They say that time goes faster as you get older. In that case I must be ancient. It's been two years since the last time I wrote a ModemJunkie piece. Only one edition this century -- not even that if you are a mathematician. Still, in some ways it seems like just yesterday.
Why did I stop? Well, there are a number of reasons and I will probably touch on one or two of them in this essay, but as my father used to say, "If you have more than one reason for not doing something there is only one that really counts: 'I don't want to.'" All the rest is commentary.
Why am I starting again? Because I want to?
So here I am. Over the past couple of years I have had many things pop into my mind that I thought might bring me back. But then I would begin to think of all of the oher things I hadn't wrtitten about and didn't know how to choose. Some were so important. Others trivial. I was stuck. But now I have decided to jump in. So I am playing catch-up. I won't talk about everything I thought of over this period, but I will touch on a few -- acknowledging them and clearing a space for the future.
Long time readers of my columns know that I have been a fan of the Opera browser for many years. I have been communicating with people at Opera since it first came out. I wrote my first detailed review of Opera in 1996. [Note: Over time, that page has become very ugly, suffering from careless updates. I promise to clean it up soon.] I didn't realize back then that some of the guiding lights behind Opera were in one way or another, associated with the Web Design Group (WDG), which encouraged me to use clean, validated HTML and to strive for accessibility. Whether the connection is direct or not. The philosophy prevails.
I have been indebted to the philosophy of the WDG and some of its members over the years, although I have not created many new pages lately nor, I confess, have I been as careful as I should have been recently in maintaining my old ones. And I didn't take all of their advice. The members of WDG were among the earliest proponents of the use of cascading style sheets, CSS, in the design of web pages. I confess, it always sounded too complicated for me. Although the principles behind CSS were consistent with my arguments for clean, accessible design. See for example, my essay, ACCESS, Access, access.
Back in late July, in the midst of the agony and frustration of the changeover to LGrossman.com, which I discuss below, I got an e-mail that promised to infuse some light into the darkness. To make a long story shorter, at the end of August, I found myself on an airplane headed to Oslo. I usually suffer terribly from jet lag. The first afternoon overseas, I usually hide in my bed, but this time I found myself wakened after only 5 minutes of sleep by a young man from Finland with an infectious smile.
Before long, I found the fog of jet lag being dispelled by the bracing winds in the Oslo Fjord, sailing in a small sailboat, under the command of Håkon Wium Lie.
Our host was a Web pioneer, having worked on the WWW project at CERN, the cradle of the Web. He first suggested the concept of Cascading Style Sheets in 1994 and he later joined W3C (the World Wide Web Consortium) to further strengthen the standards. In 1999, he was listed among Technology Review's Top 100 innovators of the next century. Håkon is Opera's Chief Technical Officer. He is a man of great energy. His favorite expression is a crisp "Perfect!" with which he responds to many things. Close watchers can learn a lot from the precise inflection to which he gives that word, which can range from approval to skepticism or worse. But that afternoon he was he perfect host, stopping to buy fruit for our voyage, taking a boy from the American Heartland who had never thought of going to Oslo, into a wonderful new world. From the middle of the fjord, we heard the cannon celebrating the royal wedding, taking place not far away.
Over the next few days there was time to learn a bit about Oslo, to picnic at Akershus, the great castle on the waterfront, to visit museums and the incredible Sculpture Garden at Vigelandsparken.
But there was also the opportunity to visit the headquarters of Opera Software. There I had the chance to meet with some of the top management and internal staff of Opera and a small group of beta testers who had gathered in a final push to complete the next version of Opera. What a thrill. The group ranged, it seemed, from 17 to 57. (Well, maybe nobody was only 17 but from the other end of that spectrum, the group seemed very young.)
On Monday morning Håkon used Opera's presentation mode,OperaShow, a magnificent unheralded feature of Opera that I promise to discuss some time in the future, to give us a brief history of the company, which has been a major success in recent years. Opera is the third most popular browser world wide - and it is not free. More people have paid for Opera than any other browser, although an adware version is now available. Jon S. von Tetzchner, co founder and CEO of Opera was next on the agenda. They asked us to make a few comments. When it was my turn, I was flabbergasted. The others really understand software and coding and many of the complex details of the browser world. I am a true amateur, hacking out my web pages by trial and error. I was asked to say something about accessibility. I mumbled something, forgetting momentarily that years ago, in my earliest conversations with the WDG and with Opera, accessibility was on the top of my agenda. It wasn't until I got home, that I suddenly realized that they remembered and the platform I had been given and the opportunity I had missed.
