Seven Weeks to Madagascar

Friday, June 9, 2000

No links for you? Oh, all right, just one. 'No one can deny that Moist Towelettes are a vital part of the world in which we live', claims moist-towelette collector Michael Lewis. Ha! You reckoned without this rapier-sharp rebuttal, Lewis: I deny it! Yes! I do! (Although I must admit that I am rather taken with the idea that 'the classic painting "The Scream" was not, in fact, a representation of stress, but rather a depiction of a gentleman who has soiled his hands fishing (note the dock) and is using an early form of moist towelette to clean himself'.)

[ link this ]

I think when this blog is finished (end of June) and before my new one is in place (post-Madagascar), I'll put up a temporary Seinfeld-inspired blog called 'Link Nazi' with just the one entry: 'No links for you!'

(On second thoughts, no I won't.)

Still, No Links For You today. That's because I've spent too bloody long trying to fix the bugs in the template for this blog instead. (Warning: non-web-builders, bail out here.)

<rant class="webdev">First I read a useful tip on thelist that when using CSS you should always match a 'color' with a 'background-color', even if you set the latter to 'transparent', or else it won't validate and/or work in Netscape (but then, what does?).

So I go through every style-sheet on my site and match every 'color' with a 'background-color:transparent', only to find to my horror that certain table cells don't show the table or page background-color in Netscape 4.ecch, but instead are now black, and the whole site looks like the dance of the skeletons. So back I go and remove them all.

Then I notice (now that I have NS fired up) that the bits of this blog in <blockquote> tags aren't indenting properly, and that the 10 pixel margin around the text in the main table-cell disappears after the first <blockquote>. So I go and check the HTML 4.01 spec and find that behold, using <blockquote> to indent text has been deprecated, and this must be one of those rare cases where Netscape actually chose to implement part of the 4.01 spec. So I replace all the <blockquote> tags with <p class="indent"> and set "indent" to 30 pixels left and right, and that fixes that problem.

But then I check it in NS 6 preview 1 and am reminded that the graphics for the banner still look all separated-out when viewed in that browser (and that browser alone), and for the life of me I can't figure out why; it seems to want to shove a pixel or two of blank space beneath every image. But then how come Neale's new design looks okay in NS6p1? Aaaarrrghgh.

And I'm still trying to work out why on a PC the list of links to other blogs in the left bar isn't top-aligned just beneath the banner when the page gets long, even though the relevant table cell is set to valign="top". Why, dammit, why? Yet it works on a Mac! But I have to work on this PC all day and stare at this design where the banner looks too small at 1024x768 (but just fine at 800x600 at home), and that stupid table-cell doesn't align to the top properly, and I'm starting to get really sick of Times even though it's the only appropriate font to go with the 17th-century one I've used in the banner, and the main-text cell looks wayyy too wide at 1024x768 but I'm not about to try and change that because it took ages to get the table working properly in the first place (see where the 'g' and 's' in 'Madagascar' dip below the coloured part and into the white part? You would not believe the trouble that caused), and every time I see other blogs they always set the font to <small> so they can fit in heaps of quirky design elements and make the whole thing look really busy and happenin', yet mine is set to default text size for usability reasons but looks really huge and garish as a consequence, and yet even though I quite like small fonts and feel I should use them more I find myself sitting closer and closer to the monitor these days and at the end of an 8-hour day my eyes are melting, and is this sentence getting too long for you, I think it is, I'll stop now, right after I also mention that everyone should support the Web Standards Project, so there.</rant>

Phew. That's as much web-dev ranting as I can handle for one week, I think. I don't know how JZ keeps it up.

After that performance you could reasonably expect to see a total redesign within 48 hours. Fortunately for me, though, this blog now has less than three weeks to live, so I'm going spend my time designing its successor instead. (Time? What time? I've got a thousand books to pack up this weekend.)

[ link this ]

Thursday, June 8, 2000

Several years ago I read Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. Here was a book that explained why cartoons and comics were such an intriguing art-form (note the 'why', not 'that'); a book with big ideas, told in the very medium it was analysing. I loved it.

Now there's a sequel. And I can't read it, because I have to pack up all my books this weekend, and it won't have reached Australia yet, and an Amazon order won't reach me by the end of the month. Gaaah!

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Something else strange happened last night. There was a message from a friend on our answering machine, and I called him back, and because he's moved recently I called his mobile. After one or two rings, a voice answered—not his, but a woman's (not his partner's, either)—and said 'Rohan's mobile phone, what is your message, please?'

And I was completely thrown. It was an actual person, not a recorded voice. An actual person, taking his messages, presumably for some message-bank service.

