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March 10, 2005

HTML for Commenters

If you want your comments to look spiffy, and the site that you're visiting accepts HTML in comments - not all do - there are a few HTML tags that can make all the difference. They are: <p>,<i>,<b> and <a>.

But before I tell you how to use them, let me say a word about HyperText Markup Language - HTML. The word is "markup." HTML may look like a code, but in computer terms that's exactly what it's not. HTML is not an application - what laymen used to call "a program." It is simply a body of conventions that your browser, which is an application, utilizes in arranging the display of text. Traditional markup language is directed at (human) printers - make this a paragraph, italicize that word, and so on - and that's pretty much the role that your browser plays. To learn more about HTML, search Google "about HTML," or click here.

Let's see the foregoing as your browser sees it.

<p>But before I tell you how to use them, let me say a word about
<i>HyperText Markup Language</i> - HTML. The word is: markup. HTML looks like a
code, but in computer terms that's exactly what it's not. HTML is not an
application - what laymen used to call &quot;a program.&quot; It is simply a body of
conventions that your browser - which very much <i>is </i>an application -
utilizes in arranging the display of text. Traditional markup language is
directed at (human) printers - make this a paragraph, italicize this word, and
so on - and that's pretty much the role that your browser plays. To learn more
about HTML, search Google &quot;about HTML,&quot; or  click<b>
<a href="" style="text-decoration: none">

Being a cunning fellow, I have contrived to use all four of the useful tags in this paragraph. The first tag, "<p>," marks a paragraph. You will observe the tag "</p>" at the end. If the tag without a slash means "begin," "start," or "on," the slashed tag means "end," "stop," or "off." The slashed tags are not always necessary, but because you cannot neglect them altogether it is best to get into the habit of making sure that they're there. The contents of the paragraph are thus bracketed by <p> and </p>.

Simple, no? You won't need a degree in brain surgery to figure out that "<i>" marks italics or that "<b>" marks boldface. As with <p>, the word(s) that you want to appear in italics or boldface must be bracketed by tags: <i></i>, <b></b>. That leaves "<a>."

<a> is the hyperlink tag. It is arguably the most important tag in HTML, the essence of the Web's magic. Like all other tags, it simply directs your browser to display something in a certain way. But where <i>, say, calls for italicizing a word, <a> calls for your browser to find another page (or another part of the same page) and to display that. Unlike the other three tags, <a> has a host of attributes, or variables, and you need to know at least one of these: "href." This stands for "hyperlink reference" (I think), and it's the attribute that specifies the address of the page to which you want to present a link. You will see, in the paragraph above, that there is also a "style" variable; its function here is to prevent your browser from underlining the link, which it is programmed to do automatically. (Years of wishing that typewriters could print italics have made me detest underlining in almost all cases.) You don't need to worry about style, though, so ignore it.

Notice that the address of the site - it's URL - is placed within quotation marks. Notice, also, that attributes, unlike tags, don't require bracketing: there is no "/href." Notice the use of the "=" sign; this is not negotiable. Using a hyphen or a dash will get you nowhere. The pound sign ("#") in the address signifies a bookmark or anchor - a specific position on the page. All such marks must have their own names, and in this case the name is "h-2.2". If you further questions about the contents of the <a> tag, ask me, by posting a comment to this entry. As a matter of course, if you wish to insert a hyperlink into a comment - and I encourage you to do so wherever a link might enrich your comment - you will simply copy the contents of your browser's Address box - the URL of the page to which you wish to present a link - and paste it directly onto your comment. You don't really need to know what the address means. You do need to be careful about the order of nested tags, as, for example, the nesting of <b> and <a> above. Typing "</b></a>.</p>" at the end would goof things up.

Let me emphasize that HTML is simple but unforgiving. Typos or omissions are fatal. That's why there's a "Preview" button. Previewing un-marked-up comments can be misleading; you don't necessarily see what your comment will look like when you actually post it. Marked-up comments, in contrast, are WYSIWYG.

