Colin's Journal

Colin's Journal: A place for thoughts about politics, software, and daily life.

October 6th, 2003

Even static pages are dynamic

Coding web pages is difficult. It has been difficult from the start of the web and has, in some respects, become harder as time has gone on and the technologies involved have grown. The preferred approach to making web site design easier used to be WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get), the idea being that Desktop Publishing was easy for anyone to do, so why shouldn’t web page publishing be the same way?

It is easy to denounce the WYSIWYG approach because of the poor quality HTML that it tends to generate, but this is to ignore it’s biggest flaw. The problem with using WYSIWYG design is not that the resulting code is a mess, but rather that the result of the design is a page.

The problem with building a web page is that at some point you will want to change the content of that page. Maybe you need to change your contact details that are at the bottom of the page. Maybe the site navigation bar down the side now needs another entry. Or it could simply be time to abandon the dark-purple on black colour scheme that looked so good when you first decided that you had something worth putting on the web.

Regardless of the motivation for wanting to update a web page there will certainly come a time when it needs to be done. If you have one page this isn’t a problem, if you have several hundred then it is a problem. Part of the solution is to separate content from design, to keep the HTML in one place so that changes can be made once. This solution has been known for a long time and yet it has not been a technique that many had access to.

The rise of blogging tools has brought this powerful technique to many, at least for journal style web pages such as this. Blogging tools have made the process of publishing on the web easy enough that almost any web reader can now become a web writer, should they choose to do so. There are still however many further improvements that can be made to make the task of publishing on the web easier. As Felix Salmon explains in today’s post, altering the templates of such blogging tools requires a significant technical ability. My own contribution to the ease of web publication, PubTal, certainly requires users to be able to code in HTML in order to generate their own templates.

I think the problem of web page template design can be solved by allowing users to work with components that fit together to form templates. Components can then be designed and built by those who know, or are willing to learn, the technologies behined them. Meanwhile users can mix-and-match components to form individual designs. Here’s an example of how this might work:

  • Have a layout component as the basis for a template design. The layout component defines areas of the screen, for example two columns and a heading, but not the content of those areas. Multiple different layout components can be developed, and users can choose to use any one as the basis for a new template.
  • Multiple “item” components can be produced which interact with the underlying content management system to provide certain pieces of functionality, e.g. links to archived material, or the content of the latest posts. These components can take parameters to allow some limited customisation. Users would then specify which of the item components should go in which parts of the layout (e.g. latest posts goes in the middle column, news snippets followed by my links in the left column, etc)
  • Both the layout and item components would produce HTML with standard class and id attributes, so that the site can be “themed” using CSS (the CSS Zen Garden shows just how far CSS can take you).

Using the scheme outlined here a GUI tool could be developed that allows for easy template design using the drag-n-drop of components. With components being distributed over the ‘net there would soon be a huge variety of template designs possible, without any of the problems of normal WYSIWYG design. The underlying technologies required to develop a system such as this are already in place, it’s just a matter of writing the tools to use them (no small task).

There are at least two other problems with the current crop of web publication tools that I’ve not written about yet: markup of the content, and the handling of non-journal style pages. That’ll have to wait for another day.

September 29th, 2003

Enhancements to PubTal

I’m working on some enhancements to PubTal at the moment, and so far it has been surprisingly easy. The next version will require updates to existing configuration files because I have consolidated a number of the configuration directives.

New features I’ve been able to implement include:

  • XHTML support.
  • Ability to set the template/output-file character set encoding.
  • Ability to specify the template/output content type (e.g. HTML, XHTML)
  • You can now specify a DOCTYPE for XML templates.

The next challenge will be adding the ability to specify an extra plugin directory, and an option to suppress output of the XML declaration for XHTML files (working around a CSS bug in IE 6).

September 27th, 2003

SimpleTAL 3.5 released

Version 3.5 of SimpleTAL has been released. This version contains all of the previously trailed bug fixes and enhancments, and a few others besides (the full list is on the download page).

The next project I’m going to undertake is an update to PubTal to support XHTML.

September 24th, 2003

Update on chat rooms

There’s certainly plenty of coverage coming out of the MSN chatrooms closure, including I’m grateful to see, some more balanced articles on the BBC.

The most amusing response I’ve read so far though has to be that of Martin Belam, who details how to find a list of UK Teenagers waiting to be sent “safe” Instant Messages via MSN.

