid layouts in CSS. BTW, If you're interested in learning how to do fluid layouts, I haven't found anything better than Nate Koechly's Web article "Intricate Fluid Layouts in Three Easy Steps." Nate created the Yahoo UI Grids CSS system, which I may begin using once I learn enough CSS by building things from scratch. I like YUI because it supports fixed widths. Fluid layouts are not mandatory.

This is good, as I find fluid layouts peculiarly repellant. Things like this suggest a live frog nailed to a tree, squirming in agony. (Drag the corner of the window around and you may start to see what I mean.) Part of it is my long history with fixed page layouts in magazine and book work, and part of it is a desire to focus and not be distracted by things going on in other windows. The bulk of the bias, I think, proceeds from the same reason that the Greatest Generation were tireless savers and hated to waste anything: They grew up in conditions of scarcity. I ducked the Great Depression and WWII, but I followed personal computing from its rank beginnings, when displays were 16 X 64 character text screens or worse. I learned computers starving for screen real estate.

The IBM PC gave us 24 X 80 displays, but that was never enough. Text windowing systems like TopView seemed insane to me, and back in April 1989, when I was doing the "Structured Programming" column in DDJ, I wrote and published an "anti-windowing system" that treated the crippled 24 X 80 display as a scrollable window into a much larger character grid. Full-page text displays eventually arrived: The MDS Genius 80-character X 66-line monochrome portrait-mode text display (left) sat on my desk from 1985 through 1992, when Windows 3.1 finally made text screens irrelevant. (Lack of Windows drivers for the display soon forced MDS into liquidation.) It wasn't until I bought a 21" Samsung 213T display in 2005 and started running at 1600 X 1200 that I first recall thinking, "Maybe this is big enough."

And only just barely. People who were born with a 1024 X 768 raster in their mouths may not be able to figure it, and I guess there's really no way I can explain. It's just me. Starve a man for screen space for thirty years, and he is unlikely to want to share what he has with more than one app at a time. Scarcity leaves its mark.

September 24, 2008: CSS Progress

I'm continuing my re-exploration of CSS in my spare moments, and it's worked out very well so far. If you're doing static pages that don't need Javascript or other fancy stuff, CSS can make very slick layouts with only a handful of rules. The problem of many people using old browsers that don't fully support CSS still exists (especially for IE) but to some extent it always will. CSS-challlenged IE6 still has 32% of the browser market, which means that at least 32% of people will not see your pages render correctly, and that seems like an awful lot to me. I thought I was alone in grumbling about this, but I'm not—and this guy does webstuff for a living.

Anyway. The browsers aren't there yet, but they do enough to support my modest goals. First of these is to get rid of table-based layouts in my Web articles. Tables are a kluge, but they were the best that the Web could do for its first ten years. Another goal is to create an "imprint style" defined in a single external style sheet. I've taken my several articles about kites and have been CSS-izing them to a common imprint style. These three articles work off the same style sheet:

(The Hi-Flier article is the biggest and messiest, and is still on the workbench.) The headers are custom-made images for the sake of the decorative title fonts. One of the Web's biggest defects is not having embeddable fonts. If you want to use fancy fonts, you have to render the font text in graphics and treat the rendered titles as images. I don't mind doing that at all; the page title is present in the META information, so the Semantic Web, wherever the hell it's hiding, will not be deprived of its due.

I'm still interviewing CSS editors. I've already gone through a bunch of them. The biggest disappointment was Amaya, an editor/validator that goes way back and was created by the W3C. Something that old (it's been around since 1996!) should be much better by now. Six of the toolbar icons are empty holes, and it crashes with the same unenlightening error on Win2K that Kompozer does. It did help me clean up my markup between crashes, but there are other ways to do that. Another major disappointment was TopStyle, an $80 commercial product with a downloadable trial version. The trial version is a good thing, because the only supported preview browser is IE. You can rig it to preview with Firefox, but there's a three-year-old message claiming that the Mozilla embedding technology is "experimental" and not supported, with warnings that border on those against crossing the streams. No way to preview in Opera or anything else. This is the kind of lazy-ass nonsense I will sometimes forgive on free products, but it's most of the way to 2009, and anything that costs money and claims a preview feature had better do IE, Firefox, and Opera, or it gets the hook. TopStyle got the hook.

