Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

September, 2008:


…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!


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!

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.

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.

St. Peters, 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.