September 23rd, 2003

Cheap stunt

I’m sure that the news about MSN shutting down chat rooms will be all over the web by now, but I couldn’t let it pass without comment. MSN know that chat rooms will continue from other service providers and on other platforms (for example IRC), so although they are saying this is being done in the interests of safety, it’s very hard to see how this will help.

Taking away such a service gets them some publicity, which with the ongoing commercialisation of their on-line services will no doubt come in handy. What’s irritating is that the BBC doesn’t see fit to point this out, and also manages to be misleading:

The only chat service available to MSN users in the UK will be the free instant messaging service, MSN Messenger, which is not so open and gives people more control over who they talk to.

MSN users can still access a multitude of different chat forums, just not using MSN client software. I suspect the real reason that they are closing them down in this fashion is to try and monetise the medium, and while there are free forums on the same service that will be hard to do.

Obviously MSN shutting down a previously free service is news worthy, but to buy into the safety spin is very disappointing. I’m sure someone inside MSN is very happy with the lead-in paragraph that the BBC posted:

Microsoft’s Internet service MSN has taken a major step in net safety which could sound the death knell for unsupervised chatrooms.

Simply put it won’t, and as such this is not a major step in net safety at all.

September 21st, 2003

Change to the blog role

I’ve updated my list of weblogs, adding A Fistful of Euros and Anders Jacobsen’s blog. Both Tobias Schwarz and David Weman contribute to A Fistful of Euros, so it’s with not too much guilt I’ve removed their sites from the list.

September 21st, 2003

Now to be 25

Latvia has voted yes to joining the EU by a convincing margin of 67% to 32% on a turn out of 72.5%. While I think the result is good for Latvia (and the EU) it should be noted that margin between the yes and no votes of 348,870 votes is comparable to the approximate 400,000 non-citizens resident in Latvia who are disenfranchised.

With this result we can now be sure that as of the 1st of January 2004 the EU will be expanded to 25 members with the addition of: Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia.

September 16th, 2003

News on SimpleTAL

Things have been pretty quiet on the SimpleTAL front for some time, over a month in fact. This is due to the number of people reporting issues dropping significantly, which I can hopefully take as a sign that the code is now mostly bug free.

The things that I’ve fixed/added in my development version of SimpleTAL include:

  • Adding support for the “test” function (feature requested by Mark McEahern)
  • Making use of pyXML to parse the DOCTYPE from XML templates and pass through to output (implementation by Myers Carpenter)
  • Fix to CGI Examples.
  • Fix to quoting of XML attribute values.

The last fix is potentially critical for using SimpleTAL with XML Templates, so I will hopefully issue a new release shortly.

September 12th, 2003

Denmark heading the wrong way

It appears that Denmark is planning to restrict the rights of new EU member nationals to obtain residency and work permits. Presumably this is only going to be valid for the maximum of seven years that was agreed on during negotiations, after which these new EU citizens can take up their full rights to freedom of movement (from the Europa FAQ):

However, in order to allow for concerns in existing member states the EU negotiated transitional arrangements of a flexible nature with the Central and East European Countries, to allow the existing member states to limit movements of workers from the new member states for a period of up to seven years after enlargement. Members wishing to allow free movement sooner may do so, and some have already announced their intention to do so from the time of the accession of the new members.

By restricting access to the Danish labour market the cost of low skilled jobs will remain artificially high, so reducing the competitiveness of Denmark as a place to practise higher skilled jobs. Costs for people living in Denmark will be higher, and the system will be promoting lower skilled jobs which will ultimately prove to be less profitable for those following this route. The only saving grace is that the EU will insist on this being a temporary measure and, as is explained in the FAQ, it will probably prove unnecessary:

When Spain and Portugal joined in 1986, a transitional period of seven years was agreed. However, the strengthening of the economy in Spain and Portugal after they became members triggered migration of labour back to those countries, and the transitional period was shortened.

The UK is one of the countries that is choosing to recognise the right to freedom of movement immediately (point 6 in this explanatory note) from the 1st of January 2004.

September 11th, 2003

Better thoughts on the BBC Creative Archive

Danny O’Brien’s thoughts on the BBCs Creative Archive provide more background to the lack of concrete news on this initiative (via Neil Gaiman’s weblog).

I hope that the archive does become a reality. The BBC have certainly lead the field in this direction with their Radio on Demand feature, so I have some hope that they will deliver on the idea of getting all (or at least most) content online.

Copyright 2015 Colin Stewart

Email: colin at