In the meantime, I'm using Kompozer every day downstairs on my XP machine, and it hasn't crashed yet. It's got some thin spots—by default it creates internal style sheets, and you have to manually insert a link to an external sheet—but now that I've gotten to know it, my productivity is way up. Kompozer is a cleaned-up version of Nvu, and the French chap who wrote Nvu is working on a successor. (Having a little French helps here, though most of his posts are at least mostly in English.) Kompozer/Nvu's heart is definitely in the right place, and if I have to use it for awhile until M. Glazman releases its successor, I should at least be able to get some work done.

Other odds and ends associated with my efforts to transcend Webfossilhood:

  • I tried to upload WordPress to Sectorlink using a product called ZipDeploy. Apart from the arrogance of having a three hour trial period (!!!) the damned thing got partway through the longish upload and...vanished. It didn't show an error dialog. It didn't even beep. The app window simply disappeared, leaving the upload incomplete. There was nothing running in Task manager. It Died And Made No Sign. Hook!
  • Sectorlink being unhelpful in this regard (and I will not be renewing the contract for next year there) I went over to my Fused Network account and installed WordPress through their Installatron utility. It took 2 minutes and worked flawlessly. I've had difficulty installing Gallery 2 there, but it's looking like the problem is with Gallery and not Installatron.
  • Contra will be moving to WordPress sometime around the first of the year, depending on how quickly I learn it and how long it takes to sort out trhe hosting equation. There is a plug-in to do automatic cross-posts to LiveJournal, so I will be keeping my LiveJournal mirror. But this hand-edited table monster will (finally) be laid to rest. My WordPress install is browsable, but don't bookmark it, and don't expect it to be a mirror. It's just test posts. I have it on right now, but it will be on when it "goes live."

And so to work.

September 20, 2008: More on John T. Frye

I just uploaded a new version of my Carl & Jerry index, including an expanded bio of John T. Frye. We know a lot more about him than we did a couple of months ago, and almost all of the new material came to me from Lisa Enfinger, whose parents were close friends of Frye's for many years. I'll summarize here:

  • John Frye was stricken by polio as an infant, and he could not walk at all, throughout his entire life.
  • That said, he was not immobile: He had hand controls installed on all of his cars, and traveled extensively throughout the United States. He owned a 1963 Olds Dynamic 88, but no word on whether he ever had a Buick. (Legend holds that he was a Buick man, but no one can tell me why that should be so.)
  • Remarkably enough, he never attended Purdue University, but instead studied at the University of Indiana, Columbia University, and the University of Chicago. Lisa did not know if he ever received a degree.
  • More remarkably, he never studied engineering, but preferred English, journalism, history, and psychology.
  • Her parents both attended Purdue in the 1940s while earning their degrees in chemistry, and John visited them there. He probably knew other people at Purdue, and it was not a long drive to Layafette from Logansport in any event.
  • He is credited with close to 600 short articles, including Carl & Jerry and Mac's Service Shop. His first publication was supposedly in Hugo Gernsback's Radio Craft in the early 1930s.
  • Her great uncle Gene Buntain was Frye's close high school friend in Logansport, and the two of them discovered electronics and ham radio together. (Could Gene Buntain have been the inspiration for Carl?)
  • John Frye lived much or most of his life at 1810 Spear St. in Logansport, one block south of US 24. It was a little weird to dive down from orbit on Google Earth and be staring at the roof of Frye's old house. One wonders what the man himself would have thought of it.

I dug through my smallish collection of really old radio magazines (including a few Radio Craft) and did not see him there, but if any of you guys can find any of his early articles, I would like citations.

