"Sometimes, as T.S. Eliot would have said, we have the experience and miss the meaning. Not so, here."
An account of Dragon Bytes in the Deep
___ commentary by M.D. Coverley
The creation of "To Be Here as Stone Is" is a cautionary tale. The dragons jumped us everywhere in the waters between platforms. They took a pound of flesh at every crossing. (You probably don't want to read this unless you are a dragon-slayer, yourself.)
Stephanie Strickland and I began our collaboration on this piece shortly after she finished the electronic version of the longer poem True North, from which it is excerpted. True North existed happily and completely in a print version and in a Storyspace, electronic version. For purposes of performance, and to experiment with the possibilities of one section, we decided to do the last poem of the work, "To Be Here as Stone Is" as a more fully realized, graphic, electronic work. In the spring of 1997, we began e-mailing ideas, samples for backgrounds, codes for colors. In the summer of '97 we huddled over the computer at my house and put together a version with a different authoring software, Toolbook.
Transferring To Be Here from Storyspace to Toolbook was far more difficult (large bite) than we had imagined. First, we were challenged with transforming a piece that was one, text-based page with colored word links into twenty screens with small segments of text and a large graphic component. In ways we had not anticipated, the layout suggested by the software materially changes the access and reading pattern of a work. We had to re-design the link structure, and then we had to get the text to look right with backgrounds, different type face, and so forth. Toolbook wouldn't let us do some of the things we wanted to do, but it did like layers, so we ended up with these design elements: a background pattern, a navigation cairn, a decorative ribbon with the poem text, and individual stanzas on text pages; graphic pages were interspersed (page designs that persist, pretty much unchanged, in the Web version you see here). The demo was fine, finally, and existed on safe ground--a CD-ROM that Stephanie trucked about to conferences and workshops.
Oh, but we challenged the dragons yet again. No sooner did we have a Toolbook demo, but we decided that we wanted a Web version. Toolbook has an "export to html" feature, so we thought it would be a simple matter to export the Toolbook version to a Web product. Of course, no matter how good the export program, it can't make pages do what browsers can't record and read. The exported Web version of To Be Here was a disaster: layers had disappeared, text size had unaccountably changed, underlining had appeared where there had been none (several medium-sized bites). I tried a new, from-scratch version in html, but at the time I was working with HotMetal. It didn't do layers, and it didn't do frames. After a few tries, we wisely retreated from the abyss (minus a few more pounds of flesh, several quarts of blood).
But not for long. Some months later, I started working with Microsoft Front Page, a program that facilitated frames, so we decided to try yet another version, using frames instead of layers. We pulled a draft together, but the whole thing looked awful. Clunky frames instead of elegant layers, movement all changed around, links needing a re-design yet again (ouch! this hurts!).
And then the feeding frenzy really began. We started out with
a nice, easy, page 2. Since I am more skilled with Front Page, we made a sample page
and then tested it on MSIE. Not so cool, but a few days of tweaking it, and we had,
well, a page. Then we tested it on Netscape. Whoaa. Layers were piled up
on the left-hand side of the page, underlines had appeared, color of links was a horrible
surprise. Instead of doing the rational thing--what was the rational thing?
(gobble)--we decided to spend our limited time getting one version, for one browser,
working the way we liked it. Another 40 hours (chomp, chomp), and we had an MSIE
version that made us happy.
You can see it if you have read this far and have Microsoft Internet Explorer running:
At this point, we realized we had crossed another sea in the process: henceforth, our work would only be viewable on Level 4 browsers.
Nevetheless, we were still without To Be Here for Meridian, since we needed a version that would at least run on Netscape. To make a long story just a little shorter, I'll say that it was a cool 90 more hours of work to get a version that would run cross-browser MSIE/Netscape for Windows, and we haven't even begun to talk about what is necessary to have To Be Here look passingly good on a Mac. Don't Dragons ever get indigestion?
Sometimes, as T.S. Eliot would have said, we have the experience and miss the meaning. Not so, here. The experience was harrowing; the meaning is clear. Never again will I say, "Oh, it'll be a snap to transfer it across platforms." Byte bite, it is, and will be.
P.S. This is not a reliable way to lose weight in real, material life. In Webworld, though, Dragon Bytes take a toll: I now weigh 50 cyber-pounds.