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The Northern Spy
September 2009

Trucking the Information Superhighway

Rick Sutcliffe

The modern web

(and, hands up all readers who remember the net before the Internet or the web) is fueled by information presenters and the content they provide. Everyone has something to say, and the web has become the ultimate democratic forum to do so--whether on a social networking site, via forums or bulletin boards for small snippets, or at one's own site for more substantial postings. The quality of that "information" is of course a topic for another discussion. So is the recommended process for starting a site. This month's rant is more concerned with the manner of its appearing. After all, the number of web pages numbers in the billions, so we're not finessing an ephemeral phenomenon here (say that fast five times).

Wearing one of his other hats (web host) the Spy recently informed customers that the FrontPage extensions he has offered on his Linux box must soon go away. After all, a product end-of-lifed as of 2003 must now be automatically regarded as a security risk, something most hosting companies realized and took action on a few years ago. Some might suggest that any MS product is a security risk, but FrontPage, to its credit, was satisfactory for many customers of modest needs and means over the years. Sadly, the decision to terminate this support means he stands to lose at least one customer who, faced with rebuilding her sites without the program, will migrate to a less security-conscious host. (One alternative: build the sites with FrontPage, but without using any of its extensions, then FTP the files into place rather than having FP send them there. Never mix both methods of uploading, though.)

Now, the Spy has never recommended FrontPage or supported it beyond providing the bare extensions. Neither does he in general recommend templates, site constructors (though he supplies some of them, too, via the Fantastico installer) or any proprietary site creation package on the desktop, including word processors. Why not? Let us count the ways.

First, (and worst) word processors, especially the notorious one from the aforementioned MS, generate very poor code. In particular, W*rd's code, especially if it includes graphics, may not even render for any browser other than IE, which is about as low a recommendation as code can get, given the notoriously standards-defying history of that browser series.

Note that despite this, the Spy does occasionally defy his own advice by saving and posting a page as HTML from NisusWriter. Under what circumstances does he prove his rule by breaking it? When it's a matter of getting critical information to one of his classes in a hurry and it's a one-pager full of text with a short lifetime, so performance and search engines don't matter and "pretty" isn't an issue.

Second, graphics and animation-intensive sites produced using products like Flash are simply too heavy for the web. By the time a long suffering viewer has patiently waited part of the way through a Flash introduction for real content to appear, it is time to browse elsewhere. Including animations and music in a website may give it a flashy (sic) look, but is a complete waste of eyeball and eardrum space. It turns visitors away more than on.

Third, the Spy has similar misgivings about Ruby and weighty Ajax frameworks (despite having created an Ajax framework of his own as an experiment). If they contain well-factored and lean code and are used intelligently and sparingly, they may reduce the ultimate page designer's time on task and improve page performance. However, at some point, the overhead (code size and so download volume) of ancillary scripts and other files itself impairs the user experience. For instance, page visitor counters are a complete waste of time and eyeballs. Who care how many times a page has been visited, except its creator? And, the hosting control panel statistics programs will tell you that and more without burdening readers with useless non-content.

Fourth, all proprietary web creation software has the same problems as FrontPage--portability through time and space. Someday it inevitably becomes obsolete, and so do the files it creates. What then? Or, the user moves her web site to a different host and discovers that the necessary extensions or file formats are not supported there because that host has a different site creation scheme. In either case, one must start over.

The bottom line: Despite the steep learning curve it is better in most cases to use a simple text editor and create your own HTML and CSS files by hand on your own home computer, then FTP them into place when all is functioning well. If scripts are required, it is usually possible to run a local server to test their performance before going live. (The Spy uses and recommends BBEdit for file creation and MAMP as his local server.)

Howumsoe'r, the Spy's recommended default middle lane solution is not practical for everyone. On the one hand, very high volume and high performance web sites require sophisticated creation, debugging, and support techniques and tools. On the other hand, many people have neither the time nor the inclination to learn HTML and CSS. Nor do they have the money to hire a designer. What to do in either case?

If travelling the express lane,

the judicious use of sophisticated techniques and tools matters, sometimes a lot. Sites that will be hit hundreds of thousands or more times a day and/or that contain complex user-interface elements have to be fine tuned for maximum performance. That's when we turn to such books as Steve Souders' "High Performance Web Sites" (O'Reilly; reviewed here in November 2007, though it seems like just yesterday). Well, O'Reilly and Souders (with the help of some co-authors) has followed this one up with yet another fascinating performance-tweaking tome.