There was a special electricity in the air. A number of people in the room had never met before. Beta testing had been an online collaborative effort for many of them. Now there was a palpable energy as several PCs were set up and people who had always had to use the written word and screenshots to convey their ideas were able to call to one another and look over their shoulders. A white board and flip chart rapidly filled with comments and questions as, with incredible energy, they attacked the latest beta build.
In addition to the actual work, there were intense discussions at dinner and over beer and in the parks, about what a browser should be, what should be included. About Unicode, about the future of peer-to-peer sharing, about MDI and SDI. About BiDi (and that is not a sexual preference) and DOM (which has nothing to do with domination).
But while some of the discussions were purely theoretical and had nothing to do with Opera's actual plans, over the next few weeks, as version 6.0 came closer to reality, I began to see how some of them played a role.
Opera 6.0 is fast, and light, especially compared to IE and Netscape, although the standard 3 Meg download triples if you need to download Java at the same time. Although to some critics this build does not seem the major breakthrough that it is, watching it develop has been fascinating and it is clear that it is really light years ahead of its predecessors. Opera has managed to maintain a careful balance between standards compliance and the ability to render pages as they are actually written. This is not easy. There comes a point when attempting to display everything undermines the whole notion of standards. On the other hand, failure to display popular pages would eliminate Opera from the market place. Opera has sought to maintain the best of both worlds and at the same time has created an immensely configurable tool.
The terms MDI and SDI were new to me. A friend, to whom I had previously recommended Opera had rejected it because it used the MDI interface. MDI means multiple document interface; SDI is single document interface. I never noticed that Opera was special in its use of the MDI because I migrated over to Opera from Netscape way back when Netscape also used an MDI approach.
Put most simply. In MDI all web pages open within a single instance of Opera, while in SDI each document stands alone on your desk top. At work we are being forced to switch from WordPerfect to Word. (You are being spared a long wail and moan of grief about that because of the length of this article. Stay tuned.) One of the unremarked differences between them is that WP is essentially an MDI format. If you close WP all open pages close. In Word you have to close each separately. I find it confusing. I hear there is a way to make Word emulate an MDI interface, but that is another discussion. To me the SDI seems like a multiple document interface, with instances all over the place. MDI seems neat and tidy, one frame holding it all. But the breakthrough here is that Opera has managed, once again, to include the best of both worlds. To long time IE users, Opera is now available in a familiar form, A single click in the newly revised preference menu, close and reopen Opera, and presto, you have changed the interface.
And that leads me to one of the most important features of Opera. Its exceptionable configurability. Its buttons, menubars, task bars and other features can be moved, turned off or on, or in some cases replaced. It now has a "personal bar" which can be configured to your whim. Something that makes a lot of people happy, and I confess I don't understand, is that now Opera can be skinned, which means that you can change its appearance. This is a totally non-functional advance. Some older users of Opera don't like the new default skin and may not be aware that a single click in the preferences will turn it off. And a few more clicks will let you modify the foreground or background with the skin of your choice.
More important, Opera gives the user unmatched control over the way web pages appear in the browser. Through the use of cascading style sheets, controlled, primarily by options in the preferences dialogue, many details can be controlled. And the rules regarding priority of details can be adjusted. It is that set of rules for how multiple sets of rules overlay and interact with one another that constitutes the "cascading" part of CSS.
The incorporation of Unicode capabilities into this version of Opera is a true breakthrough, although it may not seem significant to the ordinary American user. Through its recognition of Unicode fonts, Opera can now handle many languages: Chinese, Russian, Korean, and the Eastern European languages. The addition of support for Asian languages opens that developing market to Opera. In order to take advantage of these features it may be necessary for a user to add Unicode fonts to his or her system. First go to a foreign language page, notice if boxes or other strange characters appear instead of the expected characters. Then click view|encoding and try the various options there. If they don't work you will need new fonts. You can get them from Microsoft's font pack page. Go there and download any of the fonts found there that are not already on your system.