Needless to say, I'm still looking for details on John Frye's life, especially concerning where he learned radio and TV servicing and where he practiced it. Lisa said she never heard of him owning his own shop nor even working for a shop in town, so that would be a question worth answering.

Finally, I had written to Frye's younger brother Bailey Frye late last year, but he was evidently too ill to respond, and I found today that he passed away at the end of April, at age 90.

Many thanks to Lisa Enfinger for taking the time to send me all the information, including the scan of a newspaper article from 1962 that I first lined to a couple of weeks ago, including a picture of Frye at that time, when he was 42.

September 19, 2008: Odd Lots

  • Do not—I repeat—do not buy the Greenlee Cablecaster if you're faced with running wires through difficult places. I'm running a 65-foot shortave antenna in our attic, basically throwing cords for stringing two wires from the center of the structure to each end along the long axis, and the unit was a total botch. In every single case, the fishline tied to the nifty glow-in-the-dark dart broke under the force of the spring that throws it. (I wisely tried it out in the street before I took it up in the attic.) After narrowly resisting the urge to stomp on the damned thing, I drilled a hole in a tennis ball, threaded a contractor cord through it with a large cotter pin, and lobbed the ball myself. It worked. And here's what I was dealing with. I got the ball through that maze with my own right arm, though it took fifteen minutes of bad throws. I now know what pitching practice must be like.
  • Alluva sudden, egg and onion matzo crackers have simultaneously vanished from all the local supermarkets. I have not seen any for two months, after reliably seeing them in all kosher sections throughout the five years we've been here. They've been my favorite soup cracker for 25 years. I cannot figure this; if there's been a change in kosher rules or something like that, it has not reached Google yet.
  • An article in today's Wall Street Journal reports studies indicating that atheists are four times more likely to believe in Bigfoot, ghosts, and the Lost Continent of Atlantis than people who go to church at least once a week. (31% vs. 8%) Faith appears to be inborn, and if you don't believe in God, well, there are plenty of other things to choose from in the marketplace of unprovable phenomena.
  • I'm not sure this is proven, but I sure wish it were: A study indicating that eating vegetables shrinks your brain. (Thanks to Brook Monroe for the link.)
  • And if broccoli-induced brain shrinkage isn't enough to scare you off the Whole Foods wagon, consider that organic soils are often just as contaminated with heavy metals as soils used in conventional agriculture.
  • Off-brand 16GB SDHC cards are now down to $35 at NewEgg, and even name brands like SanDisk are in the $60 range. Three of those will carry every bit of data I have except for ripped ISOs, and according to a friend of mine who works in the industry we still have no crisp idea how long the data will last.
  • Today is International Talk Like a Pirate Day. I dunno; it seems mighty quiet somehow. Wait a sec...the pirates all had subprime mortgages on their ships—and they're all now underwater!

September 16, 2008: Gritting My Teeth over Kompozer

I've been re-learning CSS over the past week and change, and it hasn't been hard because I didn't learn all that much of it to begin with. Back in 1999 and 2000, CSS was mostly proof-of-concept in Web browsers. The spec itself is a work of brilliance, but it wasn't until the release of IE7 at the end of 2006 that it was possible to make even fairly simple pages render identically on IE, Firefox, and Opera. IE6, which an amazing (appalling?) number of people still use, will not render the max-width property correctly, so fluid and even flexible layouts are still problematic.

No matter here. I'm a page-oriented, fixed-width kind of a guy. My 25-year publishing background has taught me to think in textual spaces that don't change shape. This is in part my webfossilhood showing, but in truth it's not a new argument, and the discussion pivots on how you use your UIs. I display only one thing at a time on my screen, as an inducement to personal focus, and so I maximize all windows that I use except for those belonging to small utilities. There is sometimes a need to show two or maybe three windows at once, but it doesn't come up often for me, and when the need arises, I know it.