This time it's "Even Faster Web Sites", and it follows up on its predecessor with further practical discussions on how to ensure minimum loading and execution time for web sites that absolutely must perform at their peak. Topics include:

- loading scripts without blocking rendering and execution,

- coupling asynchronous scripts,

- loading scripts from other web sites than the page loading them (worth it for these suggestions alone),

- how to ensure that scripts are loaded in minimum time and yet execute in the correct order,

- positioning inline scripts,

- writing efficient JavaScript code (note that because JavaScript is interpreted in the browser, the best techniques, though falling into similar categories, are not always the same as one would expect with a compiled language, where variable lookup references have already been pre-translated into memory accesses),

- scaling with Comet (Ajax taken out from under the sink),

- compression and image optimization,

- positioning inline scripts,

- sharding and flushing (you gotta read it),

- using iFrames sparingly (the Spy has doubts about the wisdom of using them at all, which is why he went looking for alternatives),

- simplifying CSS selectors.

HPWS and EFWS are not for everyone. But for those who do travel in the fast lane, and as usual for an O'Reilly book, the Spy recommends this one as highly as its predecessor. Comment: The work that goes into testing some of the ideas before they are presented in these books is nothing less than phenomenal.

In a slower lane,

and despite the Spy's reservations about site creation software, he notes that the SoftPress offering called Freeway 5 Pro (reviewed 5.4.1; there is also an Express version) appears to be a useful tool for the right people.

Installation is simple enough, and better than some programs. You buy a serial number, download, move to the folder you want to run from (does not have to be "Boot:Applications"), fire it up, enter the serial number (there is a free trial, though) and you're on your way.

The web site is assembled in a semi-WYSIWYG manner in a proprietary format, then "published" into a folder of the user's choice as a ready-to-view web site, which can in turn be uploaded to the live site directly from Freeway once the project is ready.

There are some nice features here. Sites can be laid out the old fashioned way as tables, or (by the click of a button) the right way, using CSS. Positioning text and graphical elements, and slicing the latter are supported. Text can be entered as an HTML element, and styled in WYSIWYG fashion (select, apply style from a dialog box, a menu, or keyboard shortcuts) and is published properly, using the "em" tag for italics, the "strong" tag for bold and with class-tagged paragraphs. It can also be turned into a graphic, useful when you don't want "bots" to read, say, an eMail address.

Blank lines are published with a paragraph and a non-breaking space rather than a break. Coloured text is published with a style containing the colour and not a font tag. Master pages are supported, and previews within the program are available. One can easily insert and populate forms, various action items, tables, buttons, rollovers, etc. There is a multitude of keyboard shortcuts. All good.

Utility is high, ease of use is good, code correctness good to excellent, versatiliuty good. There is even a CSS file for fixing ie5 problems (sigh) that is linked in by default. The Spy's only quibbles are that styling code is placed on the main page rather than in separate style sheets, that text keyboard shortcuts are shift-command-key rather than the usual command-key, and of course, that there is no simple provision for incorporating custom scripts.

Still in all, this is a well-done tool, quite professional, and more than adequate to develop sites that are higher-end than the average amateur could come up with unaided. Since good quality, easy-to-read plain text files for the site are generated, one is not completely locked in to the proprietary file format in which the project itself is stored. If this is the kind of tool you need, the Spy suggests you give Freeway a whirl. He also invites readers to submit a paragraph or two on their own favourite web creation tool (even on other platforms than the Mac). If there are enough, he may do a column (with attribution) from edited versions of the submissions.

Logos/Libronix Bible Software (reprise)

No sooner reviewed (it takes the Spy a while), than Logos comes out with version 1.2 of its new Libronix-based Bible software for the Mac. This update has a few minor features and fixes, but a major addition under the search menu is worth an additional mention. Termed "Bible Speed Search" this option drives a quick search on a single selectable Bible version (or other resource). Very nice, very convenient. The Spy's only beef? The results are displayed in a table, which is a nuisance when copying and pasting into another application (Nisus Writer, where his sermons and Bible class lessons are composed.) Online Bible's search results are much easier to use in this respect.