I mentioned BiDi before. It means Bi-Directional. One of the issues Opera still has to tackle is how to best handle languages that read from right to left, like Hebrew and Arabic. Some pages actually use both English and Hebrew so bi-directional support is necessary. Opera will now render the fonts, but, depending on how the website was created, the characters may appear in the reverse order. It is very strange reading werbeH, but it can be done. And it will be fixed. In the meantime, it is no drawback to the vast majority of potential Opera users.
There are far too many features of Opera for me to detail them all here. Its internal mail reader and news reading capabilities have been vastly improved, for those who prefer an all in one tool. Opera now has its own instant messaging tool, something I promise I will not write about in this life, but others find it valuable.
Opera, the company, has grown significantly over the last year and seems robust and profitable. Even its dining room has expanded. They now have their own cook who prepares delicious hot lunches. Some may wonder how Opera can succeed in a world dominated by Internet Explorer. Well first of all, Opera is now available in many flavors: There are versions for BeOS, Linux/Solaris, and Mac. OS/2. QNX and the Symbian OS as well as Windows. In addition Opera has carved out a special niche for itself in the world of hand held web browsing and embedded applications. Among the devices where Opera has obtained a strong toehold are the Psion Revo+ and netBook, the Sharp Zaurus SL-5000D, the Ericsson Screen Phone, the IBM NetVista Internet Appliance and the RSC Technology WebPad as well as the Canal+ Technologies set top-box solution. May Opera live long and prosper.
The move to LGrossman.com
One of the ongoing sagas that has captured my attention has been the steady, sad, demise of the independent ISP. I began to be aware of the problem several years ago when the iconoclastic character who owned my first real ISP, Karl Denninger, sold his company, MCS, to Winstar and moved to Florida. Wise people jumped ship then. But I was stubborn and lazy. MCS was an old line ISP - one of the first. When James Coates of the Chicago Tribune interviewed me for an early piece on the web in 1995, he simply assumed I must be an old unixhead just because that was where I got my service. So, when he wrote about how I used gopher and veronica and archie to help my daughter with her homework, he assumed I was doing it all from the command line. Little did he know I had waited until I could trade up to a 386 to get on the web, just so I could avoid that. I had tried various unix based freenet solutions and was lost.
[Read about those early days in The Pawnshop Special (I jump to Windows) (November, 1994) and Learning to Walk Again --First Steps on the Net (December, 1994) Looking over my columns from that era is a real hoot. They are archived at http://lgrossman.com/mjnk/.
Well, its been more than half a dozen years since then and a lot has changed. MCS turned out to be a solid, if quirky, provider and things went very well. Karl's grating personality drove away many customers, but he cared passionately about the business and strove to make it work. Karl's standard reply when customers complained about technical issues was that the problem must be on the user's end. But miraculously, after the internal newsgroup of MCS subscribers began to show the same problem across platforms and among a lot of users, somehow, the problems would get fixed.
One of the major benefits of MCS was its active newsgroups, which created a community of common interests. Unlike some of the nation wide groups that exist today, the group was small enough that a participant could learn who to trust and who was just blowing steam. Useful help was abundant. That kind of intimacy and trust is not available in the big online newsgroups and forums available today.
During the half dozen years I used MCS, my website collection grew from one or two simple pages, to become an elaborate site, containing over 200 html pages in addition to countless text files and graphics. Through all that, I refused to get my own domain name. "This is a hobby," I said, "Who needs his own domain name. That's just an ego trip. " And it sounded so complicated. Finding a host, selecting a name, registering it, propagating it, moving all of my files . . .
During this time I had subscribed to 's MediaOne for broadband cable access. [So much for the idea that by eliminating this column, I would cut down my online time. Now I was all cable, all the time.] But I still needed my MCS account to host and manage my web pages. MediaOne permitted personal pages, but not personal domains. There was no point in my going to all the trouble of moving my pages and still not having my own domain.
Then came the sale to Winstar and things started to deteriorate. News group access became degraded; Karl's unique spamblocker technology was discontinued. Then, last Spring, eliminated shell access. That should have been the real warning. But still as others left, I was still there to turn out the lights.