So what I've been exploring are table-free fixed-width CSS layouts that will render on an 800 X 600 display (as you find on some of the smaller netbooks) without kicking up a horizontal scroll bar. I haven't tested this on all browsers on all platforms, but the magic number is probably 775. If you don't insist on total fluidity, you can make a very nice 2-column layout with no tables and very little CSS. Here's my learning project. It's not an expert job (I'm not an expert) and it's far from finished, but considering how few lines of CSS it took to do it, I'm pretty happy. I'm going to try to center the material as my next step, and from my reading that shouldn't be hideously difficult.

It's worth a little time here to describe my experience with Kompozer. Overall, it's a nice little item, especially for simple table-oriented layouts. Its CSS features are limited to what CasCadeS can do, and as best I can tell, CasCadeS was abandoned in 2002. I'm still shopping for a good CSS-capable Web editor, but in the meantime Kompozer has been a reasonable learning platform. It has some weird gaps—for example, I see no way to make it insert an em dash—but that's not my major problem. Kompozer does not work reliably on Windows 2000. It crashes frequently when you click the tabs to shift between the different views (text, tags, source, and browser preview) and sometimes when you click the Save button, egad. Then when I went downstairs to my XP lab machine, I edited for hours and suffered no crashes at all. Whose fault that is, well, I won't pursue, but it feeds into the difficult ongoing decision process I have here over moving to XP for my daily work. These days, alot of media stuff, even free software, won't work reliably (or sometimes at all) on Win2K. I have to force myself not to grit my expensive new teeth when I think about it.

Anyway. CSS reminds me a little bit of PL/1. Both technologies tried to bite off way too much at one time, especially considering the state of the underlying technologies when they first appeared. CSS would probably have been accepted more quickly if it hadn't been such a huge challenge to the developers of HTML rendering engines. As with PL/1, different groups with different emphases focused on different features, with the result that identical rendering on all the major browsers still isn't quite here, even though CSS is now ten years old, with roots going back another five. A simpler standard intelligently incrementalized and expanded every three or four years would have been better.

The lack of genuine WYSIWYG tools for CSS bothers me, but I keep reminding myself that hand-futzed CSS/xhtml is not the future. The future is turn-the-crank Web apps that manage content. Tweaking those requires that you know PHP and especially CSS, so I'm cracking the books here and brushing up. I will shortly have a Joomla instance to play with, and Drupal will be close behind. I won't be redesigning Contra because it's all going into a CMS as soon as I can manage it. Hand-coding is addictive, but in the vast majority of common cases, machines do it better and faster. I'd rather be researching and writing articles than hand-formatting them.

September 15, 2008: Why I Don't Use LinkedIn Much

From time to time I get notes from people who have asked me to connect to them on LinkedIn and then didn't have their invitations accepted. I need to emphasize right here that it's not because I don't like you, though I wonder sometimes just how useful LinkedIn actually is. I've done a few introductions, but that's about it. I don't have the paid version, and thus most of the system's features aren't available to me.

No, the problem with LinkedIn is purely technical: Most of the time, the damned thing goes into the bushes after I try to respond to an invitation or other communication from another member. The browser spinner spins and spins, but for whatever reason the progress bar gets about three-fourths of the way toward the finish line and just stops there until the connection times out.

I get this behavior from other sites now and then. I've been very interested in the CSS WebApp IStylr, but I have yet to get anywhere with it for the same reason: Click on a control, and the transaction stalls without going to completion. IStylr may simply be on an overloaded server. It's a one-man project and it's not located in the US. LinkedIn has no such excuse, and I see this problem only very rarely on other large sites. Sometimes logging in very very early or very very late seems to help—but if I have to log in at 2 ayem to get it to talk to me, well, ain't gonna happen.

Every so often I go up to LinkedIn to try and work on the stack of invitations and other things I have waiting, and every so often I get a few transactions to go through. It seems like a lousy way to run a cloud computing site, and I wonder if there's something weird about my own system configuration that LinkedIn just doesn't play well with. If you've had this kind of problem with LinkedIn (or if you have any thoughts on where I should look for possible incompatibilities) I would fersure like to hear about it.

