The Users Column 4400 words
August 6, 1998
Jerry Pournelle firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 1998 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.
I have learned more about web site creation than I really wanted to. It all started when CMP bought McGraw Hills computer magazines, including BYTE in the United States. When we first learned this we thought it was a good sign, but shortly afterward everyone was given two days notice, and BYTE America was closed. The overseas licensed BYTE magazines continue, and Im writing this column for them. Im also developing my web site, www.jerrypournelle.com, where I keep what amounts to my on-line log book.
I own about a hundred books on web site development, but nothing can really prepare you when you suddenly have to do it. My web site still has problems, but its getting better, and the only way I managed to learn was to plunge right in and try it. Even after a month I dont have everything just right, but Ive learned a lot about web tools.
I had originally built a simple web site using Microsoft Word from Office 97. If you just want a web site in a hurry, and particularly if you will mostly be displaying text, Word in Office 97 does an adequate job, and the upcoming Office 2000 will do even better. I've played with a beta of Office 2000 for a few days now, and it's a real improvement, particularly when it comes to web access and development. However, as soon as you get at all fancy, such as making large tables, Word 97 goes insane. I managed to lose quite a lot of text in WORD by pasting into a table; suddenly all that text vanished, and when I made the mistake of trying to examine the HTML source code to see what was wrong, WORD saved the file without finding the missing text, and that text was gone. Beware: WORD simply cannot handle big tables, and when it tries to do so, the result is unpredictable. Fortunately I had posted the page the lost text was cut from, and a reader had downloaded it, so I was able to get most of it back, but it was both frustrating and embarrassing. It was clearly time for better tools, and I tried a number of them.
First, Macromedias Dreamweaver is a very good tool. Its better for page design than for site development, and its not really adequate for complicated site management, because it doesnt have any mechanism to follow links. It does, however, let you edit on screen, then go into HTML for final adjustments. There is a visual edit mode and a preview, as well as an HTML editor. Im not sure I am competent to judge the quality of HTML code generated by the various web authoring tools, but certainly Dreamweavers is as clean as any, and unlike Front Page it doesnt insist on rewriting code for pages read into it. If you are familiar with HTML or want to be, and youre willing to work on one page at a time, Dreamweaver is pretty good. I wouldn't recommend it for a very complex site.
Second, I may have done an inadequate job of testing Norton Visual Page. It was one of the first ones I tried, and I got rid of it as soon as I found that it was very slow in edit mode. By slow, I mean there was a definite delay between keystroke and the letters appearance on screen, and backspacing across a line took an eternity. I have since found thats pretty well the case with all the WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) web authoring tools, and particularly so with Microsofts Front Page 98, the program I have ended up using.
I installed Symantecs Norton Visual Page again to have another look, because it had some neat features. It generates a very good site map, and it does it quickly. However, it has what is to me one fatal flaw: if you use a table, you cannot have different background textures in the different cells of the table. Different colors, yes, I think, but not textures; if you can I cant see them in any view Visual Page generates.
For that and other reasons, I abandoned Visual Page, and tried several other web editing tools. Eventually I got to Microsofts Front Page 98.
Front Page 98 has almost all the tools you will need, and while it is more adapted to pages to be viewed in Microsoft Internet Explorer, you can, if youre careful, design pages that look good in Netscape as well.
Its not easy, and there doesnt seem to be any simple way to learn. I had more help than most people will, in that a lot of smart readers look at my site and make suggestions, and over a few weeks I was able to evolve a pretty good web site: good for what I do, which is largely text rather than graphic information.
Modern web sites almost all use frames rather than tables, but the problem is that frames make it difficult for people with older browsers and small screens to read your page. It is possible, with a lot of work, to set up tables such that nearly anyone can read the pages; once again, my pages are mostly text, so it's easier. It is not always simple, though. Many graphic images, including lines, are wider than you think, and will force a table to be wider than a VGA screen. The only way to be sure on that is trial and error, and it takes a lot of time.