'Uhh—I've got a message for Rohan?' (just to make sure it was an actual person I was talking to).

'Yes, what is your message for Rohan, please?'

'Um, it's his friend Rory, returning his call.'

'Rory, returning his call. Thank you.' End of conversation.

The whole experience was deeply unsettling. Not because there was a human on the line, but because I was expecting a machine. I was expecting thirty seconds of Enya and that bloke from Idiot Box who does the hold-messages for Ansett, or that woman from ACTEW who says 'I will lead you—step-by-step' (oo, goody!).

If I can't have Rohan or a recording of Rohan, I want production values and a script, dammit! None of this improvisation. I want buttons! 1 to leave him a message, 2 for easy monthly payments, 3 to delete this recording!

What's the point of all this dehumanising technology if it isn't populated by dehumans?

[ link this ]

Last night it came. The Fear. That moment when the tickets are all booked, the wheels are in motion, the whole process is unstoppable, and you wonder: what the hell have I done?

It started when we went for dinner at our favourite Thai restaurant of late to catch up with an old friend. She asked us the question most of our friends seem to be asking these days: 'Why do you want to go to Madagascar?' (with an implied 'on Earth' after the 'why').

We find it hard to answer that one.

Because Jane wrote an essay on lemurs as an undergraduate and also likes chameleons. Because the people are related to Pacific islanders, my area of study a few years ago. Because it's so unlike the rest of Africa, culturally, ecologically, historically. Because its unique flora and fauna are disappearing fast under population pressures, and if we're going to see them we'd better go now. Because it's so far away. Because no-one we know has ever been there. Because it's a test of ourselves as travellers, to see if we really can risk malaria and hardship for the sake of the Journey. Because it shakes us out of comfortable middle-class Western complacency.

Still, when everyone looks at you as if you're mad when you say you're going somewhere where defecating in public is culturally acceptable but burying the results is fady (taboo), you start to wonder if they know something that you don't. As if everyone else has read all the books about Madagascar that we have, but has also read the Really Important Ones we've missed (like Don't Go To Madagascar: A Warning to Westerners). As if there's a big world-wide cabal who know The Awful Truth about Madagascar, and our friends are all members and we're not.

Not that our friend meant any of that by her innocent question. We're just torturing ourselves. Perhaps it's because M-Day (M for mefloquine) is less than 2 weeks away.

Then, after dinner, we went home and watched a tape of a show that had been on SBS earlier in the evening:


The final episode featuring the lives of children living in various deserts of the world. Tonight we travel to Madagascar in the Indian Ocean and the coastal village of Tsifota where the Vezo people lead an idyllic life of nomadic fishermen. We follow 2 young Vezo, Antenaina and Brigitte, as they go about their daily lives. Their culture, tradition and livelihood are today threatened by the arrival of things they've never seen before; fishing trawlers and heavy industrial machines to exploit Tsifota's pearls.

Madagascar is the 9th poorest country in the world. This documentary confirmed it. And Brigitte may have had a French name, but she sure didn't speak French. And we wondered: what the hell have we done?

But it'll be fine. Really. We knew all about the challenges long ago. And I don't have a problem with being a gauche Western tourist stumbling through a developing country (although Jane does, a bit). Yes, we'll feel out of place—that's the whole point. And yes, we'll be embarrassingly rich compared to the people we will see; but we'll be spending money that otherwise never would have reached them.

And the same thing happens in the West. Two million Australians travel internationally every year, but a lot of Australians can hardly afford to travel interstate. How do they feel when they see Japanese tourists walking around Sydney or Melbourne? (Um, often not too pleased. But that's their problem, not the tourists'.)

[ link this ]

Wednesday, June 7, 2000

Further thoughts on ghosts (with thanks to Owen for prompting them):

The web is, of course, an inherently ephemeral medium. But then so is a lot of paper. All we're seeing with the web is a speeding-up of the decay and loss that has been happening for years with the printed and hand-written word. Acidic paper, thoughtless relatives, old crumbling film-stock: they're all enemies of the archiving instinct.

The tantalizing promise of the digital age is that if we can find an efficient way to carry bits forward, to keep copying them indefinitely, we can keep perfect copies of information; on paper (or other physical media), that can be hard to achieve. This promise is largely an illusion, though, as professional archivers are pointing out; we can't even read a lot of mag-tape from the 1970s. And in the long run, it'll all be dust (or charcoal, when the sun goes nova).

I like to think that there's some hope of preserving the significant parts of the web for at least a century or two—that is, for about as long as we think of our ancestors as being relatively close in time to us. I'm glad to know that I can still read about an ancestor from the 19th century, because to me that still seems close. Beyond the mid-18th century, it all seems too far removed. (Is that a personal perception, or a cultural one? In some cultures a century or two might not seem like much.)