September 12, 2008: Odd Lots

  • Greg Singleton sent me a pointer to an English translation of a Russian short story done in comics format. I'm not a huge fan of comics, but the wizardry in this piece is mostly in the drawings: When I saw the large pane in which the man stands behind the boy he once was, reading the same Jules Verne book against the backdrop of Captain Nemo's ocean—the very same exact copy of the same book—I shivered.
  • Another sunpot, albeit a very small one, has appeared, so we're not likely to break the 1913 record of the longest time without an observed sunspot any time soon. Also note the article on Martian dust devils, which have been dancing around the Phoenix lander and have been caught on video.
  • This article on Intel's current research into programmable matter (but not the quantum dot kind, fortunately) qualifies as the worst-edited Web article I've seen in a month. Don't these people proof their work before they post it?
  • The Large Hadron Collider went live the other day, and people died. Strange physics has nothing on strange psychology.
  • Particle Accelerators of Unusual Size (PAUSes) loom large in a number of apocalyptic SF novels, and here's a summary collection, courtesy Frank Glover.
  • Here's another reason I rather like Good Pope Benny: He's cracking down on nutcase apparitions of the Blessed Mother, which have gotten weirder and weirder and fuller of God-stomps-the-shit-out-of-everybody apocalypticism in the last sixty or seventy years, and are making the whole idea of Catholicism look bad.
  • And to round out this this discussion of Apocalypses of Unusual Stupidity, I give you a list of thirty ends-of-the-world that never happened. Here's hoping that the New Agers will become so dispirited when nothing happens on December 26, 2012 that they will take up a more productive hobby, like woodburning, or breeding planaria worms.

September 11, 2008: I CAN HAS CHEESBURGER GREES!

...because that's just what it was. We were eating lunch in the RV yesterday, and I had microwaved a buffalo burger grilled the night before, with a cheese single atop it. After we had finished eating, QBit jumped up on my lap and pretended to be CuddlyDog for a few seconds until he thought I wasn't looking, and then The Tongue came out. Carol quick grabbed her camera and got the moment just right.

We got home a little earlier today from our 6-day wander, refreshed and ready to get back (more or less) to the normal run of things. I spent maybe a little too much time with my nose buried in CSS books, but we did get a few quality hours in down at Mt. Princeton Hot Springs (see my entry for August 17, 2004 for photos; it hasn't changed much) and a few nice light hikes.

And boy, there's nothing like campground Wi-Fi hotspots to make you appreciate residential broadband!

September 8, 2008: Fetishes

The original Star Trek premiered 42 years ago today. Feeling old, I went for a walk and tried to identify another pair of three-syllable homonyms and got nowhere. Viritrilbia, we need ya down here for a bit—and bring McPhee if you've got him.

Also on the word front, I got a note last night from a reader asking me how I define "fetish", as my use of the word in yesterday's entry puzzled him. I think he's young, and maybe he's thinking latex or bicycle seats, but not so: A fetish is a morally-neutral opinion held with peculiar force. The words "bias" and "prejudice" are now generally considered pejorative, so I had to think of something else. "Fetish" seemed to fit. We all have them, and as we get older and more willing to consider the possibility that we are not all-wise, we often begin to admit it.

My best-known fetish is the contrarian reaction to the well-known (and pretty silly) tech culture aversion to upper-case characters. Talk about a fetish: EVERYBODY KNOWS THAT UPPER-CASE CHARACTERS MEAN THAT YOU'RE SHOUTING, SO NO ONE ANYWHERE IN THE UNIVERSE SHOULD EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER USE THEM FOR ANYTHING EVER AGAIN!!!!!! well guys in just spring when the little lame goat-footed balloon man begins coding far and wee (in pretty-how towns like palo alto) even e. e. cummings cant figger out wtf hes trying to do especially if he does it in c {heh}

