home |  

How I Learned HTML

In 1998 I loved to get on-line and surf the web. My brother Mike who lived in San Diego at the time, created a monthly newsletter that he called California Breeze and solicited articles from the family to fill up four or six pages which he'd print and snail mail to his siblings and the folks. I wrote an occasional column ("column," that's probably putting too fine a point on it) called "Life On the Line," hoping that the term On Line would be understood as the play on words I intended. I was just highlighting my experience with computers since our first possession of a home computer acquired in August of 1996. At the time I couldn't even conceive of getting involved in a web site of my own. A person really needs content for that. You need to have something to say. And after the family reunion that June of 1998 a Schneider genealogy seemed like a pretty cool thing to "say."

I did experiment with the HTML output of the family tree software I bought, the Ultimate Family Tree (UFT). With a couple hundred names and multitude of stories and other text I had input from documents given to our family by a relative, Richard Schneider, I was amazed to find that the UFT took less than a minute to compile a complete web site, including a Names List and Index. All in all it generated about a thirty-five page web site! I had no idea what HTML was at the time, but I really didn't need to know that to be able to look at the results of this web output. There were no pictures, no graphics of any kind except for the background and bullets and dividing lines, but all of the text was there, all of the family stories were included, and it looked pretty cool! There wasn't a lot I could do with it except to page through it and explore it at home, but I did think that those web pages were pretty neat none the less.

It was later that I thought that a web page really belonged on the web. That seemed pretty intuitive. But I had no way to know how I should do that. However great things often start very slowly. Melissa started creating jewelry using the medium of polymer clay. She made necklaces and earrings and broaches and they really looked marvelous. I took pictures of them to show the family. I found a program on the computer called Front Page Express that helps one "publish to the web" whatever that was supposed to mean. By 1999 I didn't even know what that meant precisely. The thing with many "Express" types of programs, a great many features are lacking, and Front Page Express was no exception. Especially lacking was any type of useful Help file. And since I knew nothing about HTML I was pretty lost; yes, even with this program which was a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) graphical type of application. With such a graphical interface I thought it should have demanded little knowledge of the technical issues. However it proved too much for even a "pre-novice" like me. But it did stimulate my curiosity.

About this time in late 1999 I even subscribed to Homestead. This was an on-line web site building program that gave you free web space and came with a pretty decent web page editor in the process. Even PC Magazine rated it very high for functionality and innovation. I created a few pages for Melissa's jewelry posting some of the very early pictures I shot with my 35mm Olympus OM-1 and had Mystic Photo put on floppies. A few bugs developed in this ointment, though. Using the on-line editor was a pretty slow process on a dial up modem (33kbps!). This was before we got broadband access in Savannah. I also found it a bit difficult to place elements precisely on the page, in the size I wanted, and the colors I wanted. The whole thing soon became so cumbersome I just abandoned it. We would tell people about the web site but I didn't further develop it. I just let it languish.

I became more curious about what I failed to accomplish with Front Page Express and searched the Internet for articles to help me understand HTML, HyperText Markup Language, the simple text code that web browsers translate into a textual and graphical presentation. I soon found a tutorial that would speed me on my way, one that would simplify the whole web page building experience. It was from Maricopa Center for Learning and Instruction, from Maricopa Community Colleges, called Writing HTML. It was found at http://www.mcli.dist.maricopa.edu/tut/ but is gone now. You can find another good instruction site called HTML Dog at http://htmldog.com/. One of the fabulous things about this was that the whole tutorial could be downloaded and worked on at home, off line, at one's own pace. The other slick thing about this program was that it taught real HTML, it explained why the code operated as it did, and had you create a real group of web pages in the process. That way you could see how all the elements worked together and you ended up with a few cohesive web pages that were ready for posting on the Internet. It was an eye opening experience for me.

I was amazed at the fact that I really understood what HTML language was all about. And I discovered that it really isn't all that complicated. I mean, if I could understand it surely it couldn't be all that difficult! I used what I discovered in that tutorial and combined that knowledge with the next big thing in the World Wide Web: Free Web host Providers. Yahoo, Geocities, and many others, promoted the give-away of web space to anyone who wanted to throw a web page on the Internet. And many did exactly that, they registered for some free service, threw one line of meaningless text on it, used the tacky background graphics that came with their basic html editors and called it a web site. I thought, "Hey, I can do this!" So I did. Minus the element of "tacky" I trust.

