About the Ideaphile Web Site





About the Ideaphile

About This Site

The Ideaphile site is my personal home page, and my primary outlet for the many ideas I have in the shower, while driving, attending computer-industry conferences, and so on. One of these days I'll have an idea so compelling I'll have to do something with it, but in the meantime, maybe you can do something with these.

You'll also find some of my opinions here, information about the Internet fiasco at my apartment complex, pictures I've taken as well as some interesting photos from elsewhere, and several pages about me. Hey, it's my site. :-)

And now, some explanation of the new format. I offer these observations in hopes they may help other Web designers. There are some designers out there who just don't seem to understand that the Web is a communications medium, and it's here to help us communicate, not hinder communication.

My goals for the new format:

  1. I want to ensure that my site can be viewed conveniently over a wide range of platforms. For Macs and PCs, a 640-pixel screen width should be enough.This isn't common in new desktops, but older laptops often have 640x480 screens.
  2. I also want this site to be readable from PDAs like my own Apple Newton, or Windows CE Handheld PCs. My tests show that the key here is keeping the text column to less than 480 pixels wide. It seems narrow-screen browsers are able to stack horizontally adjacent table cells vertically, which means they present the left-side menu cell first, followed by all the text. This works pretty well, actually. I wouldn't mind seeing an option on desktop browsers to do the same.
  3. I want to make sure this site isn't browser-specific. Whether you've got a beta of Netscape Communicator 5.0 or you're running Lynx from a Lear-Siegler ADM-3A, you ought to be able to view this site. Indeed, I'm trying to make sure the site works as well as possible with voice synthesizers for blind users, and would especially appreciate feedback on this specific point.
  4. I don't want to stop anyone from stretching the screen out to cover a 1600x1200 desktop, either. If someone wants to have really wide columns of text, that's okay with me. This means the text column, and the table itself, can't have a fixed width. By the way, using a background image like the one on this page actually constrains the width of the browser window. Stretch this page out past 1,600 pixels and you'll see the blue stripe repeat itself. I could make it wider, but that would make that image larger. I'd rather not, but maybe I should. Ideas?
  5. I want this site to print out as neatly as possible. This is why the menu bar on the left consists of white text (eventually it'll be stylish white text in clickable images); when printed, the background image will drop away and the text won't print at all, at least in Navigator. Ensuring the menu always overlaps the blue stripe in the background image, but never overlaps any part of the text column, has taken far more work than I want to think about right now. Few Web pages print well from the Mac or the PC unless the printing scale is changed in Page Setup to 80% or less, but this page prints just fine at 100%.
  6. I want to minimize the number and size of images on the page. That's why I use the horizontal rule tags rather than custom image dividers, for example, even though I could do something more attractive than these simple lines. I've had to use a few instances of a single-pixel transparent GIF with various WIDTH settings to ensure that the table columns have the proper width, but I don't think this is much of a problem.
  7. I want the site to be both flexible and easy to maintain. Ideally, I should have just a couple of different templates for my Web-page editor (I use Macromedia Dreamweaver) to cover every page I'll ever have to create for the site. I also want to be able to update the common stuff on every page by updating Dreamweaver library elements, particularly the menus to the left and all the standard stuff at the bottom of each page.

What I've learned while working on this page:

  1. If you really care about controlling the width of table columns, don't use the table or td width parameters, or any kind of cell padding. They just don't work correctly or consistently across browsers and varying window widths. Force minimum column widths with a single-pixel transparent GIF stretched to the column width you want, and add extra columns (and rows, if necessary) to force the exact padding you want. All columns except the primary text column should also have a maximum width enforced by ensuring nothing in them can be wider than desired; this means using <br> tags to force word wrapping where you want it.
  2. It looks like a long "word" in a table column will force the column to stretch out. I wish there was some way to control this, but if there is, I can't figure it out. If you paste in text that isn't ordinary words (like samples of HTML code) and it has long stretches without white space, you'll find your columns expanding unexpectedly.
  3. In general, fonts are poorly handled in HTML. Why couldn't they have used point sizes rather than these stupid dimensionless numbers? Nobody knows how big font size "3" is, so font sizes mean different things from one browsers to another and from one platform to another. It's ridiculous.
  4. Internet Explorer treats the image hspace parameter differently than Netscape handles it. The result is that you can't use images with hspace to force table columns to a particular width without getting different results in IE and Netscape.
  5. The horizontal rule tag could stand to have a color attribute and the ability to span a specified fraction of a specified width (say, 90% of 120 pixels). This would allow me to use rules to force table column widths.
  6. Also on the topic of horizontal rules, Netscape always draws them in black, while IE 4.0 for Windows will draw them in a contrasting color (the one under my picture above is black in Netscape, nearly white in IE). IE 4.0 for MacOS behaves like Netscape does. Go figure.
  7. Dreamweaver can't always figure out the right place in your HTML code to put the cursor when you click into the preview window. Sometimes it ends up on the other side of an HTML tag from where you wanted it, and as you type you split one tag group into two. It always makes sure the result is sensible and syntactically correct, but you can end up with stray tags floating around, like <font xxx></font> pairs. I seem to create these pretty often. (This is true of the Mac version, which is what I use; the Windows version may have a different set of quirks.)
  8. Dreamweaver gets confused about column widths in the preview window, too. If a column is expanded by inserted text (as described above), then you correct the problem, Dreamweaver won't shrink the column again until you adjust the window size a little bit.
  9. Other things I've learned about Dreamweaver: there's a convenient "Paste as Text" function that allows you to paste special characters into the preview window and have them automatically escaped (">" turns into "&gt;" in the page's HTML, for example). However, it doesn't treat carriage returns in the pasted text the same way it handles the Return key on your keyboard; it takes three CRs in the pasted text to create a blank link.
  10. Dreamweaver doesn't seem to know enough about table cell backgrounds. It knows what they are; it'll display a table cell background image in the preview window; its browser-check function knows that table cell backgrounds aren't supported by any version of Navigator but are supported by Internet Explorer. It just doesn't provide any way to define table cell backgrounds except for typing in the parameter in the HTML window! The GUI allows you to change table cell color, but there's just no field for a background image. See note 15 for an update.
  11. Dreamweaver on the Mac is slow! The Windows version on my NT Server box is nice and snappy. I've got a 233-MHz PowerPC G3 processor, an ATI accelerated graphics card, and plenty of memory, so there's just no excuse for this annoyance. It's still usable, but less than ideal. See note 15 for an update. Worse, leaving Dreamweaver open slows down the keyboard response in other open apps! This is pathetic.
  12. Dreamweaver 1.2 changed the default way it handles library elements. In an effort to make library elements position-independent, it now modifies links from library elements to other pages on your own site to be site-root relative. This broke a bunch of my links, particularly the menus on the left and at the bottom of the screen. To their credit, Macromedia mentions this issue in a tech note on their Web site. Unfortunately they didn't mention it in the upgrade documentation, the program doesn't check to see if the new method will break an existing site, and to go back to the old way, you have to edit the prefs file using a text editor (or RegEdit on Windows).
  13. I really wish Dreamweaver would tell me which Web pages have a given library element, especially when I save an element and it updates the site. I get strange reports from the updating utility. Save a new element and it says it's updating 15 pages. Huh?
  14. Strangest thing I've ever seen in Netscape (Mac v3.04): Down at the bottom of this page is a Javascript object designed to display the last-modified date for the current page. If there's a horizontal rule in the same table cell with it, the script won't run. To deal with this problem, I've moved the horizontal rules into their own table rows. This is just ridiculous.
  15. Dreamweaver 2 (at least the beta release build 286, which I'm using now) has some major improvements over 1.2. It knows about table-cell backgrounds, for example. It's got much better site-management features, too. It's no faster, though; type a sentence fast and it'll drop characters. C'mon, Macromedia... there's still no excuse for this. It also formats pages incorrectly the first time they're opened, as if it's wrapping text to the right border of the window, rather than the inside edge of the vertical scroll bar. This is probably fixable.


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