Then, early last summer the boom fell. Winstar announced they were going out of the dialup business. Their stock had gone from something like $27.00 to 27 cents. (Rumors have it that Karl cashed out long ago and did not get burned. I hope so. ) We were warned that we had an option to transfer to Earthlink or leave. On a certain date our web pages would disappear. I began to look for a new host. I was terrified. If only I had my own domain name.
Finally one weekend, convinced by an e-mail I had received from Winstar that my websites would be disappearing imminently, I bit the bullet, found a new hosting service, Dreamhost, online and began the process of choosing and registering a domain name and setting up the account. It was tedious, and the host I chose had no voice tech support, so I had to guess whether I was doing things right.
I set up the domain, put up a temporary home page and began the wait for the site to propogate across the nameservers. Then I got a note from a friend in Australia . . . She had reached the new site. Now, as soon as I could see it here in Chicago, I could begin the process of moving hundreds of files. Moments later I reached it, too. I began FTPing hundreds of files into the same directory structure I had at MCS so that at least those pages that had relative links would still link to one another. I wish I had learned about relative links a few years ealier. I am still finding broken links to my old address.
It was tedious work. I was depressed. In the middle of it I received an e-mail. At first I thought it was SPAM and almost deleted it. "You are cordially invited. . . " the subject line read.
It turned out to be the beginning of a wonderful adventure.
But first I got my website moved. I had been getting nearly a thousand visitors a day on my old pages. Now I was getting only a hundred, and half of those were probably me, checking things out. Since I thought the old pages were going to disappear shortly, I hadn't put forwards on my old pages. But as the weeks went by the pages didn't go away. So, one by one I replaced my most important pages with referrers and slowly traffic began to build. I must have put up about half a dozen before the pages did disappear one day, about six weeks later.
My pages ranked highly on Google and some of the other search engines. Now they were still there, but the links were to dead sites. 404 should have been my URL. Has a certain ring, http://404.com/.
My Google rankings are slowly picking up, but even though I have submitted my main pages to the other engines, many have dropped me in their listings.
I wish there was a service that would provide some kind of ghost hosting at my old address and would forward from there. I have written Winstar a number of times asking if they would let me do something like that, at least from the six or seven top pages, since they still own the MCS domain, but they have never even done me the courtesy of saying no. They simply ignore my requests. Still, I didn't know how lucky I was. It could have been much worse.
During recent weeks there have been many stories about the bankruptcy and likely demise of the Excite@Home broadband network. As part of the bankruptcy proceedings, AT&T was negotiating for purchase of @Home's physical network. Comcast and others were in the bidding. There were rumors that @Home would cut off AT&T's access to its facilities as negotiations intensified. On Friday, November 30, 2001, the Bankruptcy Judge authorized @Home to pull the plug. AT&T posted a notice and press releases on its website about what would happen in the event of a shut down. Most notably, it expressly stated that present and former MediaOne Subscribers would not be affected by any service cutback.
[At this point I should note, that over the past few months AT&T has been converting its MediaOne subscribers to @Home. This was also a painful process with much confusion. Subscribers with MediaOne e-mail addresses had to change to @home.com. Personal websites needed new domains. The use of routers or cable gateways to network two or three computers in your home to use one broadband connection had been essentially transparent under MediaOne. To discourage multiple users on one account, the process has been made much more complicated by AT&T since the switch. But the use of home gateways is a story for another time.]
Well, as I have said, I became an AT&T@Home subscriber. Aside from a few issues regarding the use of a cable gateway to network my home system, the transition wasn't too difficult. [Of coure, AT&T did try to interfere with free home networking, but that was another story.
As a recent convert from MediaOne, I was not worried about the posibility of a shutdown. Friday night [November 30], I posted copies of AT&T's reassuring press release in news groups and on mailing lists to users in my area. Many Oak Parkers were slow to go on line. But when they did, many jumped in directly to broadband. For most of us MediaOne was the monopoly of choice (some of us live close enough to the Telco switch to use DSL, but most do not). In recent months, I would say that a huge percentage of e-mail from people active in local affairs has had the MediaOne.net as the domain. I felt good that through a little online research, I was able to let my friends know not to worry.
Then, @Home called AT&T's bluff. According to the news reports, access could be cut as soon as midnight that Friday. Rumors pushed it back to 3 or 4:00 a.m., Saturday morning. The system was still up at 4:30 a.m. (I told you I haven't broken this online habit.) And again at 7:30 when I went to get in the shower. I came back up to my study a little after 8:00. The cable modem was dead. No connections.