Many bloggers (and Web site owners as well) use text-editing software to handle tagging. Text-editing software marks up normal text automatically, saving the marked-up version in a file with the extension "htm" or "html." When I publish an entry, I copy the markup and paste it into a window on my copy of Movable Type. I do the same when I write comments. If you plan to do a lot of commenting, it might be worth your while to look into a text-editing package. But whatever you do, don't compose your comments in the Comment box! Use Notepad - standard on all PCs; I don't know the name of the Mac counterpart - and write out your comment there. Then copy and paste it into the Comment box. Comment box contents are unbelievably ethereal, and may vanish if you toggle to another window. So don't do it.

If you are that rarest of creatures, the whizbang genius who doesn't know any HTML yet, you may have wondered how I made the marked-up paragraph appear as a block quotation, indented from both margins. As a dash of whipped cream on this delicious sundae of information, I will tell you: the paragraph is bracketed by <blockquote> tags. Paragraphs (<p> tags) are nested within block quotations (<blockquote> tags).

Now, take two aspirin with a glass of cool water and have a nice lie-down. Your head ought to be spinning. Print this entry and keep it handy. Ask questions. But don't operate heavy machinery anytime soon.

Posted by pourover at 11:41 AM | Comments (2)

March 09, 2005

Comments: I

To my mind, making it possible for readers to comment directly upon what they've read, and, by the same technological token, publishing those comments, thus expanding the original piece of writing in unforeseen ways and to unforeseen dimensions - these aspects of the Comments feature of a Web log mark an epoch in the history of literacy itself. That sounds grandiose, and it may well be mistaken. But I think not. Comments have certainly begun to change the spirit in which I write. Like every writer since the introduction of cuneiforms, I used to write for unseen, unknown readers, only a very tiny fraction of whom could ever be expected to respond. Now I write with the flavor of comments that I've received very much in my mind. Again like any writer, I crave proof that what I've written has actually penetrated other people's skulls. Unfortunately, I've become greedy. I find that I want more. I want conversation.

Because it is what I do, I forget that writing can be hard work. (I try to forget that writing is ever hard work for me.) Writing requires thinking, and publishing what you've written drags vanity into the picture. And I'm aware that the cool factor of a given site is perhaps the most powerful prompter of commentary. Just as no New Yorker wants to pay for a meal at a backwater restaurant, so no blog visitor wants to post a comment that nobody but the site owner will ever read. What I have to say about comments takes the foregoing as understood. I also want it to be understood that I am not setting forth rules for visitors at my sites. I'm suggesting guidelines for being a good visitor at any site.

First of all, it is never improper, and always welcome, to say "thanks" to a blogger whose work you enjoy. Because every comment, even the most critical, is an expression of gratitude, I'm specifically addressing visitors who never comment, for whatever reason. You might not, to carry forward my analogy, wish to pay for dinner at an empty restaurant - unless, of course, you like the food, in which case the restaurant will probably not remain empty indefinitely. Just because you're invisible (and you're not, really; at a minimum, your visit leaves a trace on the tracking service) does not excuse you from the moral obligation to say "thanks."

Moral obligation? Since when? Well, since the invention of blogging software. So forgive yourself for not having seen that visiting a Web log is different from any other kind of reading. The blogger is more or less permanently saying, "You're welcome" - meaning you. Exactly you, not the guy standing behind you. You and the blogger may not know one another (yet), but the relationship is quite real.

Besides, have you stopped to think how agreeable it is to give pleasure?

Don't say "thanks" if you don't mean it: if, that is, a site leaves you cold or indifferent. Just keep moving to more congenial spots.

Once you've gotten used to saying "thanks" every once in a while, consider other pleasantries - formulaic, perhaps, but most welcome when sincere - such as "Nice post," "Well said," or "I agree!" I suspect that you will soon find yourself adding details.

Bloggers don't expect you to write fluently. They hope that you will write as clearly as you can, and that you resist the temptation to "think out loud" - "writing silently" is much preferred. And bear in mind that vanity is useful only when it's positive - when it inspires us to look good and behave well. Withholding comment because you don't think that you'll make as good a showing as other commenters is always wrong. It's your spirit that counts, not your rhetoric.

So: hie to the nearest Comment box and say "Thanks." No one will think that you're stupid or unimaginative or lazy - nobody besides you, that is. If I'm the recipient of the Comment, you can be sure that I won't be carping. Mind, it's not that I want thanks in particular. It's just that any acknowledgment is welcome, and "thanks" happens to be universally appropriate - as well as very, very easy.

