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A Web cam in Russia, and some character assassination
technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology 
Simple gray rule

A Web cam in Russia, and some character assassination
 

Bit Player for Jan. 5, 1997
This is an expanded version of the column that appears in print.

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1997, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1997, The Syracuse Newspapers

Web cams—cameras that show live (or nearly live) scenes on Web pages—can provide some fascinating entertainment while giving an instant view of another part of the world to desk-bound travelers. Even real travelers can put Web cams to good use, as a group of German tourists did last summer when they posed in Clinton Square so the folks at home could see them on our newspaper's Web cam.

The best part about Web cams is that you don't need anything special to view them. Any modern browser will work fine. Web cam sites nearly always display their views as JPEGs (also called JPGs—both of them pronounced "jay-peg''), which browsers display easily. (The other common image type is GIF, pronounced "jiff,'' but it's not as well suited for camera shots as JPEGs are.)

My favorite Web-cam page this week is http://www.paratype.com/camera/camera.htm, which shows a view of Moscow, the Russian capital. It's refreshed every five minutes, so you'll always see an up-to-date scene.

I tuned in at a little past 7 p.m. one night last week (a little past 3 a.m. Moscow time). The picture showed a view from one of Moscow's seven hills. The temperature was 6 degrees F. there—Moscow is a lot colder than Syracuse is in winter—and the university campus that slopes down the gentle hill in the photo was lit up by yellow streetlights.

I took a special interest in the Moscow Web cam for two reasons. I used to be fluent in both written and spoken Russian (I lost that fluency when I stopped speaking it daily 33 years ago), and my love for the Russian language remains strong today. And I found that Web cam site through a chance encounter with a Russian graphics expert who runs a Web-design school in St. Petersburg, the pre-revolutionary capital of Russia.

(I've corresponded with the Russian designer, and will tell you about his work next week.)

ANOTHER FAVORITE page is Bill Latura's Home Page, which is about as interesting as its name is dull. You can find it by looking for the "Bill Latura'' link at http://www.xnet.com/userspot/userpages/iuser.htm. His page has its own address, of course, but the address contains a tilde, which we are not yet able to automatically translate into a character that can be published at our Web site. (I explain this in the Web version of this column.)

(Latura's page is actually http://www.xnet.com/~blatura/.)

The explanation for why the address that has the tilde didn't get into the paper? At the newspaper, we use a series of steps in getting something from a writer's mind to the printed page and then to our newspaper Web site. Here are the basic steps:

Note that we don't do what you might expect. We don't take the text that has been written on a standard word processor and turn it into HTML. That would be an easy way of doing it. Alas, we insist on accuracy and deliberation, meaning that we don't send the newspaper stories up to our Web site until they have gone through the complete editing procedure, and that procedure is not finished until the texts reach the pagination system. And when they reach that system, they are missing such common characters as tildes and backslashes.

(A personal note: One of my jobs at the newspaper was finding a way to print backslashes and tildes. Should have been simple, right? Desktop-publishing systems have backslashes and tildes, so newspaper-publishing systems have them, too, right? No, not ours. Adding that capability is possible, but not technically feasible at this time [early 1997], so the only way to get backslashes and tildes to show up on a printed page of the newspaper is to make them as graphic objects—tiny graphics, at that. So the editor who wants a tilde has to insert a very small image of a tilde using code I wrote, to give one example. An additional note: Because I did not create graphics for any other missing characters, the newspaper cannot treat many names properly. We're not happy with that situation.)

By changing the script we use for translating our published documents into HTML, which should be able to get backslashes and tildes back into the electronic Web documents. All that's needed is for the script to look for my code and to recognize that the entire tilde code needs to be changed back into a simple tilde. We'll do that when we have time.

Latura's page lists 1,000 interesting sites in one link alone. It's the by-now-famous Web Wanderer list that hundreds of thousands of Web surfers download for reference each month.. Another link lists sites of non-computer companies—a real service to everyone—and a third lists distinguished home pages of all kinds.

Unlike most lists of so-called best pages and allegedly interesting sites, Latura's are thoughtfully put together. Many of the links refer back to pages at his own site, where he has done even more work assembly subcategories for other lists.

WE'VE SAID GOODBYE to the experiment that we started in this column when it was launched last year. One of the paper's long-time Stars Magazine editors, Jim Howe, asked me to write a Hyperlist—a brief explanation of underlined terms—with each column. The idea was to give regular text some of the power of the hypertext we're used to on Web pages, and I think it worked well. But nothing can work as well as real hypertext. I hope you enjoyed the explanations, which will make their way into both Web form and book form someday.

I'd really like feedback on this one. Jim Howe and I went into the Hyperlist project with a considerable amount of apprehension.

First, we knew of no other attempt anywhere to do the same thing — to create a sort-of, kind-of hyperlinked text in a normal print newspaper.

Second, unbelievable as it seems, we were not able to get words underlined (to create our hyperlinks) in print; as the primary codesmith for our Harris pagination system, I finally did find a way to get words underlined reliably. (The problems stemmed from the need to do a continuous underline, like this, rather than a broken underline, like this. Continuous underlines must stop at the end of a line, however, and resume at the beginning of the next line, and this seemingly simple operation proved difficult for our pagination system to perform. I coded it to look for an interword space, and then to compute the current position of the typesetter from the edge of the column. If that computation gave results that were less than a certain amount, I took a chance in coding the next step by assuming that the typesetter was at or very near to the end of the line of text. [The typesetter could be putting in the last character even though it had not reached the end of the line; typesetting programs add space between characters to fill out the line after the last character has been placed.] So this finally gave us working underlines for our hypertext links.)

Third, I had a quandary: Because our hypertext links were not really hypertext links—in other words, they were more like footnotes that just happened to have underlined link words—we weren't actually dealing with hypertext at all, but rather with definitions of words, and so I had to determine the level of sophistication of typical readers. Defining words and terms that most people already understand is a waste. So I tried a sideways approach, adding touches of what I hoped would be understood as humor to my Hyperlists.

One week I added typewriter to my Hyperlist. Yes, Virginia, there is a reader out there somewhere who does not know what a typewriter does. I found that out when I began training employees on computers. When I told them the PC keyboard was, in some ways, just like the keyboard on a typewriter, I got blank stares from most of the trainees. (They were all quite young.) Only a few had ever used a typewriter, and one even admitted that she had never seen a typewriter.

I'm putting together my various Hyperlists into a single file, and will post it on the Web. I think you might enjoy it.


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