More than three quarters of a million AT&T customers had been cut off - maybe more. [I later received a note from another former MediaOne subscriber who told me that the tech support person told him that well over two million subscribers have lost access. I was not able to confirm that report.] AT&T insists that it properly warned its customers by e-mail and telephone. That is simply false. I received no warning. Further, they had expressly told a large subset of their subscribers they would not be affected. It took several hours to get a hold of tech support, which sheepishly admitted, in effect, that they had lied. Perhaps in some other geographic areas, MediaOne subscribers were protected. But the entire state of Illinois was down.
I consider myself lucky. When I set up my domain with Dreamhost, I started using my new domain for e-mail. And my web pages had been moved. Strangely enough, my old MCS e-mail address still works, although it primarily receives ads for penis enlargement and get rich quick schemes. All I needed was a dial-up account and I would be back in business. I could pull my mail through my Yahoo Mail account on anyone else's machine or directly from MCS and LGrossman.com -- if I could get on line. I had prepared. When MCS/Winstar went down, I signed up with Earthlink for a cheap dialup account as a backup.
I had never needed it and had lost the set up parameters, but with a call to Earthlink/Mindstream support, I was soon online. [BTW: If you are having trouble thinking of Christmas presents for someone who has almost everything, get him or her a speaker phone. It is the most essential tool for anyone who has to wait to get through to tech support for all those other things they have.]
I went through immediate high-speed withdrawal. At first I was amazed how fast things go without cable at times, but most of the time it is dismal. My Earthlink account was designed as a cheap back up. It only included ten hours of usage, before hourly charges kick in. I have upgraded the account, but it took several days until the next billing cycle kicked in to change my rates. I am afraid to see the bill. Customer Service kindly confirmed that I could cancel my account and set up a new one, with almost free service for a couple of months, but, I really didn't want to spend another afternoon changing the setup for each of my accounts once I finally got the up again. They gave me a $20 credit. I haven't seen the bill yet.
But, as I said, I was lucky. Many former MediaOne customers have just gone through the trauma of changing their accounts and their e-mail addresses. Now they have had to do it all again. Many accepted AT&T's assurances and did not back up their old web pages. It is certain they will have to move them. It is not clear at this time whether they will be able to reach their old pages to make the back ups. Many, based on AT&T's' assurances, failed to set up alternative accounts. It is amazing how blind and sealed up one can feel when access is lost. The economic losses, and the cost to AT&T's credibility will be immense. Not to mention the simple loss of time and the aggravation and frustration as we reconfigure and reconfigure. Now when mail addressed to MediaOne .net or AT&T@Home.com bounces, try ATTBI.com, AT&T's latest incarnation.
AT&T estimated that restoring service nation wide would take up to seven days or more. Service was first restored in some western states and spread slowly east. In the Chicago area, most of us were offline for about four days, even though they has earlier issued a news release indicating Chicago would be up a day or two sooner. AT&T has promised a rebate of two days charges for every day off line. How presumptuous. Cable is expensive, but when divided into daily charges it is not much. A week's rebate at that rate would come to something like $15. Divided by the hours I have spent getting back on line, which for me was relatively easy, that comes to a mere pittance. Not to mention the cost of alternative service.]
I have long argued that the cable companies should not be content providers. Quite simply they should do no more than maintain the pipe. First of all, the big companies simply do not understand the Internet and how it is used. Each of them supports only one or two browsers, only one or two e-mail clients, they have never heard of third party news group readers. They do not know what the shell is and care less. They refuse to support many of these tools. Let them provide the pipe. Let ISPs or hosting companies provide the rest. Indeed, in effect that is what I have now. The cable and DSL providers would be required to provide simple connectivity directly to the host or ISP of your choice. Nothing more - Nothing less. If that were the case here, thousands of others could do what I have done, simply changed my pipe. It is a nuisance, but I am up and running. Many of my friends are not so lucky.