Front Page handles tables well, letting you set the properties of individual cells as well as the entire table. As I said above, Symantec's Visual Page has the limitation that you can't have a different textured background in different cells; with Front Page that's easy, as you can see if you look at my web site. You'll also see some clever little images I have grabbed off of other web sites: they're easy to insert with Front Page 98.
I also have a lot of pictures I took with the Olympus Digital Camera. I have now carried that camera to a dozen countries, dropped it on concrete, used it in extreme heat and cold -- it went to Finland with me when I went there with John Dvorak for the Nokia product announcements, and also to the Negev Desert in Israel -- and carried it in my hip pocket to operas and social functions. It's convenient to use, and makes it easy to get pictures onto the web. If you haven't looked into digital cameras lately, you really should. There are a lot of good ones out there. I've used a number of them, and overall, I prefer Olympus, with Agfa coming a reasonably close second. Do be sure you get one with high resolution.
Olympus also makes a neat printer that attaches directly to the camera, so that for about fifty cents per picture you can print directly without involving a computer. You can also connect the camera directly to the input of a television to show the pictures on a TV screen. All this in addition to making it easy to put pictures on the web.
Front Page 98 has some extremely nice graphics tools for manipulating those pictures or any other graphics you find. You can resize images, clip and rotate them, make them transparent, give them beveled edges, and in general do graphics manipulation quite simply. Better still, there's a wonderful feature: insert a graphic such as a photograph onto your page, select it, and do "autothumbnail". Front Page replaces the full picture with the thumbnail, then automatically saves the full picture to its own file, and links the thumbnail to the picture file. Thus when the reader clicks on the thumbnail he will get the full size picture -- and readers with slow systems don't have to wait for the full picture to download. It all works wonderfully well, and is an important feature of Front Page 98.
The web design technique I use is to compose in Word, then paste into Front Page, and let Front Page publish the result. That works surprisingly well, since Front Page only transfers files that you've changed.
Composing in Front Page is impossible: not only is the program exceedingly slow, but I find I have become accustomed to WORD's online services. I like having automatic correction of obvious typographic errors, and I very much like the automatic spelling check that WORD does. I was surprised to find out just how much I missed those features when I was experimenting with composing in Front Page.
Composing in WORD then pasting into Front Page has proved to be a powerful technique: I've been able to maintain a fairly large web site, plus handle a great deal of mail. Mail is a particular problem because it often comes formatted in strange ways that make lines too long for the tables I use in my web site. Converting mail to WORD format solves most of those problems. Unfortunately, that technique does create another difficulty. Current versions of WORD do not handle HTML files well and some HTML code is just too much for WORD. In particular, WORD tries to convert TABS into "block quotes", and if there is a deep level of tabbing, the result is a format that just wont work on a web site. That almost drove me crazy until I figured out just what was going on. Now it's merely an annoyance. Some readers report that using WORD in connection with Adobe PAGEMILL will work even better than my system of Word and Front Page. Alas, I haven't tried PageMill, and I probably won't any time soon. There are only so many hours in a week.
Conclusion: There are other, and certainly cheaper, ways to maintain a web site, and for small and simple sites most are quite adequate. For more complex sites you need more powerful tools, and so far, Front Page 98 has been more than equal to the jobs I've given it.
The second problem I faced was an enormous volume of mail. I've had a number of recommendations for mail handling programs. When I first started on the Web, I got the freeware versions of Eudora for mail and Free Agent for newsgroups. Both are available in many places on the web, and they both work.
Later I bought a copy of Eudora Pro, and found that satisfactory as well. Then Netscape updated to Communicator, and that has a pretty good mail handling system. About then I migrated most mail functions over to Princess, a dual Pentium 200 COMPAQ running NT 4 Workstation. For some reason I didn't want to install Eudora on Princess, so I made do with the Netscape Communicator mail system, which, I have to say, worked pretty well until BYTE America's demise brought me thousands of emails in a short period of time. Clearly I needed a more powerful tool to deal with all that mail.
