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George Schreyer's Web Site FAQ

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I've received some questions about how I created this site so I am answering them in bulk here. The creation and maintenance of this site is actually pretty straightforward. I'm not sure how interesting this information is, but here it is anyway.


Contents


The Large Scale Trains Pages History

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This site first started on GeoCities in 1997 but I bailed when Yahoo! took over. Yahoo! messed up big time in their transition and locked me out of my own site for over a month. Their customer service was miserable. Even though they later changed their policy, at one time they claimed rights to the content of my site in violation of my copyright. I will never deal with them again. I moved to Tripod for about a year, but I left when they changed their terms of service and would no longer serve images outside their own site. I have been on TrainWeb since November 1999 and I am completely happy with their service. Not only are their servers fast, the server space used by this site is absolutely free with no set size limits.

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My HTML Philosophy

I roll my own HTML using a Macintosh. I use plain old text editor to write my HTML. Any plain text editor will do, word processors are less desirable. Newer versions of Word are HTML savvy, but also have problems trying to save a text file with an extension of anything other than .TXT. Word also has a distorted idea of what HTML should be. If you should make the mistake of saving the file while in the HTML view in Word 97, it will completely trash your code and turn it into some Microsoft-like abortion that doesn't get close to HTML specs. Even MS Office for OS X messes with HTML in unacceptable fashions.

You'll notice that this whole site is constructed with minimal flash. My site design philosophy emphasizes content and then function over form. Fancy graphics load slower and don't really add to the page content. Graphic buttons don't actually work any better than text buttons and they take longer to load. Loud colors often conflict with the content. Loud or complex backgrounds actually detract from the readability of a page. Animated graphics do little to enhance the content and take time to load. I hear enough background music in elevators, it doesn't need to be placed on web sites.

I use perhaps 25 different HTML tags in the whole site. Each page looks much like the others as I create new pages by copying old ones and I change only the content.

The pages are written without any FONT attributes because I don't know which fonts are installed on any target system. Also, the user has selected a default font which he/she presumably likes so I let the browser use the default. I don't use any hard page width features (except the natural width of some of the larger graphics). I let the browser determine how to lay out tables and where line and page breaks should be. The plain gray (or white in some cases) background is easy for the browser to suppress during printing and is easy on the eyes as it doesn't contrast with the content. This makes all the pages somewhat printer friendly.

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Development Hardware

My main development hardware is a white 500 MHz iBook running OS X. I find the Macintosh platform to be much more stable than the alternative and it doesn't do all the weird things that "that other OS" does. There may not be as many software titles available for the Mac, but the ones that are available are generally of higher quality and are easier to use than titles for the PC. Further, many of the really good ones are either freeware or shareware. Macintosh hardware seems to have a much longer service life than PC hardware. Several of my computers are more than 7 years old and with a little inexpensive upgrading are still fast enough to do the job.

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Software Tools

My text editor of choice is BBEdit Lite. This is a virtually perfect tool for working with any kind of source document that contains no internal formatting and is entirely adequate for most users. For true power users, the full version of BBEdit is considered to be the preferred weapon of choice.

While I was still using OS 8.6 or 9.1, I used SpellTools to spell check the HTML as it doesn't trip on the tags like my old version of Word does. I also used either Netscape Navigator or iCab to interpret and display the site locally to check for format and to make sure that the links work. iCab is a Macintosh browser that also does a first level check on the format of the HTML to verify that it complies to the version of HTML identified in the DOCTYPE tag.

I usually write to HTML v3.2 with a few pages written to the 4.0 or 4.01 Transitional standard. However, I found that not all browsers interpret 4.0 or 4.01 standard code properly so I really try to stick to the HTML 3.2 standard as it seems to work properly in all browsers. Internet Explorer 4 seems to have the most difficulty with some legal constructs in HTML 4.01. After a page is complete, I use HTML Tidy (available for most platforms at Raggert's) to do a more formal check of the HTML. I run Tidy as a Filtertop filter so that I can batch process files by just dragging a bunch of them and dropping them on a Tidy filter. Tidy is also available as a tool within BBEdit Lite. After Tidy approves, I use Fetch, a Macintosh FTP utility, to upload the site to TrainWeb. Sometimes I run the page through the W3C validator as a final check on the correctness of the HTML, but if Tidy approves, the W3C checker usually does too.

Note that BBEdit Lite, SpellTools, Netscape Navigator, iCab, Tidy and Fetch in their current forms are all freeware or shareware for the Macintosh. You can build a very effective HTML development environment for $zip.zero. You can find the latest versions of these applications, or any other Macintosh application, at VersionTracker.com.