Nachas is a Yiddish term that means something like the joy one gets from one's family. This tale isn't exactly about family, but it feels like it. Over the years, I have written about the pleasure I have had in actually meeting the people I have known online. Visiting Oslo was partly about that. But this story takes the prize. About half a dozen years ago, I somehow found myself on a small mailing list, the Drivel list. Lynn Alford, who reviews games for WindoWatch, is also on the list. So, too, is Paul Saunders from Tasmania. It seems that at about the same time he was part of an online group called Callaghan's Bar. There he met Susan Martin who lives in Chicago. He visited her here a few times, the first time arriving from the hot Australian summer in the midst of a Chicago blizzard. We all went out to hear good Chicago jazz that time. Well, Paul came back a year or so ago, and they decided to get married. It was with great pleasure that I accepted Paul's invitation to serve as Best Man and act as an MC at the reception and dinner. Little more than a week after the WTC tragedy and saddened by the illness of Susan's father and the fact that Paul's sister and grandmother were unable to attend because of the interruption in air travel, it was still a joyous event, which carried a special message of perseverance and hope in those dark days. Paul's parents and his twin bother did make it, as did a large contingent of members of Callaghan's Bar. It was a very special occasion. I have put a collection of pictures of that day online. I am the guy with the gray (white?) beard, escorting the maid of honor.
In the coming months I hope to return with some regularity. I have missed the chance to put my thoughts online and share with you. Among topics for the future will be reviews of Irfanview, a powerful freeware graphics viewer and editor, and AVG, the free virus protection application from Grisoft, running in the background here, and regularly catching little beasties, without interfering with my regular operations.
I will also discuss my new machine. I have long been famous for writing from the perspective of the have-nots. Until this fall, my fastest machine was a P166 with 64 megs of RAM. But something came over me last September while I was at the monthly computer flea market and show at a local university. Somehow, I came home with a new box with a 1.4 gigaherz Athlon Thunderbird Chip, an ASUS A7A 266 FSB motherboard, 512 megs of DDR RAM and a few other features. Like a 21 inch monitor, CDRW and DVD. I will spare you for now the pain of the discovery, when I got home with that machine, that the vendor had "neglected" to install an operating system and had not included one in the box. To summarize, eventually I wound up with the OS I wanted, Win2Kpro. But there still remain a few tales to tell. I haven't even discovered them all.
A version of this essay originally appeared in the December edition of WindoWatch magazine. There, I promised to try to use cascading style sheets at last. I have been putting myself to sleep each night with Håkon's great book Cascading Style Sheets, Second Edition: Designing for the Web, which contains a very readable refresher course in HTML and a great tutorial on CSS. I want to thank the many friends who have helped with tips and hints about using CSS. If you have suggestions or criticisms about the way I have implemented it here, please drop me a note.
For online information on Cascading Styles Sheets, see the official W3C CSS site. For tips and tools and practical implementation visit glish.com. Other useful sources include Lynn Alford's Best Practices page, as well as W3School's CSS Tutorial, and A List Apart.
You will note that I have not really discussed September 11, here. There is much room for discussion. Lois Laulicht, the editor of this magazine has written powerfully each month in her SoapBox columns. I have written elsewhere (see the October WindoWatch, for example) on some aspects of the situation. The current tendency to disregard principles of laws distresses me. There is much to say. I have been active in MidEast Web, An online world that originally focused on Israeli-Palestinian issues but is now expanding its scope. [The tragic bombings of the recent weeks may cause a refocusing of those efforts.] MideastWeb has a number of active mailing lists including dialog, hard news from many sources, and background and commentary.
One thing worth remarking here, though, is how the Internet has truly grown and developed. While there were many glitches, in the aftermath of the tragedy e-mail connected people who had lost their regular phone lines. We've come a long way since the days when the release of the Star Report brought the Web to its knees. The weblogging has grown in sophistication and in responsibility. While Jorn Barger's Robot Wisdom has continued to sink, mired in hate and anti-Semitism, others have picked up the mantle. One of my favorites is Dan Hartung's Lake Effects. His view on post 9/11 events and politics may be somewhat more sanguine than I would would be, but it is thought provoking and thoughtful . He has collected a set of links to other relevant warblogs on his site. Definitely worth a look.
Visit me at LGrossman.com, the new home of the ModemJunkie's Portal. The Complete Archive of Reflections of a ModemJunkie can be found at LGrossman.com/mjnk/
Copyright 2001 Leonard Grossman
Send your comments or questions to Len@Lgrossman.com
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