Still, in that case, we shouldn't bet on the net. Acid-free printed editions with the widest possible distribution are the best chance of achieving that sort of longevity. The Internet is better suited to achieving different goals, such as the fast and wide circulation of ideas.

Information Wants To Be Free, as the saying goes, and it doesn't care where or who it came from. This can seem disturbing, but it shouldn't: most of our 'own' ideas originally come from other people. Originality and individuality usually derive from finding a particular combination of ideas, rather than from the individual ideas themselves. But that doesn't mean we can't be individual in our ideas; the power of permutation is immense, so there's plenty of room to present a particular combination of ideas in a way that no-one else has.

The challenge is not to hoard any particular ideas in the quest for individuality and individual benefit. Most copyright and patent laws encourage such hoarding, which is why I find current attempts to tighten up copyright for the digital age so depressing. Even in universities, where the whole aim is to toss ideas back and forth, academics have to try to be 'original' and make their own mark in order to get promotions and tenure. It all comes back to the dollar: we need intellectual property in order to make a living, but intellectual life would be so much easier without it.

The issue of ghost sites strikes right at the heart of this tension between the preservation of ideas and the preservation of us, because it's all about our own mortality, that great taboo subject of the late 20th century Western world. We all have to come to terms, one way or another, with the prospect of our own deaths, but we like to think that there's an escape clause: this bit of us will live on; these objects; these works; these offspring; these genes; these ideas.

Of all of those, I'd put my money on ideas in the long run (although the other categories are all necessary carriers for them). But we have no guarantee that our ideas will be picked up by anyone we actually know or care about—or that they'll be picked up at all.

And, yes, ultimately we're all dust.

When you're talking about attempts to preserve websites, paper, film, or any of the ephemeral media we transient humans choose to scrawl upon, it always comes back to the second law of thermodynamics.

[ link this ]

My Ghosts, Part 2

(Read part 1 first.)

There are a few morals to this story, I suppose (leaving aside the obvious one that you shouldn't use #A5BDBD as a background colour).

One that's not particularly important is that the website has probably outlived the CD-ROMs. (I'm not entirely sure it has, and anyway, it's a ghost site—the whole point is that it's not alive, not in any useful sense.)

No, the real moral stems from the fact that the site persists whether I want it to or not. Four years and thousands of pages later, my first tentative Adventures in HTML live on. Other pages have come and gone, but those ones sit on as an eternal reminder that I can whip up some pretty darned ordinary pages in Netscape Gold.

Not that I particularly mind that. If I really wanted to, I could ask someone down there to remove them.

But it seems a little odd when any pages persist in such a tenuous environment as the web. And that those pages, which represent three weeks of work that I did for someone else, might outlast some of these pages, which represent years of work done for me, is more than odd: it's disturbing.

It was three years after making those first pages that I built my first personal site for the public web. I've been building it ever since; it's a big part of who I am, and it contains a fair amount of what I've done.

But if something happened to me, it would last only as long as my pre-paid web-hosting and domain registration fees, and then: gone. And what would be left? Only ghosts: dead links on other people's sites; a few Usenet posts; and ghost sites.

My mother, a keen genealogist, visited the Australian Archives and the National Library of Australia while she was visiting Canberra this past week, to fill in a few more gaps in her knowledge of various ancestors. I did a little research at the NLA for her once too, reading through microfilm of the Armidale Express, where my great-great-grandfather was a reporter in the mid-19th century. It was fun detective-work, looking for brief mentions of his name and piecing together his life.

The pieces I found, and the pieces Mum has found, have been fascinating, and my family all feel as if we know the old bloke now, in a way we never did before. It gives us a personal connection to the past that a lot of Australians (Westerners?) have lost.

But we've really only found a few traces of the man: his 'ghost sites' in the public record. The bigger picture—assuming he ever recorded it, in a journal or the like—is gone.

This is the real moral of ghost sites, and it's nothing new—just an old story, updated for the web. In the long run, the only traces of our lives left on the Internet will be in the archives of public websites, run by big organisations with an interest in maintaining those archives. The important sources of information about us—these personal sites, these weblogs, these web journals, these expressions of who we really are—will be the first to disappear.

We don't think of personal sites as a lifetime's work-in-progress only because they haven't been around for a lifetime yet. But some of them show every sign of being just that. When their creators are done with their lives, what will we do with their work?

How can we ensure that our sites become ghost sites? Sites that endure? Sites that tell our great-great-grandchildren about us?

For a personal site, ending up as a ghost site is not a tragedy: it's something to aspire to.