Those Mac users that have moved to OS X will find that their tools will need updating. Fetch 4, GraphicConverter 4.4, BBEditLite 6.1 are available in Carbon or Cocoa to run on OS X. Spelltools has not received an update, but if BBEditLite ever goes to Cocoa, it will work with the OS X built in spell check utility. There is a Carbon spell checker, Excalibur that does a good job under OS X. It will also batch check files if they exist in the same folder. It is not naturally HTML aware so that you have to teach it the tags first or load its HTML library. There is a Tidy plug in for BBEdit Lite so that BBEditLite 6.1 will also do HTML checks. OmniWeb (shareware) is a good browser for OS X for those of you that don't want to use Internet Explorer or iCab. GraphicConverter will do everything that you need for graphics conversions. I use MacDraw Pro to draw line art, but it is ancient, and even its successor, ClarisDraw, is obsolete. AppleWorks on OS X has a drawing utility but unfortunately it has serious bugs in the drawing package making it nearly useless. There are other good drawing programs out there too, but none will import MacDraw Pro files. I still use MacDrawPro in the OS X Classic environment. There are a few warts, but it still works. PrintToPDF is no longer necessary in OS X as PDF files can be created by the OS X print dialog.

Links are continual maintenance problem. Even if you just link to yourself, you have to test them. Links to external sites tend to change with time as sites come, go or move to new locations. An automated link checker, such as Link Checker (Macintosh only but there are others for other platforms) is a valuable tool to automatically test all the links in your site. You have to fix (or delete) them yourself, but at least once in a while, you can make them all good.

The following table summarizes the tools that a Macintosh user should download (easiest through VersionTracker.com).

Macintosh Software Tools Summary
Tool Name Version Function Available For Type Cost Notes
Mac OS X Mac OS 9
or earlier
BBEdit Lite 6.1 Text Editing Carbon yes Freeware $0 Heavy duty version available
SpellTools version Spell checker no yes Freeware $0 Works in any Classic application but continued support is uncertain
OmniWeb 4.1 Web Browser Cocoa no Shareware $29.95 Very pretty interface, but some stability and rendering problems. Can be used for free as Nagware
iCab 2.8.1 Web Browser Carbon yes Beta $29 Checks HTML validity and creates an error report. Can be used as Freeware. Pro version will require a license when released.
Internet Explorer 5.2 Web Browser Carbon yes Freeware $0 Supplied with the Mac OS. Needed sometimes on sites that run MS IIS services.
Chimera 0.3 Web Browser Cocoa no Freeware $0 Another free Mac browser, still in development
NetScape Navigator 6 Web Browser Carbon yes Freeware $0  
Mozilla Alpha 1.1 Web Browser Carbon yes Freeware $0  
Opera Beta 4 Web Browser Carbon yes Beta $0  
Tidy 1.0b10 HTML correctness checking plugin for BBEdit, no standalone version Standalone or FilterTop filter Freeware $0 Checks and corrects HTML. Works well on code that is close to standards, can get completely confused by really bad code. Versions available for many platforms.
Filtertop 1.1 Tool for creating automatic file processing scripts no yes Freeware $0 Very powerful tool for doing batch processing of many kinds of files. Pick from a set of predefined tools and string together a complete script. Tidy is one such predefined tool.
Fetch 4.0.2 FTP Utility Cocoa yes Shareware $25 General purpose FTP tool for uploading web pages to a server. Drag and drop operation on single or multiple files.
GraphicConverter 4.4 General purpose graphic editor and file converter. Carbon yes Shareware $30 Will read and write virtually every graphics file format ever invented. Fairly powerful graphic editing but its not PhotoShop. Can be used as Nagware.
Excalibur 4.0 Spell Checker Carbon yes Freeware $0 Designed to check Latex documents, but works fine on HTML if the HTML plugin is installed.
Link Checker 1.0.6 Link checker Cocoa no Shareware $20 Can be used as Crippleware for free in the demo mode (only reports on every other bad link)
VersionTracker.com n/a Software Update Website yes yes Freeware $0 lists latest updates of most Commercial, Freeware and Shareware products. Fully functional at no cost, but additional features available for a subscription.

Notes:

Commercial Available for purchase only, no trial version.
Freeware Fully functional version offered for use at no charge
Shareware Offered as a trial version for free, registration charge requested usually on the honor system. Subsets are Nagware and Crippleware
Nagware Fully functional shareware that continually nags the user to pay up
Crippleware Partially functional Shareware. "Demo" mode give some functionality but some critical functions are disabled until a license is purchased.

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Learning HTML

HTML is pretty easy to learn and write from scratch so it is not really necessary to use a page layout tool to do a simple site like this one. This site may be big, but it is still constructed in a very simple manner.

For a sample of all of the HTML that you'll need to write a web page from scratch, see simple HTML instructions. If you've ever used a "text formatter" such as runoff or nroff (from pre-WYSIWYG days), then HTML will come pretty easy. An official reference document defining HTML 3.2 can be found at The W3C HTML 3.2 Reference Specification. There is also a similar document for HTML 4.01.

My main HTML reference is "The HTML SourceBook, Third Edition" by Ian S. Graham. It describes more than you need to know about HTML and site design. There are perhaps 200 other books available at any major bookseller that are equivalent.

I've tried several low end page layout tools and I've found them more trouble than they are worth. Netscape Communicator has an integrated low end tool that I've found to be especially useless. The HTML tools in Word 97 (for the PC) are not only poor, but actually destructive. Word 97 can take clean code and turn it into garbage automatically. Although I haven't tried them much, newer versions of Word seem to act the same or worse than Word 97.

