Friday 27 February 2009
I've just finished reading Dennis Wheatley's 1948 novel, The Haunting of Toby Jugg, and while I guess it's over half a century too late for me to be offering a full review, there is one very important question that the book raises:
Did Dennis Wheatley genuinely believe that spiders only have six legs?
Our crippled hero, 'Toby', is haunted by a supernatural creature which at first he can only see vaguely, in shadow. His initial suspicion is that it is some kind of octopus, but when he manages to make out that it has only six legs, he realizes that that can't be the case (so clearly Wheatley's malacology is better than his entomology, although there's a clue in the word 'octopus', so maybe it's just a case of etymology).
Later on, it's revealed to him that the creature is a spider, albeit a giant one, summoned from Hell itself. As Toby describes it in his diary:
I now knew what it was that had thrown the Shadow. That round body and the six hairy, tentacle-like legs had been those of a spider without a doubt; but a spider the likes of which has never been recorded in this world.
Now, just because Toby doesn't know how many legs a spider has, doesn't mean Wheatley didn't. Perhaps the spider's missing limbs echo the paralysis of the hero's own two legs; if so, nothing is mentioned. Possibly the explanation was lost in an edit (if so, I'm pleased to say that copy-editing has improved vastly over the years - I'd never get something like that past them).
Or maybe Wheatley had just never bothered to look at a spider.
The cover illustration (Wordsworth Editions) certainly shows a spider with sufficient limbs to play Tarzan four times over, as does as least one other edition. Actually, this is a bit of an irritation. The fact that the creature that haunts Toby is a spider is meant to be something of a surprise when revealed (maybe the leg-count is deliberately intended to deflect our suspicions), and so the cover is a bit of a spoiler. Also, the illustration shows Toby on crutches, rather than in wheelchair, which is his sole transport in the text. But now I'm getting picky.
The biggest shock of the book is that not only is the villain a Satanist, but also a Communist, and that, in fact, the latter ism is and always has been merely a front for the former. Now this is something that I, like any right-thinking Englishman, have long suspected, but while Toby takes the Satanism pretty much in his stride, its the Communism that comes as the real shock. I mean, summoning gargantuan, leg-deprived spiders to scare a paralysed airmen into madness is one thing, but the workers controlling the means of production? Well, really!
Despite all this, it's still a fun read, certainly if your can accept it as an artifact of its time. There are some lovely passages within, such as:
Her blue eyes blazed, and she retorted: 'If you were not, one - a cripple; two - my patient; and three - suffering from erotomania, I would slap your face.'
I must try to slip that into my next novel - no one will notice.
Tuesday 24 February 2009
I’ve spent the weekend trying to do something ostensibly rather simple; to wit, trying to make my website more accessible on mobile phones and similar devices. The actual work is fairly simple - just providing alternative pages which are smaller and generally less flashy, but still contain the same data. The only trick is for the web site to be able to determine whether it actually is being accessed by a mobile device or a full-blown browser, so that it can decide which version of the page to send back.
There’s a standard mechanism for this. When the browser makes its request it sends the web server a string (referred to as a User Agent) which, in simple terms, identifies the browser, but does not explicitly say whether it is a mobile browser, or provide any other detailed information. Back on the web server, there is a list of browser capabilities, and the web server looks through this list until it finds an entry matching the string sent from the browser. From that entry, it can see whether the browser is on a mobile device, what the screen width and height are, and much more besides. If it doesn’t find an exact match, it goes for the closest one it can find.
The problem is that this list of browsers has to be kept up to date - and generally it isn’t. For example, many web sites (I would guess most) incorrectly identify Google’s Chrome browser as Apple’s Safari - Chrome is, after all, relatively new on the scene. In this case, the differences don’t matter much, but more significant is the fact that a plethora of mobile browsers are identified as fully capable desktop browsers, simply because the browser capabilities list is unaware of their existence.
Ultimately, no one has taken responsibility to maintain a distributable, up-to-date list of browsers. Microsoft don’t, and even if they did, it would only work for sites that run ASP.Net - the Microsoft website technology. PHP users would still have to manage their own list (although conversion from one to the other should be petty straightforward). The are some not-for-profit sites that try to maintain lists, such as http://owenbrady.net/browsercaps/, but it’s matter of luck and dedication if these are up-to-date. There are also commercial products that provide the information, but they are too pricey for anything but serious commercial sites.
The people who have the knowledge, the ability and, ultimately, the motivation to make this information widely available are the browser manufacturers themselves. The more website designers can tailor their sites to specific browsers, the better the browsers look.
So come on browser manufacturers, pull your socks up. Send me your User Agent strings and your browsers capabilities, in any or all formats, an I’ll put together a website to make sure all web developers can access them. And then we’ll all be happy.
Send your browser capabilities to email@example.com.