Speaking of Online Bible

The Spy wondered if Ken Hamel's death might spell the end for the Mac version, but the folks at online-bible.com or OnlineBible.net (not .com for the latter) have now moved the OS X version out of its long beta and released it as version 4.0.3. Installation is a bit of a pain, because it automatically, and without asking, replaces the first copy of the program it finds (even if it installs the rest of its resources elsewhere), so all existing copies must be deleted or rendered invisible by compressing before running the installer. The latter may create an entirely new folder, and if so, all modules not installed by it as part of the basic package (user items and previous purchases) must be moved to the new folder. If the updated program does not run, it is likely that the preferences file created by the previous version has to be trashed.

This latest version has a nice UI, but no new features not found in the many betas issued over the last several years. It remains a serviceable basic tool for searching bibles in a variety of versions, and a low-cost alternative to Accordance and Logos for those with much more modest needs. Minor quibble: texts included on the CD/DVD packages since the Spy bought his are not available at the download site, so can't be retroactively added to an existing installation.

Sometimes you think rumours have come true

as in the case of persistent stories that an 8G iPhone 3GS was in the making. To the Spy's errant eye Rogers seemed put the truth to that one by delivering a flyer this week touting its new plans available for just such a device. However, after the first version of this column was already written, more observant son Nathan pointed out that the ad was for the old model, the 3G and NOT the GS. Whoops. No doubt this back-to-school ploy is aimed at slipping something into the pocket of returning students who couldn't afford the new 16G and 32G models, but it's hard to say whether this is merely a "normal" promotion for the time of year, or whether it smells like a clearance of an about-to-be discontinued model (perthaps not; the price isn't amazing). Could be a buy for some, , but it's too bad Rogers can't advertise its service and public relations, which the Spy rates as worse than abysmal.

As an even laster word on his debacle with the "we-don't-try" telecommunications provider (see the last two month's columns), the Spy's bill this month boasted a brand new section proclaiming a contract expiry date of October 2009. Good thing he has all his previous bills, none of which contained this section. You decide, gentle reader. Was adding this merely a spiteful act by the Rogers rep to bolster his own self importance and rub in some salt, or does it OTOH put the lie once and for all to the idea that a contract ever existed. After all, it both demonstrates that the the billing system could display this if it had the information, and simultaneously revealed that it had no such knowledge until this month.

Nope. Wait for the next-gen iPod Touch to use as a PDA and Wi-Fi browser, but buy a cheap cell with no plan (this fact stated in writing) if you need mobile telephony as such. In the long run, there will be no phone companies anyway, and we'll miss them about as much as typewriters, key punches, bucket sorters, penny-farthings, TRS-80s, MS-DOS, and leaded gasolene.

Next Month

at about this time, the Spy is off to the annual members' meeting for CIRA, operator of .ca, so this column will likely be written above 10 km en route to the centre of the universe (Toronto, for the uninitiated). Perhaps he will write about the Snow Leopard, due to be released from its cage by the time this column is. Meanwhile, it's back to school, and another class of fresh minds eager to learn the intricacies of Plato, Locke, Paul, Milton, Boyle, Newton, and their like (in your dreams). Pray for him.

--The Northern Spy

Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor and chair of Computing Science and Mathematics as well as Senate Chair at Trinity Western University. He is also on the board of CIRA, operator of .ca. He's written two textbooks and several novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to ArjayBB.com. Participate and you could win free web hosting from the WebNameHost.net subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Amazon's Booksurge.


The Northern Spy Home Page: http://www.TheNorthernSpy.com

The Spy's Laws collected: http://www.thenorthernspy.com/spyslaws.htm

The Spy's Shareware download site: http://downloads.thenorthernspy.com/

WebNameHost : http://www.WebNameHost.net

WebNameSource : http://www.WebNameSource.net

nameman : http://nameman.net

opundo : http://opundo.com

Sheaves Christian Resources : http://sheaves.org

Arjay Books: http://www.ArjayBooks.com

Booksurge: http://www.booksurge.com

Fictionwise: http://www.fictionwise.com

Logos: http://www.logos.com/mac/

Accordance: http://www.accordancebible.com/

Online Bible: http://www.online-bible.com/maconlinebible.html

Soft Press (Freeway): http://www.softpress.com

MAMP: http://www.mamp.info

Bare Bones (BBEdit): http://www.bbedit.com

O'Reilly: http://www.oreilly.com

This Arjay Enterprises page is Copyright 1983-2009.
The Northern Spy is registered at WebNameSource.com and is hosted by WebnameHost.net.
Last Updated: 2009 08 30