After you get a little experience with HTML, you'll know how it will look when rendered by a browser so the semi-WYSIWYG layout tools really aren't much help. Besides, some of them insert so much garbage into the file that it is nearly impossible to edit it by hand later. I'd like to see a tool that displays the HTML source in one window and the interpreted HTML in another such that you can edit in either window and the other is automatically updated. If you want to do a really fancy site with a side bar menu and lots of graphics, you might want to invest in a high end page layout tool. I cannot recommend one (because I have little experience with the expensive high end tools) but you might want to stay completely away from FrontPage.

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Photographs and Graphics

Many of the smaller pictures were taken with a Casio QV-10A digital camera and were downloaded to an older Macintosh with a serial cable. Some of the pictures were 35 mm prints scanned on a Artec color scanner with PhotoShop LE and saved as JPEG with maximum compression. Most of the better photos were taken with a Nikon CoolPix 900 and saved as VGA sized (640 x 480) or megapixel (1280 x 960) images and then cropped or scaled as necessary. This camera uses a Compact Flash card for storage. The photos were either downloaded to a desktop machine over a serial cable or the CF card was plugged into a laptop and the pictures were directly copied from the CF card.

The photos are 72 dpi, 24 bit color, heavily compressed and stored in JPEG format. I use the software that came with the Casio to download a picture from the camera and save it in PICT format. I then use GraphicConverter to convert the image to JPEG format. The Casio shots are about 20 Kbyte each on the Web server and the scanned pictures about 30 Kbyte. Some of the Nikon photos have been cropped to a smaller size and compressed to 15K to 26K each. Some of them are still 640 x 480 stored at "normal" compression. The low resolution and heavy compression is the reason that the smaller images load faster than most. It is also the reason that some of them aren't extremely sharp. Another reason for lack of sharpness is the crummy lens on the Casio which actually blurs the images more than the low digital resolution does. The Casio images also have higher contrast than the Nikon images which tends to cause highlights and shadows on the Casio pictures to saturate.

A few of the photos have been annotated right on the photo. This is done with Adobe Photo Deluxe.

All the line drawings were done on MacDraw Pro and saved in PICT format. Since I haven't found a suitable replacement for MacDraw Pro, I use it in the "Classic" environment of OS X. In this mode, OS X actually boots a copy of OS 9 in a separate Unix process to run the older stuff. GIFConverter was then used to convert the PICT format to GIF. GIFConverter can do PICT to GIF translations with drag-and-drop so it makes the conversion very easy. GraphicConverter will do this conversion as well. In this case, the graphic is copied to the Clipboard and then GraphicConverter is instructed to open a new graphic using the Clipboard contents.

I've found through experiment that the GIF format works better for line drawings and the JPEG format works better for the photos. If I save the line drawings as JPEG, the lines tend to get fuzzy and the background isn't pure white. Photos saved as GIF lose their 24 bit color and look worse on monitors capable of supporting thousands or millions of colors.

The Military Railways and Electric Railways book images were created by scanning each page of the book in GIF format. The GIFs were then cropped and rotation corrected in GraphicConverter. Each cleaned GIF was then imported into a Word file to string them together and add a copyright notice. The Word file was then "printed" to a PDF file with a Chooser extension called PrintToPDF. PrintToPDF on the Mac did this job properly, Adobe Distiller (run on a PC) did not.

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Logistics

This whole site currently consumes about 196 Meg total for its 1500 or so files and folders. 68.31 Meg of that are PDF files for the Military Railways book, another 79.72 Meg are PDF files for the Electric Railways book and there are 7.54 Meg worth of videos.

I keep an image of the site on my Macintosh in one folder so that I can test the whole site by using a browser in a local mode. To display a file, I just drag and drop it on a browser window or icon. The folders are listed by date so that revised files float to the top. When I get around to uploading changes or additions, it is only necessary to upload the files at the top of the list by dragging a group of them and dropping the group onto Fetch and up they go.

I do maintain the dates and update notices of most of my pages to help direct the reader to the newer stuff. I have invented some rules to determine when and where an update notice is posted. These rules are described in the table below.

Update Notice Posting Rules
Notice Location Notice Changed If:
Home Page Links
  • New notice added for a new page that is immediately subordinate
  • Updated notice for a new or significantly updated page that is not immediately subordinate
Main Sub Page Links (i.e. Tips Index)
  • New notice added for a new page that is immediately subordinate
  • Updated notice added for a new section added to an existing subordinate page
  • Update notice added for significantly changed content of an existing subordinate page
Subject Page (i.e. Tips Page)
  • New notice added for a new section
  • Update notice added for significantly changed content of an existing section
Page Update Date (i.e. at the very bottom of each page) Updated for ANY change including changes not significant enough to draw attention such as:
  • minor editorial changes
  • minor content changes
  • spelling corrections
  • grammar corrections
  • HTML format corrections

For example, I don't consider the addition of this table to be significant enough to post an update notice on my home page. This would draw readers here for something that is probably not worth reading if this page has been read before.


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This page has been accessed hit counter times since 30 Oct 1999.

© 1997-2002 George Schreyer
Created Oct 12, 1997
Last Updated July 6, 2002


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