Posted by pourover at 08:55 PM | Comments (2)

March 02, 2005

Links and Permalinks

I have a hunch that it may prove useful to have a separate category for certain kinds of letters - letters in which I try to explain something to somebody in an unsystematic way. Having taken forever to grasp the concept of the permalink myself, for example, I'm acutely aware of the permalink concept's rebarbative effect on persons over forty-two such as myself. Here, then, is a highly edited letter to a friend from several months ago, when I was writing about permalinks on my own Daily Blague.

Whenever you see an interesting post, sending the permalink is preferable, because although you may think that a site is always interesting, it’s unlikely that everybody else, even among your friends, will feel the same way, at least with a variety show like the Daily Blague. You might, for example, have really liked what I wrote about a movie, only for your friend to clink the main address link to be confronted by a discussion of the Augustinian settlement. It might just as easily be the other way round. As a regular visitor, you're used to the particular range of posts that appear there. A first time visitor has no sense of range. And in our busy times, it’s not a good selling point to say, as a close friend sometimes does when people ask her to explain the site, that the DB is about everything. I can’t tell you how honored I am that she feels this way, and I would never ask her not to say it. But her sense of comprehensiveness isn’t necessarily what a stranger will conjure when hearing that “everything.” A stranger may just as easily think “miscellany” or “dog’s breakfast.”

If you’re thinking of recommending a site to friends, therefore, you might send them,  instead of thelatest post or the general address, the permalink to a post that you think they’d really like, as, for example, a page about Mozart.

The permalink, in short, is a precision instrument at a time when precision is more than just helpful.

The heading sounds like Masques et Bergamasques, no?

Posted by pourover at 11:13 PM | Comments (0)

March 01, 2005

What is a blog?

A blog is a Web log - a journal that's published on the World Wide Web. The kids who started keeping such logs came up with the abbreviation, which I don't much care for, but there you are. In France, some writers call their blogs carnets, using a word that can mean "little black book," if you're old enough to remember that phrase.

What is a blog? There are really two questions here:

1. What is a blog?

2. What's the difference between a Web site and a Web log?

It's useful to answer the second question first. Initially, there was no difference. But accompanying the growth in blogging activity was the development of software designed to make blogging more interactive.

For Web sites, you see, are not interactive. A Web site is a collection of pages, at least one of which is named "index.htm." You may or may not see that name in the upper corner of your browser, but that's the universal front page marker. There may or may not be other pages. Navigation - the means for directing your browser from one page to another within a Web site - is handled by hyperlinks, those patches of text that are usually underlined but that may appear in bold type. Hyperlinks are not "interactive." You can't interact with - change - a Web site unless you own it and have access to the server on which it is stored. If you want to comment on a Web page, you have to contact the author outside of the browser, whether by email, snail mail, telephone, or smoke signals. Trust me: you won't bother, unless by chance you're  extraordinarily interested. Even friends will only write the very occasional note of appreciation. Web sites are unidirectional: the owner addresses the visitor. To operate a Web site, all you need is a text editor - if you know your HTML tags, the "Notepad" accessory that's standard on all PCs will do this job - a file transfer protocol program to copy the files on your computer to a Web host server, and some rented space on a Web host server. It's very simple, really, but now that we're in the age of blogs, you're unlikely to set up a personal Web site. I wonder if I'd have bothered with one myself. To see my Web site, click the Portico link on the sidebar - the white column to the left. (I could, of course, put a link to Portico right here, but give the one that's already there a try.)

If you have any question about the foregoing, post a comment. What does this mean and how do you do it? We'll get to that presently. But for the time being, type out your question somewhere, preferably on your computer so that you can paste it into the comment block later.

This is not the place to describe the development of blogging software. You needn't be concerned with it unless you want to start your own blog, and if you're finding any of this material new, hold off on setting up a blog. All you have to know is that Web logs are more complicated than Web sites because the pages are arranged not by the site owner but by dedicated software that also enables other features that will not be found on a plain Web site. And what would these be?

Now we can answer the first question, and we are going to answer it in reply to a vistor's query. There are lots of things - oh, dear, how many things! - about a Web log that no visitor ever needs to know. But there are two aspects of a blog that make blogging far more interesting for everybody than running or visiting a Web site can be. These are comments and permalinks.

