the citizens of the web and their languages

Mary Maguire being interviewed on Radio 4BH in Brisbane, ca. 1936
This week was quite technically oriented. We’ll be returnng to the technical and aesthetic background of what we do here in later weeks, bur first of all: a quick introduction to the skills (and what is almost the same thing, the vocabulary) that will be neccessary for assessment.

What makes the web tick?

Computers.

Networked Computers.

OK, but it’s a little more complex than that. Computers on the net fall (for now – this is shifting ground) into two categories. Clients and servers. You’re probably familiar with clients – those are the machines you use every day. Most typically they will be laptops or desktop machines, running windows or maybe Mac OS, and their most common way of accessing the web will be a browser, such as Firefox, Safari, or Internet Explorer. (There are, of course, other clients these days – mobile devices, linux machines. We’ll get on to those later).

Servers might be a new thing for you. These are machines usually running an operating system a little different to your client machine. There are a lot of different options here, but for the purposes of this course we’ll be looking at Linux/Apache which is, as of July, the most common option out there.. The classic configuration of these guys, if not my personal favourite, is the LAMP stack (“Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP”), which looks something like this.
the Lamp Stack in diagram form
(picture credit Derick Rethans)
.
It’s these servers that usually pump out the data to your client web browser.

I don’t expect you to be conversant with all the technologies here (we’ll try to steer clear of MySQL entirely!). but I do want to expose you to the idea that the internet is a pretty heterogeneous place, and there are a lot of different sort of citizens roaming it. This leads us to the question of how these different creatures communicate. What are thier languages?…

Standards

HTML and CSS

Sharon ran through a quick hands-on introduction to the idea of HTML. This isn’t the oldest standard/language on the internet… but it is the oldest and most fundamental standard (or more accurately, family of standards on the Web, which is the bit of the internet we are caring about in this course. It, and its sibling standard, CSS comprise the vase bulk of what you, as a human, see going on on the internet because they are the languages that your web browser speaks. Using these technologies is an amazingly subtle art, and a minefield of standards wars and weird incompatibilities. but if you need to go beyond Sharon’s intro, I commend you to w3schools, who have a pretty comprehensive encyclopaedia of practical usage tips. If you are looking for some more theoretical background you probably want to try A List Apart.

However, as I mentioned before, there are a lot of things on the internet other than humans-using-web browsers, and there are many, many other standards and technologies around to allow machines to talk to each other as well as humans. The most common of these is…

RSS

The technology underlying the blogging revolution. This acronym, depending on who you ask, stands for Really Simple Syndication, where “syndication” basically means “making your site’s content re-usable by machine”. This provides a way for blogs, hosted on servers, to be made comprehensible to machines. The standard is so simple that it looks unremarkable, but the uses are very powerful. This site for example has an RSS feed; I’ve recommended that the whole class use Google Reader to check out precisely what this means. Log on to Google Reader (or if you already use a different feed reader, feel free to use that instead.) If you copy and paste the RSS feed link into the “add subscription” widget:
adding a feed
you will find that you can now read a summarised version of the site in google reader:
The feed for this site

That may or may not seem a useful thing for you. However, the idea of inter-computer communication is pretty critical for the new wave of web-based jiggery-pokery, and the implications of even humble standards like RSS are profound. To round out for this week we are looking at two other technologies that make heavy use of RSS and refinements of RSS:

  1. We have a friendfeed group. I will be posting useful resources for the task, and it may pop up again in assessments, so I ask everyone to subscribe to this group.
  2. We also had a quick look at Yahoo Pipes. This is one of the most amazingly useful technologies on the web today and might interest you to use in your final assessment. I certainly hope it survives the gradual implosion of yahoo, because I will be exploring it in the next lecture.
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