I very nearly went to Eudora Pro, but friends persuaded me to try Microsoft OUTLOOK 98. What interested me was the possibility of integration of Outlook, Word and Office, and Front Page. They all come from Microsoft: surely they will work together?
They do, sort of, but not as well as I'd like. That, however, is the situation with Outlook 98 and Office 97. The new beta version of Office 2000 incorporates Outlook and tools for working with Front Page, and the integration of the programs is far better. Of course you won't be able to get Office 2000 until sometime next year. Stay tuned: I'm working with Office 2000, and so far I like what I see.
Outlook is a complicated program, and most of its functions are not well explained. There is, somewhere, a secret school that teaches programmers how to write program documentation in a way that lets them prove they covered a subject, yet makes it impossible to understand what they have said about using a program unless you already know how to use it. The writers of the Outlook documents and help files are clearly graduates of that school. I hope some day to find that place and destroy it
However, once you understand Outlook, it is an extremely powerful tool, not only for handing mail, but for keeping schedules, appointments, and generally managing your life. I still miss the old Franklin Ascend I used to use, because its color scheme and layout were just better for calendar organization. Alas, Franklin "improved" Ascend to the point where I can't even install it, much less use it regularly. That's a pity because it was a very good program in its earlier incarnations.
Outlook isn't as good a calendar program as the earlier versions of Franklin Ascend were, nor does it handle mail quite as well as Eudora Pro. The beauty of OUTLOOK is that it does a more than adequate job of both mail and calendar operations, keeps your contact list, and integrates well with the WORD/Front Page system I use to keep my web site up. I get mail, open it using Word as the mail handling editor (Outlook gives you a choice of editors). Then I can cut and paste from the opened letter file into Front Page, compose a reply, and paste that in. Then I drag that mail to a folder marked "USED", and I'm done. Later I can use the "USED" folder to make up a mailing list of all the people whose mail I have printed on the web site, and send them thank you notes.
Outlook is very good for creating mail lists, but you would never find that out from the documentation. One of my readers showed me how it is done: when I described the method to two of Microsoft's Office product managers, they were astonished: they didn't know how to do it either.
Let me state the problem: I have a folder full of email, say a thousand items from people writing to wish me success now that BYTE has folded. I have read all that mail, or at least looked at it, but replying to each letter individually is impossible. How can I make a mailing list from all this?
I got hundreds of suggestions from readers. Some of the methods suggested were bizarre. Others involved exporting to Access or Excel and manipulating the data there. A few suggested I import the mail into the Outlook Contacts list and use categories to select the names I wanted for a mailing list.
That latter would be a wonderful suggestion if there were any way to assign categories to a bunch of names being imported into the Contacts file. Unfortunately, the only way to do that is one name at a time, and with over a thousand names the job was just too time consuming. Also, I didn't want a thousand new names in my primary contact list.
Eventually a reader told me precisely how to build my mailing list. Open Outlook 98, and go to the "folder view". Next I create a "placeholder" folder under CONTACTS to hold the original contact list. Go into contacts, select all the names, and drag the result to the new "placeholder" folder. That moves them, so now the contact list is empty. Next, select the inbasket subfolder containing the mail you want to make a list from, go to the Outlook tool bar, and choose file/export. It will offer a bunch of formats to export to; the one you want is csv, or comma separated values. Give it a directory and file name to export to and stand back. That only takes a moment.
Now comes the tricky part: go to Program Files/Outlook Express/ and run a program called "wabmig.exe". I haven't the foggiest notion what "wabmig" stands for, and neither did the Microsoft product managers I asked. Doesn't matter. The program asks what file to import. Point it at the file you just exported, and let wabmig go to work. It shows you a list of all the values you can import -- sender's name, sender's email address, the subject of the mail, the date, the body of the mail itself -- and lets you choose which ones you want. I wanted only the natural and the email names. I selected those, and wabmig did the rest: shortly after I had all those names and email addresses in Outlook Contacts. Now I could select them all and give them a category, so they'll be easy to select another time even if they're merged with other contacts.
