Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

The Browsers Must Be Crazy

Jerry Stratton, February 26, 2000

Once upon a time there was a poor tribe living in the Southern Desert. The tribe had nothing to drink except something they called “brackwater”, which tasted and nourished about as you would expect from something with that name.

One day a cargo plane’s pilot misread the latitude and longitude of a drop-off, and they dropped their cargo right in the middle of the tribe’s encampment.

There isn’t supposed to be any tension or anxiety in this story, so I’ll tell you right off, the box contained bottles of fruit juices. It contained juices mainly because I’m not going to write a story about people drinking coke. Can’t stand the stuff myself, unless mixed heavily with rum, which wouldn’t be quite the story I’m going for.

Someone tried the mango-pineapple juice, and immediately a smile spread across his face. Soon, everyone was drinking the juice from the sky. Except one tribemember, who held back and shook his head.

The pilot kept making the same mistake. Every day, the cargo plane dropped a load of fruit juice near the tribal camp. Every day, everyone except one tribemember drank fruit juice instead of brackwater. Finally, the holdout could stand it no longer.

“You shouldn’t be drinking that!” cried tribemember Nujra. “It doesn’t exist at all! And the box is made of wood!”

“But it satisfies,” said one tribesman.

“It nourishes,” said another tribeswoman.

“It cools,” said a tribal child.

“What does the box have to do with it?” asked another child.

“What do you think?” asked Nujra.

“Would you like to try some juice?” they all asked.

“No,” he said, “I prefer brackwater. Juice doesn’t exist. But if it did, you should be drinking locally made tribal juice from the Tribal Standard Juice Company.”

“When did the Tribal Standard Juice Company start making juices?” everyone asked.

“They haven’t,” Nujra said, “but if you’re going to drink juices, that’s what you should drink.”

“How can we drink juices that no one makes?” asked the people.

“That’s none of my business,” said Nujra. “I prefer brackwater.”

So the people went to the Tribal Standard Juice Company representative.

“We like this new juice stuff,” they said.

“We know that,” she replied.

“Then why haven’t you started making juices?” everyone asked her.

“We’re waiting for the fruit to grow,” said the Juice Company Rep. “Give us time.”

“That’s cool,” said the people, and they went back to drinking the juice from the sky.

The boxes kept coming.

“You shouldn’t be drinking that!” cried Nujra, as he held his nose and drank brackwater. “It doesn’t exist! And besides, the box is made of wood!”

“What does the box have to do with it?” one child asked.

“What do you think?” Nujra asked.

“What should we be drinking?” everyone asked.

“You should be drinking brackwater,” he said.

Everyone groaned.

“Juice doesn’t exist, but if it did exist, you should be drinking Tribal Juice from the Tribal Standard Juice Company.”

“But they are waiting for the fruit to grow,” everyone said.

“The fruit doesn’t exist,” said Nujra. “But if it did, it has already grown.”

So everyone headed off to see the Tribal Standard Fruit Company representative.

“Yes,” she said, “the fruit has grown.”

“May we try some of your fruit juice?” they asked.

“No,” she said, “it isn’t ready yet. We must wait for the fruit to ripen.”

“Very well,” the people said, and they went back to drinking the juice from the sky.

The boxes continued to come, filled with their fine juices.

“You shouldn’t be drinking that!” cried Nujra, as everyone except him enjoyed a fine Peach-Banana Combo. “It doesn’t exist! And the box is made of wood!”

One child started to ask him what the box had to do with it, but his mother put her hand over his mouth to stop him.

“Has the fruit ripened yet?” someone asked him.

“Fruit doesn’t exist,” said Nujra. “But if it did, it has ripened.”

So everyone marched off, skyjuice in hand, to see the Tribal Standard Juice Company representative.

“Yes,” she said, “the fruit has ripened. But we still have no juice. Now we must press it and bottle it.”

“For crying out loud,” they asked, “how will we know when your juice is ready?”

“Just drop by once in a while and ask,” she said.

So they did. Everyone continued to drink the juice from the sky, and occasionally dropped in on the Tribal Standard Juice Company to see if the Tribal Fruit Juice was ready.

One day, it was.

Soon, everyone had dropped by the Tribal Standard Juice Company to try their new juice. The Tribal Standard Juice was very good, and cool to the throat. It nourished. Everyone loved it!