My fetish is this: Upper-case characters should be used for the framing members of program code and content markup. In Pascal, things like BEGIN, END, WHILE, REPEAT, UNTIL, IF, THEN, and so on give the program its shape. They should stand out against the general landscape of functions and variables like kleig lights. Ditto content: Markup tags should be in upper case. They need to stand out. Statistically, ordinary content text is lower case, with a sprinkling of upper-case characters so thin as to barely be there. Not being able to spot a tag in the thick of your text can make errors so hard to see that you start flip<p>ing out, whether you're in Palo Alto or Pa<hr>ump. The whole idea is to make the structure of your work easier to see at a glance, especially when there are pages and pages of it to go through and keep correct and-up-to-date.

I know I've lost the war, but I and others with the same fetish may have fought it well enough that the lower-case fetishists had to build the prohibition into what amount to the physical laws of content markup: XHTML absolutely will not allow upper-case characters in tags. God help us all if somebody somewhere perceived our HTML tags as SHOUTING!

And we give these people Ph.D.s, mon dieu.

(The only rational argument I've ever seen about this involves HTML compression, which gains you a mind-boggling 3-4% in markup file size. OMG, PONEZ!)

My other major fetish is about visual development. As our tools get better, hand-coding is increasingly a waste of time and an exercise of pure hubris. I know it's fun, but how much will you bet that you can write better assembly code than gcc? I'm sure that I can't, and I may know maybe a little bit about the subject. This goes triple for CSS/XHTML, which compared to modern x86 machine code are almost trivial. The field is newer than native code generation, and the tools are less mature, but the day will come when you draw the screen you want, and correct, optimized markup and styles come out the back end. We may be closer than you think, and halleluia for that!

It's downhill from there on the fetish side. My off-dry wine fetish is well known. I'm increasingly sure that high-fructose corn syrup lies behind most of our obesity problem. I worry that the Pope will become a serious danger to the Catholic Church, if he hasn't already. Etc. The point is that we all have our obsessions. We may have reasons for them—or think that we do—but certain ideas put down roots in us, and after awhile it's difficult to set them aside. The wise person watches his/her own fetishes closely, lest they become damaging in some way. Shoot for moderation in all things, especially your obsessions!

September 7, 2008: On Being a Webfossil

Carol and I bundled up the puppies and took Otto (our Bigfoot RV) down the road about 100 miles to Buena Vista, Colorado, and we're kicking back here amidst the mountains for a few days. We're not doing much—that's the idea!—but reading and gathering our thoughts.

I've been tearing at what I call my "Webfossil" problem for some time now without saying much about it here. I've been posting content to the Web since 1995, and way back then I tried all kinds of things. However, for the past seven or eight years I've been using basically the same toolset: Dreamweaver 3/Fireworks 3. These were released in 1999 and are pretty creaky, but they work and the content gets posted. Periodically people message me and tell me that my HTML is a little bizarre, and it is, because I don't write it—that's what software is for. (Newcomers here should keep in mind that I'm the Visual Developer Magazine guy, and that WYSIWYG design, whether for code or for content, is one of my major fetishes.) I've become a bit of a Webfossil. Yes, I know, I need new software.

But if I'm considering new software, shouldn't I be thinking about entirely new approaches to the basic challenge? I keep a blog, and I write Web articles on various topics, both using 1999-era tools. LiveJournal has been a useful mirror, and I adopted it almost entirely to provide an RSS feed for Contra. (The comments have been fun, and were something of a surprise.) I don't really need LiveJournal for that anymore, as hosting services with preinstalled and house-supported instances of blogging tools like WordPress are common and cheap. (I just got an account with one and am testing a few things. More on this in coming weeks.)

CMS packages are one alternative approach that I'm looking at very closely. Blogging is either built-in or supported by plug-ins, and management of static articles is basically what CMS systems are for. It's an embarrassment of riches out there; my biggest question now is which one to choose. Drupal is more secure than Joomla, but from what I've seen it takes a lot of work to change anything, most of which is hand-coded PHP or CSS. Now I'm no expert at either, but I've played with both and I'm a quick study when I know it's worth my while. What I barf on is what I always barf on: Too much work per unit result. Hand-coding is fun (and addictive—definitely been there!) but it wastes my time, and at 56, you reluctantly start counting the years you have left.