Comments are really the life of any Web log, and I am going to talk about comments at length. Right now, we're going to focus on mechanics. To post a comment, find the "Comments" link at the bottom of this post and click it. Your browser will blink, and the sidebar will disappear. So will everything else, it may seem. But don't worry about anything but posting your comment.

First, enter whatever information is required. Miss Gostrey's Guide doesn't ask for much. You may type in "Anonymous" if you like, or make up a name. If you decline to post your own email address, then mine will appear in its place. If you have a Web site of your own and would like to post a link to it, you don't need to be reading this. So: type a name, and then move the cursor into the Comment block. Rather than ask you to think of something to say, I'm going to suggest that you write Thank you, Miss Gostrey. (Why not cut and paste the words?) Then, just to be safe, click on the "Preview" button; your comment will appear at the top of the page. Once you're satisfied that the comment is correct, click on "Post."

Nothing may happen for a few seconds; if the server is busy, your comment may take thirty seconds or so to be processed. But eventually the browser will blink again, and your comment will appear below all the preceding comments.

You will also note that at the top of the page there are some new navigational pointers, one of which will be "Main." To return to the site as you saw it when you arrived, click on this. Voilà: the sidebar reappears. But your comments vanish. Don't worry; they're still there.

Permalinks provide permanent access to the individual pages in a Web log. When a blogger posts a new entry, a new page is created in the blog's archives. For a certain period, fixed by the author - generally a week or two - the new page will also appear on the blog's index page. You'll recall what index pages are from my remarks on Web sites. Web logs have them too, for Web logs are Web sites with additional features, not alternative ones. At the end of the fixed period, the once-new page, which will have drifted post by post toward the bottom of the index page as new ones are posted after it, will simply vanish. But it will remain accessible indefinitely, in the archives. So if somebody sends you a permalink to my site, and you don't get around to checking it out for six weeks, not to worry. Whether you follow the permalink five seconds after it appears in your inbox or six months later, you'll see the same material. Now, click on the "Permalink" link, below. Once again, the browser blinks and the sidebar disappears. But this time, you're back at the top of this post and the heading What is a blog? If you scroll down, you'll eventually come to the end of the post and a section about "Trackbacks." Ignore that and keep scrolling until the comments begin to appear (if there are any - and, if you've followed this guide so far, there ought to be!), with the Comment block at the very end. This is in fact the very same page on which you posted your comment earlier, only in that case the "Comments" link took you to a particular line of the page. Permalinks, in contrast, always present you with the top of a page. I hope that you'll see that this arrangement makes excellent sense.

If you look at the Address or URL box of your browser - the long space where you type in the addresses of sites that you want to visit - before and after clicking on "Permalink," you will notice that there's a lot more address after. That's because the before address simply points your browswer to the blog's index page (which is understood, so it doesn't have to appear in the box). The after address points your browser to the particular page, buried somewhere in the archive, on which the entry that you want a permalink for appears. It is this longer address that you might use to send to a friend, along with a note, "Can you believe how stupid this guy is?" Well, no, we don't talk like that here. But when your friend clicks on that address, his or her browser will point straight to the permalinked page. This means that you don't have to tell your friend to go to such and such a site, then click this, then that, then scroll down a hundred yards. Friends, even good friends, don't bother to follow such instructions. Not unless there's a winning lottery number at the end of the trail.

To copy the permalink, highlight the contents of the Address box and copy them to your clipboard. (There will be several ways of doing this, one of which, presumably, you've already come to prefer. This is not a primer on GUIs.) Paste the selfsame link onto an email, and surround it with explanatory comment so that your correspondent will have some idea of what to expect. (Although the problem will never arise here, it is important, when sending the permalinks of racy sites, to warn friends that the material at the other end of the link may not be "work appropriate." This is always to be pointed out in connection with pages that load to the sound of music, or other audio effects, no matter how pleasing to you.) Send.

Once again: any questions? Be bold; hide beyond "Anonymous." You may even ask me to delete your comment, and, if I think that there's anything remotely embarrassing about it, such as some howlingly misspelled word or nine line breaks in a row, I'll either fix the problem or delete the post, depending on my blood pressure. But do ask. You really have nothing to lose, and everybody starts out knowing nothing.

Posted by pourover at 08:57 PM | Comments (6)