"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 16 February 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Xanadu Redux, Part I



The World Wide Web Consortium

could learn a few things from



[Question Marks]

Not about the lack of

bidirectional links, versioning,

transclusion, transcopyright,

or the remainder of the

Microsoft Word-long laundry list

of features outlined in Where

World Wide Web Went Wrong (get

it?), but about the use of

appropriate literary metaphors.


[Ted Nelson]

Ted Nelson's Xanadu got it right -

name your technical project

after a drug-induced poem that

was never completed (or, as

some literary critics argue, was

never meant to be completed)

and follow suit with a series of

confused ramblings and

managerial blunders, jettisoning

several million dollars for

"development" in the process

to secure the legend. Then,

exile yourself and your

followers to Pacific Rim

countries, and redefine your

product as a licensable

"concept," not a technology.

Never shipping product will only

cement your reputation of being

too far ahead of anybody's time.


[Tim Berners-Lee]

The Tim Berners-Lee-led band of

implementing heretics made the

mistake of veering from the path

set out by Nelson into the true

madness of attempting to make

the dream real. Luckily,

Netscape came along to save the

Web from itself, and when we can

all browse the networked

hypertext universe with set top

boxes and remote controls, the

world will once again be safe

for visionaries like Ted.



But the Berners-Lee legacy of

the W3 Consortium still has a

chance at making history - not

through creating "standards"

that will be routinely ignored

by those who actually control

the Web (or ignored by Netscape,

which amounts to the same thing),

but by drawing up specifications

that, in their own disregard for

market realities, challenge the

status quo by demonstrating the

impossibility of all situations.

Like any piece of performance

art, the W3C should reject its

marginalization by embracing it.



To those ends, the W3C is already

well on its way, with three

draft specifications that, taken

together and with slight

modifications, can set out a

bold new path for academic

efforts on the Web.



Perhaps the W3C's strongest

pending spec is Dave Ragget's

"The HTML3 Table Model." A

master rhetorician, Dave truly

shines when unhampered by

technical details in his "design

rationale" section: "For the

visually impaired, HTML offers

the hope of setting to rights

the damage caused by the

adoption of windows based

graphical user interfaces."

Insight like that, of course,

takes true vision.


[Triple Ws]

The most appealing aspect of

Dave's "specification," however,

is that it's based entirely on

fantasy; as every schoolboy

knows, the only good thing a

table can be used for is a

page layout grid. Dave's text

resonates with the same perverse

beauty as a pierced scrotum -

art unfettered by outmoded

notions of "practicality" or




Tables in HTML might have less to

do with page design and more to

do with rows and columns of

numbers if it weren't for the

spectacular failure of style

sheets. The cascade effect of

the W3C's "Cascading Style

Sheets, level 1" - unveiled a

year too late last winter in

that city of dreams, Paris,

France - couldn't have been

better planned. By then, page

layout via tables and

Netscapisms like FONT SIZE had

become entrenched, making style

sheets an excellent standards-

committee product - not only in

its simple elegance, but also in

its superfluousness and



[W3C News]

Admittedly, there might be

certain benefits to using style

sheets, but Netscape

representatives have stated that

they have no plans of

implementing them, so never

mind. True luminaries such

as those at the W3C, though,

would continue to revise and

polish the specification, using -

in a Xanadu style that could only

belong to Olivia Newton-John -

the browser mode of the Unix

text editor, Emacs, as a

reference implementation for the

mostly graphical style sheets.

The apex of the committee's work

on style sheets, however, may be

Joe English's poem on the

subject, which should remain

forever true:

"So tell me then, what does it   
   look like?"                   
Afraid I can't - nobody knows!   
I guarantee you're gonna love it,
Just wait and see, that's how it 


Had style sheets succeeded,

tables might have served their

intended role better if there

were ways to represent

mathematical formulas in HTML -

after all, rows and columns of

numbers are often produced

through the application of

numerical equations.

Unfortunately, after four years

of Web development, we still

don't have mathematical entities

to represent things like

division signs - but the W3 has

given us a spec for "HTML

predefined icon-like symbols,"

with shamelessly bad classics

like &sadsmiley;, sure to put

blink to shame if they were ever

to be implemented in a Web

browser that's actually used.

Luckily, there's no chance of



[Waste Paper Basket]

We'd like to offer a humble

suggestion for a further

extension to HTML, to build upon

the W3C's fine work: the ability

to place an ampersand in front

of any word in the English

language. Any word preceded by

an ampersand would indicate

that the browser should generate

the proper icon-like symbol for

the word, allowing the user to

determine size and color, if

desired. If these icon-like

symbols, or "glyphs," would see

widespread use, content could be

further abstracted, rendering it

more accessible to those with

basic literacy and comprehension



Ted would be proud.

courtesy of Webster