I know less about Joomla, but it looks like it has more visual tools, more plug-ins, and more available themes. The themes are CSS and thus easily altered by a very cool sort of object-oriented programming for content markup. CSS is fun, if you don't get deranged about seventeen-box fluid layouts. I tried it back in 2001 or so, and set it aside because the spec was twenty miles ahead of the rendering engines. There are still some weird little issues—the CSS greasy eminences do not like the HR tag at all, and deprecate it mortally in favor of peabrained hacks like making the lower edge of a paragraph box visible—but b'gosh and begorrah, you can render the same code in the major browsers these days and it all looks pretty much the same. I guess I really should abandon table-based layouts.

My fundamental objection to CSS remains: There's no reason not to drag text boxes around on a display and then have the software compile your design to XHTML and style sheets—except the software to do this doesn't exist yet. I still have a couple of things to test, primarily Style Master and especially iStylr, but even the formidable Dreamweaver CS3 is still basically an HTML table-basher. I've been doing that for seven years now and it's a nuisance.

I may hand-code a fluid equivalent to my canonical table-based Contra layout for practice if nothing more, but the ultimate solution is probably an all-purpose turn-the-crank Web content management system, even if what I want doesn't quite exist yet. Sooner or later, it will. Time to crack the mold (as venerable and useful as it's been) and stop being a fossil.

September 5, 2008: Odd Lots

  • Stumbled across a spectacular site devoted to WW-I era military aviation. These guys restore and actually build faithful replicas of things like the Sopwith Triplane. Go through the photo albums if you have any least interest in such things.
  • Harry Helms asks if Götterdämmerung will occur on September 10. Maybe in Europe, but not over here; Americans can't even spell "physics" much less Gotter...well, you know, Wagner's Really Big Show. Hey, I survived the 70s—strangelets don't bother me.
  • Owen Shurson sent me a link to Magic Angle Sculptures, and forsooth, I have never seen anything quite like it before. Basically, you have bizarre 3-D sculpture things that cast morphing shadows under bright light. Watch the video.
  • Don Lancaster reminded me that a "spandrel" (see my entry for September 1, 2008) is a medium-sized hunting dog that comes in two varieties: Crocker and Springy.
  • Mike Reith told me about a free alternative to Camtasia Studio, for recording on-screen activity to use in demos or tutorials. I really need to study video—yeah, I know, I told myself that four years ago—and this is high on the list of video things to play around with.
  • So far, I've run across only one voice-training product, Singing Coach Unlimited, a $99 item that may or may not teach harmony. (Doesn't look like it.) Many thanks to Larry Nelson for the pointer. We still may need Harmony Hero.
  • I was contacted by a woman whose parents were very close friends of John T. Frye. She sent me a scanned newspaper clipping from 1962, showing Frye at his typewriter, and ferdam if he doesn't look like a grown-up version of the canonical drawing of Jerry. More on this as I digest all she sent me. I'll update the Carl & Jerry page sometime this coming week.
  • Pete Albrecht sent me a link to a page of Photoshopped Far Side tributes. Alas, no sign of "Welcome to Hell. Here's your accordion."
  • There will apparently be an all-electric version of the Smart Fortwo to go nose-to-nose with GM's Volt. Let's hope they call it the Ohm. Resistance is Futile.
  • Eggs apparently are much healthier than we thought they were—but just tasting sweetness may cause metabolic disruptions. Crap, how will I live without Diet Citrus Drop? I shouldn't worry; by next week eggs will be deadly again and diet sodas will get a clean slate.
  • I've pretty much decided that Contra and much of my other Web content will go into a CMS over the coming year. So far Drupal is the top contender. In the meantime, I'm brushing up on my CSS.