[ link this ]

Tuesday, June 6, 2000

My Ghosts, Part 1

I've been thinking some more about ghost sites. It so happens that this month is the fourth anniversary of my first attempt to build something for the web, an attempt that lives on as a fully fledged ghost site. Like Proust's madeleine, it triggers a flood of memories.

I'd heard about the web in late '94 or early '95, when one of ANU's computing staff said at a public seminar on the latest Internet trends that she could happily spend all her time surfing the web. I was both intrigued and wary. Intrigued, because the net with pictures sounded exactly like what I had figured was missing from computing when I abandoned it at the end of my first degree for something with a bit more human interest. Wary, because I'd spent enough hours writing pointless posts to mailing lists and Usenet to know that the net was all-too-capable of sucking away my valuable thesis-writing time.

So I kept away from this tempting new attraction, at least until the thesis was written. Then in late '95, I started surfing: tentatively at first, because my access was limited to a couple of hours a week now that I was a casual tutor and not a full-time student. I can't remember much of the sites I saw, but I remember thinking: I could do this. This would be good.

A year later, and still with no full-time employment in sight, my old pol sci honours supervisor asked if I'd like some computing work on a project of his. I leapt at the chance, and flew down to Tasmania for a few weeks, where I found myself working with a few postgrads who had been building up a comprehensive database of marine treaties, like the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. They'd been scanning the texts to put onto a CD-ROM.

They were building pages for the CD-ROM in HTML, so my job was to sit at a shiny new Pentium and use Netscape 2.0 Gold to design and create webpages, uh, cdrompages. Once or twice I suggested to my ex-supervisor that it would be better to put those pages onto a website rather than a CD-ROM, because they'd be easily updateable, more widely accessible, and various other good things. We even uploaded a trial site to a server to demonstrate how good it could be.

He didn't buy it; or rather, he didn't see how he could get anyone else to buy it. Since the aim of the project was to have a saleable commodity at the end, a shiny disc that you could hold was better than a bunch of bits in the ether.

I'm not sure whether the CD-ROM ever eventuated. But the test site is still there [23.10.01: Not any more, it isn't].

(The moral? I'm working on that. To Be Continued.)

[ link this ]

Every now and then I tire of surfing blogs, IT zines, news sites, and all the usual stuff, and head on back to a few time-honoured favourites—like Frank's Vinyl Museum. The design hasn't changed much (um, at all) in the couple of years I've been visiting, but Frank still keeps adding new titles, with links to audio clips and glorious full-screen jpegs of album covers, plus bulletin boards where you can add your own pithy reviews. If you've never heard of Polka Disco, The Beatle Barkers, or the Parakeet Training Record, you owe it to yourself to visit.

[ link this ]

There's something poignant about this effort to record the ghost sites of the Web, perhaps because it was itself once a ghost site. (Or perhaps I just like it because my own site will be on hold throughout July and for who knows how long afterwards.) It was a shock to learn from it that the voice of Wendy Testaburger is gone. But at least her site isn't yet 'Stuffed, Embalmed, and Ready for Internet Museum'. (Found via memepool.)

[ link this ]

Monday, June 5, 2000

Alice Matsumoto has put up a gallery of handwriting samples as evidence that weblog readers occasionally lift a pen. One of the samples looks strangely familiar...

Now all I need to do is make a font based on my hand-writing, use it for this blog, and watch those hits soar (as all the cryptographers flock to it and attempt to be first to crack the code).

[ link this ]

Ha. Now it's down to 950%. So adding a post on the Bullshit Analyzer itself and causing a post on 'a thoughtful essay' to drop off the end of the blog reduces the bullshit by 5 points? Rude noises and gesticulations to you, (contains 40% bullshit; score: 2p).

Nice gag, though.

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According to the Bullshit Analyzer (found via steal this blog!), Speedysnail contains 0% bullshit (score: 0p). And yet this blog, which is a subsite and subset of Speedysnail, apparently contains 1000% bullshit (score: 100p). I don't know whether to feel deeply hurt or inordinately proud.

[ link this ]

Things are officially getting crazy around here, now that it's less than five weeks to Madagascar. Having my folks visit has been a welcome final period of calm before the storm, but tomorrow they'll be flying back to Tassie and our place will start its descent into Box Hell.

Yesterday we all piled into the not-designed-for-four-large-Australians Mitsubishi Lancer, braved the icy early winter weather and drove down to Tidbinbilla, where we visited koalas, crimson rosellas, and one of NASA's three deep-space tracking stations. Hearing about Voyager 1 being umpteen zillion kilometres from Earth certainly puts the daily preoccupation with maintaining a weblog into perspective...

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