I don't know where I found the GO network. It was probably from using it's free email application. I noticed Go.com's free Homepage capability. I checked out what was needed to post a web page on line and soon had Melissa's first real web site "Go"ing (sorry about that!). After a couple of weeks I had a half-dozen web pages on-line with a lot of pictures of her jewelry. And so it happened that by the middle of the year 2000 I was full bore into developing a simple but functional web site. And things spring boarded from there.

Since I was having so much fun with Melissa's site I thought I'd create one for me. The content would be sharing some of the more remarkable things that I considered to have transpired in my life. Like surviving adolescence and making it to the age of twenty-five. Graduating from college was another, from someone who barely passed high school! And there was "getting married" (a lot of stories can come from that topic!). And how could I forget singing in Carnegie Hall. Yes, I meant on stage, in a live performance! Another was moving to Savannah, Georgia from Ann Arbor, Michigan. So I started small again, and put a few stories on the net under the pseudonym Storypile and it grew bit by bit (again, no pun intended) from there. I also came across all of the old letters I received while I was in the US Army back in 1972 through 1974. I started re-reading them and was fascinated by the visualizations of events that transpired over twenty-five years ago. I thought, these would be great on the web. So I typed them up and posted them. They reveal a lot about my mom and dad and brothers and sisters and those early years of 1970. Some may think they might reveal a little too much but I am quite proud of them for writing to me some really amazing, sometimes profound, sometimes heart wrenching, letters. There is quite a sense of sharing of the soul through the reading of them.

After a year or so GO dot com up and died. After the turn of 2001 and the creeping hand of death that claimed many internet companies, GO gave some warning that they would soon be discontinuing their free Homepage presence. It just wasn't a viable economic entity for Disney which had acquired them from Infoseek a year or so ago. This left thousands of people in the lurch; what were they to do with their web sites? Since I had mine on my own computer, and only uploaded complete files to them I could easily take my site elsewhere. The vast majority used the on line editor and the only copy of their files existed on Go's servers. But where would I take my pages? It was time I thought about getting my own domain name. My own "dot com." I had given Melissa her own domain name for a year 2000 Valentine's Day gift as a kind of fun gag; I really didn't think I would be able to do anything with it. I did, however, want to claim the "company" name she was calling her jewelry creations: Piece of the Sky Designs but is now working under Sweet By'n By. So I found a very inexpensive domain registrar and bought this two year dot-com. Since it was so cheap ($12 a year) and by March, 2000, the time GO promised to die, I was going to be needing a place to put her web site and mine I thought I might as well get a domain for myself and find someplace to host them. That story is told in a little more depth at Put Your name on the Web so I wouldn't want to be redundant here. But the action put the finishing touches on my web development.

That's not to say I don't have plenty to learn. In fact I am still really barely scratching the surface of web page creation. I only use the elementary HTML hand coding along with Cascading Style Sheets. There are so many scripts (like Pearl and php) and other web languages available that I have little idea how to use. However the little I do know works just fine for my purposes. And that is to tell a simple story of the extraordinary in words and pictures.

And that about wraps up this story. I should give credit to the many people that have helped me along the way. Especially the individuals I met on GO.com's Homepages message board like Chloe Williams and Firefly. There were some fascinating people there from around the globe and most were very wiling to help answer questions or just chat. It was a highlight of the GO Homepage experience, and one of the saddest things about its demise, the breakup of that community. However, there is a remnant of GO's message board left at http://boards.go.com/cgi/tea/request.dll?LIST&room=homepagesfeedbac You can still go there [oops! 1/30/03 -- not any more!] and read the last few months worth of posts. It's a real tragic/comic tale of one companies demise and the trail of tears it left its customers. One of these customers, Firefly, started another message board at www.voy.com/13264/ to help other lost Homepages members find alternatives and keep some semblance of belonging, but even that is now long gone. And a whole slew of other message boards abound. The one on my web host WordlZone is pretty lively and is often a fun place to go to gab and to learn. [Update 3/2009 - not any more, Worldzone, as a host provider, has been dying for a while now, and I've moved away from this host to go elsewhere] It is this sharing of one's self that lies behind the whole web experience. You paste yourself on the web, made in an image of your own choosing, in order to share with the larger community. There is great value and fun in that. Just beware of the kooks!

last edited, May 27, 2010

home |