“See!” cried Nujra to anyone in earshot whenever he had the chance. “I told you so! That other juice didn’t exist at all. And the box was made of wood!”

“Would you like some fine, cool, nourishing Tribal Standard Juice?” everyone asked Nujra when he said this to them.

“No,” he said, “I prefer brackwater.”

The Browsers Must Be Crazy

I suppose a little background is necessary. This story came out of a discussion on comp.infosystems.www.authoring.html about how closely we should follow standards in web page creation. I am a huge fan of standards, and often slavishly follow them when nearly no one else does. A good standard lets me do this, because a good standard will fail gracefully. Eventually, of course, the browser market will catch up to that standard and then all of my web pages are already taking advantage of it. Some standards don’t do this, however. Not only do they not work now, but they fail in a horrible manner if you use them now. My personal pet peeve is human-readable quotes. Psychologically, “curly” quotes are extremely useful for readability of texts. As writers, we’re pretty desperate for these things. They hold meaning. Imagine a long document composed of dialogue such as:

"What?" "We ain't goin' to do it, darlin'," said Bob.

"Isn't," said Maria. "We isn't goin' ta do it."

It looks so horrible that, before HTML, writers used to do crazy things to get around the lack of human-readable quotes in the ASCII standard:

``What?'' ``We ain't goin' to do it, darlin','' said Bob.

``Isn't,'' said Maria. ``We isn't goin' ta do it.''

Douglas Adams once wrote an article about how important human-readable quotes were, and how much work he had to go through for human-readable quotes. Ironically, this article used to be on his web page, and the on-line version used straight quotes instead of human-readable quotes. I suspect that the reason you can no longer find this article on his website is that he’s just too embarrassed to keep it there like that.

There is a standard for human-readable quotes on the web. In fact, there are three. Unfortunately practically no web browsers use it today as I write this, and even fewer used it in September of 1999 when we had this discussion. To make matters worse, if you, as author, used the standard, you often ended up with question marks or boxes where you wanted the quotes to be!

As it turns out, there is also a nonstandard for human-readable quotes, popularized by Microsoft and Netscape. It is (or was at the time) almost universally supported, and the one instance I was able to find where it wasn’t supported, the browser displayed spaces in place of the quotes. Not optimal, but much better than a question mark. That same browser (HotJava 1.01) also didn’t support the standard. In place of the standard, it displayed a small box. I preferred the space.

In a perfect world, all of the following except for the first one would produce human-readable quotes. As I write this, only the first and last work, and the last one only in the most recent browser versions. Each line should be surrounded by double-quotes. The word ‘quotes’ inside each line should be surrounded by single quotes.

  • “Non-standard ‘Quotes’.”
  • Standard <q> Quotes tag
  • “Standard ‘Quotes’ using &ldquo; and &lsquo;.”
  • “Standard ‘Quotes’ using 4-digit codes.”

Someday all of those will work; they may well work now as you read it. But they didn’t work when I wrote this—except for the “nonstandard” one, which worked everywhere. There comes a time when you have to realize that you’re putting this stuff on-line so that people can read it, not so that you can maintain standards. HTML standards should work in service of ease of use and readability. Where they fail to do that, they should not be used.

I was accused of being a “cargo cultist” because I used what worked, but didn’t have to, instead of what didn’t work, but was supposed to. That is, the standard for human-readable quotes usually didn’t work, occasionally looked horrible when it failed, and didn’t provide any reasonable functionality. The non-standard for human-readable quotes displayed the correct quotes almost universally, and where it didn’t do so it failed in a reasonable manner.

The most vocal opponent of using things that work, who also coined the term “cargo cultist” in that discussion, kept claiming that the working solution didn’t exist, that no solution was necessary, and if a solution was necessary the non-working standard was more than sufficient. Oh, and also, you must be wrong because you should never post Macintosh characters to a Macintosh newsgroup so that a Macintosh user can see what the character looks like on his Macintosh. He never could explain why and it made no sense to me. But following one of my posts in the discussion, I suddenly came up with the following story. I’ve never had a more acute case of “l’esprit d’escalier” and I feared that “Nujra” was going to finally respond in a relevant manner, depriving me of the opportunity of using it.

Fortunately, “Nujra” came through as irrelevant as ever, and I posted the story above.

One cargo cultist signing off…

  1. <- DIVX
  2. None of the Above ->