Struggling to validate my CSS and XHTML earlier it occurred to me that once again I was up against the limits of my own ability faced with increasingly complicated machinery.

Time was, not all that long ago it seems, that I wrote books on a lovely Apple ][, pimped with external dual floppy drives and a hulking, gorgeous Radio Shack daisy-wheel printer. It was exciting, and so empowering after punching a thesis on cards that I handed over to the priesthood to run on an IBM 370.

Who cared that the green-screen display was ALL CAPS? Not me! Especially not after a pal, who went on to considerably bigger and better things, wrote a little program in assembler that not only released the power of lower case but also did word wrap. We ruled, even over the departmental dudes with their cupboard sized PDP 8s and 12s.

I handed in the typescript of one of those books, and the editor told me it was too long, that the contract had specified 80,000 words and this was about 100,000. Horrified, I worked out in a matter of minutes how to do a word-count program in Basic, and in less than an hour, after some preliminary testing, set it to work on the Foreword. Later -- much, much later -- it spat out an answer, and I realized that if I was going to live to learn the end result I would have to find something faster than Basic.

It was a short walk up Praed Street to the local technobook store. I bought one on 8086 assembler, devoured it, and by the next morning had a lightning fast little subroutine in my Basic program that gobbled up whole chapters and spat out the answer in a matter of minutes. Very close to 80,000. The editor was impressed on Monday morning, and agreed that perhaps she wasn’t used to dealing with typescripts from a computer, and that was why she had mistaken its extent.

It’s a truism to note that hardware and software have grown more complex since then, and mostly that is just fine. I don’t need to do word wrap, or lower case display, or word counts any more because no program would dream of shipping without that, and more. Of course there has also been phenomenal bloat, so that most programs do much, much more than I need them to. That’s not a new observation either. Different people want their programs to do different things, so the programs try to satisfy all, and there’s no way, as an individual, to get rid of the bits I don’t want or need. I just deal with it, mostly.

But then, back at the cutting edge, I come up against what are in principle the same sorts of problems. I want my blog pages to look nice, and to look unlike other peoples’. Pure vanity, I know, but there it is. I want people to see my photos outside the somewhat inelegant confines of flickr, useful and wonderful though flickr is. Sensibly, perhaps, flickr does not allow me to customize my pages. And when my own attempts look like shite, I assume I can fix it, wait for an opportunity, and dive beneath the hood.

Trouble is, I no longer know what I am doing. My file lacks the right doctype? But what the hell is a doctype and why does it matter? It would take far longer than a stroll to the bookshop and a couple of hours to understand. All the resources of the internet, and I still don’t know why I should choose one doctype over another and what the costs and benefits of my decision will be.

Wordpress and falbum produce valid code out of the box. Most of the errors are with other little things that I’ve introduced, silly little things like tags and quotes and stuff. I could fix them, I suppose, given the time and inclination. But why bother? It is hard to find a succinct explanation of why valid code is such a marvel to behold. Especially when the page seems to look more or less reasonable. And I don’t have hordes of readers complaining either. So what’s the point?

Don’t get me started about different browsers either.

I really do not mean to sound like one of those old farts whose memories are perfused with the warm glow of perfection. Things are better now. And yet ...

If I were doing this sort of thing for a living (which, truth be told, I’d quite like to do, except that kids half my age, kids for whom cut and paste are dead metaphors, make it all but impossible) it would be important, the design equivalent of good grammar. But I’m not, and all I feel is frustration.

I know, I know ... I should just get over it, and I am trying, but it is hard to feel so out of control so much of the time.

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