Wire: Interview with Jasper Tredgold
What do you do in the world of networking/libraries/WWW?
I provide technical support for the SOSIG project and a few other web services.
... and how did you get into this area?
I think I am the rare case of someone who got a job via a training course for the unemployed. On this course I learnt a bit of COBOL (!) and C on old 386s and then, highly trained, got a placement here, at Bristol university. I started out programming with toolbook and then got a job working on SOSIG and doing PC support for the department. Since then I've learnt a lot about Unix and fitting hard disks!
... so what exactly do you do on SOSIG?
I have to do some tweaking and testing of ROADS, which SOSIG uses to provide its searchable database, since it is being continuously developed. We also have a couple of Unix machines which I help look after, running the web servers, installing stuff, administering users, etc. I also write some perl scripts, cgi scripts, look after the statistics and am generally on hand when things don't work quite as they should (there's always something that needs fixing - or does after I've 'fixed' it).
What was your reaction to the Web when you encountered it for the first time (and when was this)?
I thought it was like a big electronic sunday supplement - lots of stuff but nothing you really need. You spend more time turning pages than reading them. But this was early 95 when I wasn't working the web. Since then my opinion has changed somewhat. There's still a lot of junk but the useful stuff I have found (and am still finding) after much page turning more than makes up for it. And its potential has obviously yet to be fully realised.
How significant an impact do you think that mobile code, such as Java applets, will have on the development of the Web as an information resource?
It's going to have a big impact undoubtedly, but the way information distributed all over the world can be accessed from one point is, I think, more significant for this aspect of web development - and this happens already.
One of the most frequent complaints from UK Web users is the slow speed of accessing some Web sites, especially those held in the US during times of high network traffic. What, if anything, should be done (and by whom) to alleviate this problem? Are caching and mirroring the answer (and if so, how should these approaches best be deployed, locally, nationally and/or internationally)?
I think caching and mirroring are clearly important and should be used together in reducing the load on the web - More national mirror sites of the netscapes and microsofts of this world would leave the caches for the smaller players, though I wonder if the increasing interactivity and security features of web sites isn't going to trouble caching services. For our bit, we are mirroring SOSIG in the US and looking at running some sort of subject-based caching service for our users... And I'm all in favour of pretty pictures but some of the gifs I have seen must devour the bandwidth!
Any thoughts on the future of subject gateways/subject gateway technology?
They obviously have much to offer specific groups of users over the general search engines, especially as the web keeps growing, in that much of the quality/relevence filtering has been done already. I'm sure we've all been put off by 20 pages of altavista results. By the same token though the size of the job of maintaining a gateway's database grows with the size of the web. That's where the automated robots have the upper hand. I think there could be advantages in a combination of human quality control and software web trawling .
HTML standards/markup. Some people produce strict HTML2 code, that works on nearly all browsers; some produce validated code that includes tables, that works on some browsers; some produce Web pages that are only legible in Netscape, or Internet Explorer, and so on. Where do you draw the line with any pages you produce [alternately, if you don't have style/standards control, which would you prefer people to use].
I'm all for standards - they mean you can work without worrying about how to get things to work. Most of the PC side of my job seems to be little battles with compatibility. So I think it's a shame microsoft and netscape have been able to run away with things as far as HTML goes - I'm glad they're developing good browsers and a lot of their additions are useful but it'd be nice if these sort of developments were decided by agreement rather than who packs the biggest punch. Having said that I don't do a lot of HTML so perhaps I'm not the best to comment - I think I've just about managed one table in my time. We do provide lynx on sosig though so we try to make our pages viewable in that.
Electronic Commerce; significant numbers of Web users, especially in the US, buy goods and services through the Web. With the current state of data protection/encryption, would you feel comfortable in sending your credit card number to a company or service through your Web browser?
If I had one, no!
What would you like to see happen in the field of the World Wide Web in 1996/97?
More widespread access - which is affordable. I like the potential for information sharing and communication and the sooner it includes a wider audience the better. I think that selling and secure transactions will be centre-stage though - I guess that's inevitable - not that we haven't got enough ways to buy things already.... Advertisers to decide the web's not worth the bother after all...the government to realise it's too valuable to be left to the whims of business... And the web to be the first to carry the news of the Tories' demise! Ah well, I can dream…