Finally, I created a folder called "Mail List One," selected all those new names and addresses from Contact, and dragged them over to that folder; then I dragged the old list from the placeholder folder back to the contact root folder, and I was done.
To mail to the list I send the original to myself, and use Outlook mail to select bcc (blind carbon copy) and add the entire "Mail List One" folder contents to the bcc list. This works perfectly.
The reason for the shuffle with the original contents is that wabmig will import only into the root Contact folder. It ought to give you a choice of where to import, and I've suggested that to the Office 2000 team.
Meanwhile, Outlook export, and a bit of jugglery let me get my job done.
It turns out that Outlook has a number of such tricks, not well documented, most hard to discover, but very powerful once known. The best way to learn about Outlook is to experiment, then talk to other Outlook users. I discover some new feature every day. All told, I like Outlook a lot.
There is one major problem with Outlook: it keeps all its data: calendar, contacts list, diary, everything, in one enormous file called outlook.pst. Mine resides in the WINNT40 directory, but sometimes it hides in other places. The file is one big binary file, and cannot be edited. It can't be backed up when Outlook is open. To back it up you must close Outlook, then copy that file somewhere. Since it contains all your mail, appointments, and everything else you certainly will want to keep backup copies. What is desperately needed is a program that will parse and edit that file so that you can make selected changes to it. I don't know if that feature is in Office 2000, but I'm going to suggest it.
When you try Outlook, be prepared for a stiff learning session. Outlook is easy to use, hard to master. Keep trying. I recall several times swearing to dump the program and go on to something else, but I stayed with it, and now I find it invaluable. Recommended.
The latest big project at Chaos Manor is Winnie. This is a system built up from the IDT (Integrated Device Technology www.idt.com) WinChip and an MSI (Micro-Star International) MS-5169 ATX AL9 main board. The WinChip is a relatively new non-Intel CPU designed to run Windows. It fits Socket 7, and is a lot cheaper than Intel's Pentium II. You can build inexpensive systems with it: The question is, how well will it work?
I started with a PC Power and Cooling case and power supply, and a relatively straightforward system, except: the MSI main board and the WinChip have settings to run at 75/225 mhz, and that was my first attempt.
I got the system to run with a Number Nine graphics board in the AGP slot playing into a Nanao (Eizo) FX-E8 monitor. The graphics were fine. The rest of the system wasn't. I won't go into all the details, but in brief this was a disaster. The system was unstable, and if I did get it to work one day, it would blow up the next. Sound cards wouldn't work properly. If I added peripherals they'd make the system crash. The bottom line was that I gave up on over-clocking to 75/225 and changed back to a relatively standard 66/200 speed. The details on how to do this are explained quite well in the MSI MS-5169 User's Manual; it's a matter of a couple of dip switches on the motherboard.
At 66/200 Winnie was quite stable running Windows 95b (OSR2), even with some complexities. The sound card was a Creative Labs PCI64, playing into an Altec-Lansing speaker set; the sound quality is great. Winnie has a TEAC 6-pack CDROM changer running off the Secondary IDE port. The main hard drive is a Quantum 4 gigabyte IDE drive; the slave on that IDE string is an internal IDE Zip drive. Then there's a RICOH Media Master CD R/W drive running off an Adeptec SCSI controller. This makes for a pretty complicated system.
To make the Ricoh CD R/W work properly in read/write mode, you must run Adaptec Direct CD. This program is not terribly happy to find an IDE CDROM in the system, but it will work. Then I installed Adaptec's Easy CD Creator 3.0: and that wouldn't work. It found the Ricoh as a CD writer, but it would not accept the IDE CDROM as a reader. I could still make CD's, but I had to copy the contents to a hard drive, then use EZ SCSI Creator to burn the CD. This is no great hardship: one common problem with copying CD's is that a smudge or other dirt on a CD will cause the system to fail to read properly. In a copy to disk operation the system will retry; but if this happens in a direct CD copy attempt, you get an 'underflow' error and the whole effort is spoiled. By copying to disk first you insure against any possible underflow. I spoiled a number of CD/R blanks before I learned that trick.