September 1, 2008: St. Peter's, and a Miracle Voice Teacher

It's been a low-energy and off-my-peak couple of days here for reasons I won't bore you (or gross you out) with. Had to take a run up to Denver, but mostly I've been sitting quietly and reading. I finished a book that I don't really recommend unless you're chained to the potty and need to kill time: Basilica by R. A. Scotti is a popular history of the construction of the second St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, the one that we all know and love, which supports the largest church dome in the world. The book is competently written, but it's a little thin on details of the construction itself. Ms. Scotti is much more interested in politics and personalities, and in truth I did learn a lot about Bramante, Michaelangelo, Raphael, and Bernini (and more than a few popes) that I didn't know before. But she has no good head for architecture, and does not define any terms. I kept flipping into a wonderful DK book called The Visual Dictionary of Buildings to clarify certain elements of church architecture. Now that book I recommend, especially if you're a writer trying to set a scene in a complicated building and aren't entirely sure what an oculus is. (Or—quick, now!—define a "spandrel".) There are some factual errors in Basilica, one of the worst of which suggests that poured concrete was used in some places in St. Peter's. Not so—poured concrete was an ancient technology that was lost after Imperial Rome came apart and was not recovered until the 19th Century, or pretty close to it. St. Peter's was built almost entirely of mortared masonry and sculpted stone.

If you're interested in the peculiarities of St. Peter's Basilica, a better book is The Bones of St. Peter by John Evangelist Walsh, which speaks of the excavations under the main altar just before WWII. The Basilica was built over a Roman graveyard, and there was a lot of fascinating stuff under the floors. More about the Shroud of Turin than about the Basilica is Holy Faces, Secret Places by Ian Wilson, of which I reread a considerable chunk. However, Wilson speaks of the countless weird little crannies in the Vatican complex, in which a lot of interesting things, and not only relics, may be hiding. Secrets are not good in religion for many reasons, but mostly because secrets are a power thing, and power corrupts spiritual organizations mortally. (See Encountering Mary by Sandra Zimdars-Swartz for a good discussion of this problem.) Wilson is a marvelously engaging writer, and potty reading doesn't get a whole lot better.

I also reread several sections in Peter Ochiogrosso's fascinating 1987 book Once a Catholic, in which a number of famous Catholics and (mostly) former Catholics explain what sorts of marks their Catholic upbringing left on them. The book is not explicitly about the gulf between Tridentine (i.e., Latin) Catholicism and Vatican II Catholicism, but the demographics of the people the author chose to interview almost guarantees it. Like them, I grew up Tridentine, and like them, I know what we lost, and why. (Not all that was lost was good; in fact, a good deal of what we lost was desperately in need of losing.) The book is secular in approach and intent, and does not preach, in either direction. It's a character study, of real characters. (One of them is George Carlin.) Highly recommended, and I think I've spoken of it here before.

All these books but Basilica are currently out of print, but cheap on the used market. Reading them was research for a current project of mine—Old Catholics. (Nothing makes you a better writer than simply reading, and reading a lot.)

Finally, I'll throw out an idea I had yesterday, for an invention I wish someone would get to work on. I want something I might charactize as a Miracle Voice Teacher. I want a program that will put a musical score on the PC screen and listen to me try to sing it. The program should average the frequencies that come in from the mic and put a line above or below a note in the score, telling me whether I'm high or low. It should have a metronome, and the ability to play the score as MIDI. It should be able to record what I sing and play it back for me, showing me on the screen where I botched the melody.

And if that's possible, then the program should be able to teach me how to harmonize, by isolating one of the melodic lines and allowing me to sing it, and then gradually adding in the other lines in the headphones while I try to stick with my own line and not get confused. Scarily, such a thing would allow me to sing four part harmony...with myself. The world may not be quite ready for that, but at this juncture I think I am. I went looking for the product and didn't find it, but if you know of something along those lines, I'd like to hear about it.