Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Problems Scribes Didn't Have - Or Did They

I was recently looking at a comment about my website Medieval Writing on a bulletin board. I don't do this for vanity, but for quality control! A user was recommending certain pages as useful for learning to read a particular medieval script, but complained that the images of the letters were highly compressed and contained artifacts. Of course, my initial response was to harrumph mightily, but it is true.
The problem is that what I see on my browser on my computer may not be exactly what another user sees using different hardware, and what is an acceptable download speed for graphics on one connection might be utterly impossible on another. When I first started the website, I had a slow dialup modem connection, as did most people especially at home, and I based my benchmarks around that. I have also recently upgraded my vintage Windows 98 computer with CRT screen for a new laptop with a hi-res flat screen, and crikey, does that make a difference to how the graphics look. Images on the old CRT screen have a tendency to be warm and fuzzy, and I was forever trying to sharpen them up. Images on my new screen are cold and crisp, with a tendency to be jaggy and full of inexplicable dots and squiggles if they have been optimised for the other screen.
Now, do I assume that everybody these days has a broadband connection and a modern screen, or do I still have to cater for the dial-up connections and the old computers? I guess it just has to be a compromise. I have been castigated by users for not catering for Linux users or optimising for all the different browsers in existence. Some major upgrades have been made to the site in the past to resolve some anomalies, and if I had the resources of, say, the tax office, I could get my IT minions to produce a version for everybody, and an automatic detection system to steer each user into the right version, but I'm afraid that medieval paleography just doesn't have the same resources as tax collection, especially when you're trying to keep it free.
The only consolation is that if the users of the site are going to practise their skills on real medieval documents, they will find that the letters in those documents are as uneven, jaggy and as full of artifacts as any jpeg. Scribes didn't actually write using model alphabets. And they had problems with their technology. Sometimes the writing turns really nasty when the scribe has changed his pen and the new one just won't flow properly. He just had to re-cut his quill- no help desk!


Doug said...

I'm thinking that most get internet through broadband now. On the other hand, I'd hate to see your web site drift toward inaccessibility for the poor dial-up folks.

I'm glad to see you posting here again. Will you let us know here when updates are made to your website? I have my RSS reader here to keep track of new posts, and you can use that mechanism to inform us of any changes to the web site.



Dianne said...

Yes, but even the term broadband can have some variable meanings, especially here in Oz. As for the second request, I can probably manage that. At one time I was putting up a steady stream of updates so it was a bit irrelevant, but it has become a bit punctuated by large time gaps lately. The latest addition to the site is a set of script samples and paleography exercises for a very famous manuscript, the 8th century Vespasian Psalter.

compuGator said...

Being a user whose Internet connection supplies me with bits at speeds varying dramatically depending on loads elsewhere on the LAN, I'm offering my vote for sensitivity to the limits suffered by dial-up users.

However, there's a straightforward solution to providing higher-resolution images: Make your current-resolution images act as links to higher-resolution images. Not only as direct links, but also augmented by a caption plainly informing the visitor of the possibility of clicking on it for a higer-resolution image. The caption should specify the size of the higher-rez image (or initially, to facilitate web-site-wide enhancement, the range of the image sizes you'd be providing). Wikipedia is an example of a Web-site that is helpful to its visitors in providing multiple resolutions of many of its images.

Your visitors using dial-up may still choose to view particular higher-rez images, but it would then be their deliberate choice, and they could put their time to other use, e.g.: refilling a cup of coffee, tea, or a pint of an adult beverage.

Studies dating back 30--40 years to early 'time-sharing' computer systems (trendy "Internet cloud processing" being their largely unrecognized reincarnation) clearly showed that what frustrated computer users the most was not the length of delays while using a system, but their unpredictable variability. So please let the choice of potentially show-stopping downloads be theirs.

Dianne said...

Good point compuGator. You will find that a few images on the site are already treated that way, especially if they are detailed and fiddly. The only problem with updating the whole site is the workload. I guess everybody who got in relatively early with a website has the same problem.