From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

December 29, 2005*: Me and HTML

I don't do crossword puzzles, and if we start them at all in our family, jigsaw puzzles usually end up unfinished, with numerous important pieces somewhere underneath our sofa. I'm not a very good tinkerer and only when compelled to will I try and fix things around the house. I've often joked that my favorite hobby is taking a nap. But it still seems that all of us apparently seek out some sort of hobby. For me, if and when I have free time (whatever that is) I like to play around with building small internet sites.

It was only last month that I confessed that I'd completed my work on a long-running web site of mine (and I tried to examine the effect that completing that site had on me). But although I claimed that the site in question had been completed, I didn't exactly mean that work on it had come to an end. Finished or not, I'm still planning to do some under-the-hood work on that site.

To a large extent, what I love about site building is how easy it is. Perhaps the true beauty of HTML is in how incredibly simple it actually is. What, after all, could be more satisfying than one-click publishing? But although it's very easy, it can also be very time consuming - and not only because there's always something new that does a lightbulb click above my head and whispers to me "write about me as well". It's also time consuming because sometimes I can't resist wasting a great deal of time trying to work out some petty detail. If while browsing I find a site that makes me exclaim "I want my site to look like that", I can often devote more time that is logically reasonable to figuring out how it was done so that I can perhaps use it on a page of my own.

I'm lucky to not be a lone HTMLer. Instead, over the years I've had my hands in numerous projects which, among other things, have benefited from the work of people considerably more technically adept than I am, who strive to design pages that are quite a bit more complex than what I would be willing to settle for, or capable of on my own. As I've worked on these sites (and with these people) I've continually had the opportunity to get a picture of what's currently possible. Sometimes it's clear to me that we're dealing with excesses and I see no need for these technological "improvements". At other times, however, it's enchantment at first glance, and I know that I'll want to use these possibilities myself. When this happens I'll either immediately get to work making use of these technical wonders, or I'll file them away into a reservoir of possibilities, waiting for the right moment to make the best use of them.

So which is it? Do I want my HTML as plain as can be, a few tags that do just what HTML was originally intended to do - format text and some graphics on a web page so that it can be properly read? As much as I'm attracted to this, I'm well aware that readers tend to scratch their heads when they encounter text that might just as well be in a book. You can almost hear them asking themselves: "I came all the way to the World Wide Web for this?". And quite frankly, to a great extent I understand them. So does that mean that I'm always on the lookout for some neat technical features that will make my pages seem as though they belong to this century, and perhaps in that way even succeed in camouflaging the fact that I don't always have something of interest to write? Truth be told, I'm rather purposefully inconsistent on this matter. On the one hand I'm a minimalist who believes that HTML was invented not for web designers, but "for the rest of us". On the other, I can't deny that sometimes a bit of cosmetics can actually improve looks, and when a page looks good, people may even read it.

And sometimes the answer is much simpler, and has nothing to do with content at all. Getting a page to appear on the web as we originally envisioned it in our minds is an enjoyable challenge. Even if it doesn't enhance the reading experience, text that appears on a page or disappears from it with the click of a link can add a bit of interest to the page. Rollover images showing a situation before and after can sometimes be instructive. Presenting the same text, but highlighted differently according to different parameters can heighten our awareness of what we're reading. Figuring out how to achieve each of these, and more, is stimulating and thought provoking. And when it comes down to it, tinkering can simply be a lot of fun.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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