Just as I got WINNIE set up, Adaptec sent Mike Acquilna down with a beta copy of the new Adaptec Easy CD Creator 3.5, which should be out about the time you read this. That does know how to use an IDE CD drive as the source and write to the Ricoh Media Master. I know because I copied the Adaptec disk that way.
I also installed a SOHO 10/100 PCI Ethernet card. I don't know much about SOHO, but the card cost me $19 at Fry's, and it installed without any problems at all. I tested it at both 10 and 100 megabits, and there are no problems with it. One caution: if you install a Diamond Monster sound card and want to change to another, don't just remove the Diamond Monster: UNINSTALL it. Do that and you won't have conflicts with the new sound card.
The bottom line is that a WinChip system on an MSI mother board is stable, reliable, and fast, even with a complicated mix of peripherals. I tested it with MPS's This Means War, a game known to lock up some systems. This Means War uses a number of objects, and on older systems this slows things down something terrific. I am happy to say that Winnie was fast and had no lockups at all, even with that game. IDT WinChip makes a good, fast, and cheap Windows computer that runs both games and productivity applications without problems.
That's the good news. The bad news is that a system with both IDE and SCSI CD drives, particularly a SCSI CD R/W running Adaptec Direct CD, and absolutely with both IDE CD ROM and in internal IDE ZIP drive, is at the edge of stability. This isn't a problem with the chip, it's a Windows 95 problem: Windows can get confused and make the ZIP drive the D: drive, so that the D: hard disk drive becomes the E: drive. This confuses the daylights out of some programs, but there's worse to come.
I tried Winnie with the newest Microsoft beta versions of Office 2000 and Internet Explorer 5, and the result was another disaster even after I uninstalled those experimental programs. I'm certain the problem is the mix of drives and peripherals, so the next time I bring Winnie up she'll have a single SCSI CDROM to go with the Ricoh. I'll leave the IDE ZIP drive in, but it will go on the Secondary IDE as a master rather than slave to the regular hard drive. That should fix everything.
I'm also building up a WinChip system to run Windows 98: full report on that next month.
The game of the month remains Blizzard's STARCRAFT, but when I was testing Winnie by running MPS THIS MEANS WAR I was surprised at just how much fun that older game is. This Means War is "real time" but you can pause the game and still give orders to units, so that the game doesn't degenerate into a clickfest. If you can find a copy of This Means War and you have a fast machine, I bet you'll like it.
The book of the month is Thomas P. Hughes, RESCUING PROMETHEUS, Pantheon, ISBN 0-679-41151-8. This is about the best account I know of the development of management and control structures for enormous projects, including the old USAF SAGE system as well as the ARPANET/Internet. Hughes doesn't say what went wrong with the Apollo program and NASA's Shuttle, but the principles of organization, management, and operations research are laid out well enough to let you think of your own explanations.
The second book of the month is extremely important to Internet users: Michael Godwin's CYBER RIGHTS examines the tensions inherent in the notion of free speech when everyone has the ability to do instant publications. There are severe conflicts between protection of intellectual property, and the right to quote freely; there is another problem with libel and slander; and how much right does society have to suppress pornography and obscenity? Godwin has great experience in dealing with these matters, and he writes well and interestingly. The case histories are fascinating. If your business involves the Internet, or you're an eager Internet user, you really should read this book. Highly recommended.
The computer book of the month is Roger Jennings, USING WINDOWS NT SERVER 4 Special Edition (CUE). The CUE Special Editions are generally excellent: they come out later than the books rushed into print, and they can be used as reference works and handbooks for a long time.
Next month, building a WinChip machine to run Windows 98, a lot more on using Office 2000, and a lot more.