Now, this is cheeky...

The following is a sort of abandoned letter draft from two years ago, in the very earliest stages of my learning a little web design by building this site. To date I still haven't learned much, as you can see at a glance. I was ill-educated when I wrote this and I remain so now; to old hands on the web, the answers to all my questions may be so obvious as to be tiresome. So obviously this goes with salt. But I'm not so sure the answers are necessarily easy. As always, .

I've been poking around a big old O'Reilly textbook, looking for devices that will make a page look like the one you sent me a picture of. Oddly unable to find the right tricks, so far. I think I should assume that you'd assign me a page that can be made according to consortium standards, or at least one that can be seen about the same way by the major browsers. And anyway I've seen that sort of manipulation of shapes often enough, it can't be so hard, I just haven't found the right chapter yet. Odd though. Seems like there would be some basic tool for making a simple shape on the page.

HTML is not a layout tool, though, as the authors of my book would say. Content first, style a distant second. And then, fearing perhaps that they'd not made their point strongly enough, a paragraph later they'd make sure to say that they just couldn't urge me strongly enough to take this standard as my own.

I have to say, I've found the drumming of that theme to be pretty aggravating. For starters, anybody who needs to be told that content precedes style isn't going to listen when you tell him. But even aside from that, it's really not quite such a point as they think it is. Certainly the weighty import of the content itself isn't any particular reason not to have styles to work with. Style is content. Only the tweediest of academics would really believe it didn't matter. And they're the people who can barely be understood even among their own. Style is language. Deliver a message in two different ways and you've said two different things. The difference may seem slight to you but in the memories of your readers it will be the difference between what is forgotten and what is retained.

This prescriptive attitude has a more sweeping sinister face, in my mind... it's not a huge concern, or not such as I can see yet, but it keeps cropping up. No indents, for instance (I know, I'm probably beating my head against a dead horse here, but it's a nice straightforward example). Seemingly someone did some kind of a study and found, or thought they found, that indents were not helpful in making a page generally readable, and line breaks worked better. I still frankly can't imagine what sort of a study you'd do to learn such a thing and I have trouble trusting it, but I'm taking your word that somebody studied something and that's what they found.

To be very clear about it: they found that one of two techniques worked better than the other. So they made their less preferred method impossible.

What kind of thinking is that? When is it ever desirable to limit your own options? Not to mention, to limit everyone's options? What harm could it possibly cause to let html recognize spaces and tabs? I really cannot imagine that it would have been difficult. It must actually have taken some active effort to make it stop inserting spaces after the first one.

And there are plenty of examples like that. Why does html only recognize the smallest possible character set? I find it easy to suspect that some crowd of academics is sitting at the top of things saying, well, what do they need any more characters for? They have all they need to say whatever they want to say. Well, bollix. An em dash is a powerful tool for accurately representing the English language as it is actually spoken. How hard would it be to include it? What benefit can there be in its omission?

It begins to make the browser wars (or at least the idea of the browser wars--I'm coming in late) understandable. Who wants to abide by a common standard when the standard is in the hands of some glacially slow body of people like the academie francaise? When the standard itself is the last to consider or accept any growth? Of course Netscape and MS want to introduce some new tags. They have the power to, when nobody else does, and everybody in their right minds would want more tags. More power, more options, why not? It's a no-brainer. Who has time to wait on the Academic Way?

I realize it's a little more complicated than that. The consortium introduced Cascading Style Sheets after not so much urging, after all, and as I have begun to learn, there are many things provided for in the standard which have never been built into any of the browsers--some of them, of course, like braille, are essentially speculative and dreamy ideas of a sort that would please an academic's heart, but not all. Anyway, that aside, it becomes more and more clear that the only thing that could end the browser wars, or even take the edge off them (short of the ascendancy of a monopoly, which is dreadful, especially in light of the despicable practices of the only real candidates currently) would be increased vigor on the part of the consortium. If some software company makes a browser recognize a new tag, why not include it in the standard? As long as it doesn't conflict with some other tag or with a grander design. Does it really take a lot of work for them to say "sure" and include a new tag? Maybe some but it could hardly be much when the implementation of the thing has already been worked out by somebody else. And what could be wrong with it?

Well, anyway. I'm still in no position to be issuing pronouncements about all this; I could be missing any number of vital facts.

[ a later date...]

Imagine Henry Ford telling everybody they had to drive under twenty-five miles per hour, because it would be safer, and more orderly, and even the oldest old ladies with the most belabored reflexes, squinting at the road through the steering wheel, would be able to handle it as well as anybody else out there. It would be fair. Why listen to him? He made up the whole idea, he invented the technology that lets us drive at all, he can claim authorship. He's the expert. He should know.

He'd be right. It would be safer, and fairer, and more orderly, it really and truly would. And you'd never begin to consider abiding by it. I've seen you drive.

Invention doesn't work like that. You invent something, and then you have it. You publicize that invention, and before long a lot of people have it, and it can never be disinvented. You can die and they'll keep driving it. It's part of the physical world. And the people won't listen to your opinions about the proper operation of your invention, not once they have it, because you have no further power to hold over their heads. They'll drive it however seems to serve them best.

In New York there is a practically infinite supply of cars, and of pedestrians, at every intersection. The pedestrian has the right of way, as we all know. The problem is that no car would ever get a chance to turn, then, because there will be an endless string of pedestrians trumping the driver's right to move. This problem has been neatly solved: there are pedestrian signals at every intersection, telling us when to walk and when not to. The traffic signals for the cars allow movement for a little longer than the pedestrian ones do, so eventually, everyone should get to go. Not the best solution but a complete one, and an obvious standard that could serve everybody if we all abided by it. Naturally nobody obeys it--pedestrians go whenever they think they can get through alive. And drivers noodge through the stream of pedestrians forcibly, because they have to. And everybody's used to it and we all get where we're going.

On the highway, I typically drive very fast. Faster than I'm allowed to outside the state of Montana (where, sadly, I have still never been). I get everywhere I ever go in two-thirds the time it would take me if I drove legally, and I pay something like two hundred dollars a year in exchange for the privilege. Who wouldn't make that deal, if it were offered to them by a respectable business? In any event, nobody drives the limit.

I've been doing my reading... nobody writes sanctioned code, either, it seems. Because the consortium believes that artistic elements of any sort just shouldn't happen. And they refuse to ratify any measures that provide for them, and all the coders writing advice columns sound hangdog and guiltridden for proposing the nonstandard jerry-rigs that they nevertheless proceed to propose. And they talk about a day when browsers will be compliant, but they also seem to assume that on that same day, the consortium will grant permission for them to do some cool stuff.

What if the net is glutted with soulless sites that only six people can see? What if a zillion sites that take three days apiece to download and hide their data in their own kidneys crop up this week sometime? What if corporations fill the web with their ugly, insulting, ad-ridden flash sites and gripe about how the web hasn't proven itself yet because it still hasn't filled their pockets? What if everybody, but everybody, builds crap and publishes it? What the hell are you afraid of?

So don't go to those sites.