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16th April 1999 at 01:00
Arnold Evans displays all the HTML skills of a Master of the Universe in waiting

IT'S . LESS THAN LESS THAN HTML

- that smidgen of gobbledygook - which grabs word-processed text by the scruff of the neck and miraculously renders it fit for the Web. I can claim to write Hyper Text Mark-up Language (HTML), and if you can write it, you can boast at parties that you design Web pages, and be treated as someone destined for a Porsche and six-figure salary - an undisputed Master of the Universe.

As with any other skill, learning the fundamentals of HTML takes time. It took me 23 minutes - that's how long I needed to progress from total ignoramus to smug git with his own personal - albeit primitive - Web page. It's dead easy - especially for those of us who used to word process in the early years of the home computer when WYS (what you see) was decidedly not WYG (what you got). Then, the only way to alter the appearance of text was to sling in a judicious selection of embedded commands. HTML works similarly. For example, if I want to start a new paragraph, I just type in . LESS THAN LESS THAN P

and hey presto, a new paragraph appears. A well-aimed . LESS THAN LESS THAN

means that I will continue in bold until . LESS THAN LESS THAN

switches it off. There are hundreds of similar commands allowing you to create headlines, choose different colours, or incorporate digitised music, irritating animation, photographs from the family album, and your own hypertext links.

In all honesty, learning some of these more sophisticated tricks took me longer than 23 minutes - the best part of a week in fact, during which I burnt the candles at both ends and heard more than one dawn chorus. Yet it was worth it - my home page did a Popsy and just grew.

It became a cheery celebration of family life - a multi-coloured extravaganza adorned with more buttons than a Pearly King. Even on the Web - not noted for its tasteful understatement - my page was peculiarly awful, a compendium of all the aesthetic faux pas it's possible for a fledgling Master of the Universe to make. I was inordinately proud of every pulsating pixel of it.

I used the past tense then because the page just vanished... inexplicably. Mere words could not express my sense of loss when I discovered that it could not be summoned, however often I keyed in its URL or feverishly pummelled the mouse. Like a rogue moon, it had broken free of its prescribed orbit and was pursuing its own eccentric trajectory through the uncharted wastes of cyberspace. Either that, or some household member, reluctant to have family snapshots broadcast to a potential audience of 200 million surfers, sneaked in and pressed a Luddite thumb on the Delete key.

Others seem less reluctant to make their presence felt on the Internet. The major search engines have directories of folk only too keen to show you endless JPEG pictures of their summer hols, the new puppy or "a pic of the louvre doors dad fitted in the new extension" - I'm not making this up!

These family sites should be really boring, but they hold a strange fascination. Visiting them is as irresistible as taking an illicit peek through a chink in the curtains of an otherwise impenetrable suburban semi. It's remarkable that so many people are prepared to go to such lengths to advertise their ordinariness.

Naturally, you don't need to know any HTML to produce sumptuous Web pages. There are dozens of software packages (Netscape Composer, Front Page Express, Claris HomePage etc) that do the hard work for you. All you have to do is type in your text and drag in whatever takes your fancy from libraries of clip art and sound effects. The software is easily available and can be downloaded off the Internet, or you can often find suitable programs bundled on those free CDs attached to computer magazine covers.

Most of these programs are embarrassingly easy to use and eliminate the need to master HTML, which is a shame. Everyone who ever goes online should learn the rudiments of HTML. This is especially true for children. Not only will they find it good fun, but it will also help them to realise that somewhere at the heart of even the most spectacular Web sites is an ungainly string of basic commands which anyone can learn - if they don't mind listening to the occasional dawn chorus!

* For all the gen on HTML try http:home.netscape.com There are some ready-made templates at http:www.zy.com If you want to tell me about your personal or school website email arnoldevans@virgin.net If you want to see this article bristling with HTML effects visit my home page http:freespace.virgin.netarnoldevansindex.html

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