Minh’s Notes

Human-readable chicken scratch

Minh Nguyễn
June 9th, 2005


Information overload

Peter pointed out my worst habit: I’m too verbose. If you ever have the guts to take a look at the source code of my homepage, you’ll notice that a sane webmaster would’ve made it half as long, just by cutting out all the cruft that I like to stick in there. What do I mean by “cruft”? This is the first paragraph – a very typical one – in my post from Monday:

Here’s a task for my readers: let’s keep up with the Joneses. Elder currently has a longer entry on Wikipedia than St. X does. On top of that, St. X’s article doesn’t contain anything other than a trite introduction to the school.

Here’s the markup that I used for it:

Here&rsquo;s a task for my readers: let&rsquo;s <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keeping_up_with_the_Joneses" rel="bookmark" title="Wikipedia: Keeping up with the Joneses">keep up with the Joneses</a>. <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elder_High_School" rel="bookmark" title="Wikipedia: Elder High School">Elder</a> currently has a longer entry on Wikipedia than <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Xavier_High_School" rel="bookmark" title="Wikipedia: St. Xavier High School"><abbr title="Saint">St.</abbr> <abbr title="Xavier">X</abbr></a> does. On top of that, <abbr title="Saint">St.</abbr> <abbr title="Xavier">X</abbr>&rsquo;s article doesn&rsquo;t contain anything other than a trite introduction to the school.

I know. It’s horrendous. Any poor soul just starting out in HTML wouldn’t be able to read it, and even most experts would have trouble without the help of a text editor with color coding. Just for fun, let’s analyze the various types of cruft that I have in that sample:

Character entity references

Most coders don’t even know what those are. See all those &rsquo;’s and such? They resolve to symbols that you can’t type out with a normal keyboard, such as (an “educated” double right quotemark). I happen to dabble in the intricacies of typographic convention. Sane people would simple type the entry up in Word or OOo Writer, copy-paste it into their blog, and bedone with it. Others would customize MT to handle it for them, automatically. Not me: I type it all out by hand. Hey, at least I don’t use the hex codes like I used to.

Excessive hyperlink attributes

Have you ever hovered over a link here? You’ll most likely get a tooltip, dutifully informing you of the target page’s title and website name. If that link points to another part of Minh’s Notes, it’ll even include the date of publication! Now view the source: for every link I “fire off,” I include (at the least) the href, rel, and title attributes.

You probably already know what the href attribute is all about: it contains the link’s URL. The other two, on the other hand, are a lot more obscure. In fact, I only learned about rel from Couchblog. rel, which says how the linked page is related to the current one, isn’t even used by most browsers in a meaningful way. (It could be used to build a sitewide table of contents, for example.) And, by process of elimination, you should’ve guessed by now that title is responsible for the coveted tooltip.

Just to make you scream in frustration, let me also point out that I often include the hreflang attribute to specify the language of the target page as well.

Abbreviations, acronyms, initialisms – oh my!

I make a point of specifying the expanded form of every abbreviation, acronym, and initialism on this site, using the abbr and acronym tags. That’s why you always see those dotted underlines around here. (Unfortunately, IE on Windows doesn’t understand the poor abbr tag.)

This practice actually has a more reasonable explanation. In the early days of this weblog, I covered mostly Internet-related things, such as Web standards. Whenever you start talking about Web standards, you cannot avoid rattling off three-dozen initialisms in one minute. And they all have to begin with the letter X – as in XML, XForms, XHTML, XLink, XKMS, XQuery, XSD, XPath, XPointer, XMPP, XUL, XBL, XAML, XBEL, XSL-FO, XSLTthe list goes on and on!

And nobody will know what you’re talking about unless you expand your acronyms.

So, cutting out all the bloat, we have this lean bit of markup:

Here's a task for my readers: let's <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keeping_up_with_the_Joneses">keep up with the Joneses</a>. <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elder_High_School">Elder</a> currently has a longer entry on Wikipedia than <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Xavier_High_School">St. X</a> does. On top of that, St. X's article doesn't contain anything other than a trite introduction to the school.

Why do I go through all this trouble? Have I gone looney? Take a look back at the top of my homepage. See that dark green box that contains my blog’s tagline? Read it: “Thinking too hard, for your viewing pleasure…” Doesn’t that describe me?

Now, consider this: weblogs were originally intended to filter out the best of the Web, for the convenience of their readers, because the Internet really suffers from information overload. What I do is to link to things like might spark your interest, like they sparked mine. Of course, if I link too much, that purpose is lost, and I’ve only compounded the problem of overload.

I’m not the only one to have such a problem: try reading Jamie Zawinski’s rants. You’ll never make it through an article, unless you strictly discipline yourself to follow only one link level deep, because there’s just so much interesting stuff linked around there.

Linkage isn’t as big a problem for me as it used to be. But the code has only gotten uglier.


  1. Kenny Hofmiester, the only student to be known more by his epithet than by his last name, has something to say about the prevalence of Net lingo. Plus: A way to classify all the bloggers at

  2. I couldn’t just stop with all the links I gave you on Friday, so here’s some more computing stuff that I’m sure you’ll find interesting.


  1. I wonder if your experience with wikis has rubbed off on your blog. Visiting just about any article on Wikipedia will yield many links to other articles and external links. Furthermore, wikis are always pushing towards some type of standard or perfection. This may explain why you tend to put so much work and thought into each post. A perfectionist?

    Anyway, I think it's great that you incorporate many links, acronyms and abbreviations, and character entities. It helps me, as a reader, understand more of what you are talking about. I just typically need an hour or so to consume everything! *Mostly sarcasm

  2. Matt Weinkam

    You seem to be knowledgeable about computer matters, to put it lightly. I was wondering if you knew anything about mac vs. Microsoft and which is better. Most of my friends are getting a powerbook from mac for college. Is that better than say, the dell my parents are making me get? Also, are Laptops better than desktops? If you could enlighten me I would be forever grateful.

  3. Peter: No, I think I’ve been a perfectionist with my Web presence long before I even learned of Wikipedia. Blogs and wikis share a strong tradition of “microcontent,” which (among other things) emphasizes frequent linking in sensible places. Lately I’ve put a lot more thought into my posts because of the blogs that I look up to.

    I’m talking about blogs like Joel Spolsky’s Joel on Software, Eric Meyer’s myerweb.com, Dave Shea’s mezzoblue, John Gruber’s Daring Fireball, Khoi Vịnh’s Subtraction, and Mark Pilgrim’s now-defunct Dive into Mark. These bloggers post sparingly, perhaps only once a week. It’s just enough that people still come back to see what they’ve written, but sparse enough that their voluminous writing doesn’t overwhelm you. It’s like they’ve put lots of time into it (Gruber’s blog is actually his business right now; he freelances).

    People call these bloggers “A-list” with jealousy, but it’s really because they’ve put so much effort into maintaining a high standard at their site, and they’ve said important things, and they’ve come up with important ideas. I look up to them, and I want to maintain high standards like they do. You know the feeling; you’re involved in open source, a meritocracy if I’ve ever seen one. If you aspire to be someone in the open-source community, you don’t simply contribute tiny little patches that fix cosmetic defects like a misplaced pixel; you implement big things, and you come up with big ideas.

    Frighteningly, I’m starting to put a little too much effort into these comments, too.

    Matt: Replied on AIM. Thank goodness. I can cut the comment short. :^P