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Suspended Disbelief

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In: Columns > Pro Dot Con

By Peter Fielding

Published on April 25, 2002

I used to be a scaffolder.

I used to while away my days tens and hundreds of feet in the air, dangling from two-inch diameter pipes, whistling and going about a rather hot and dangerous job. Whoever might have told you that scaffolding is easy probably took too many Lincoln Logs to the head as a child.

Every minute detail of constructing a scaffold is intrinsically important. No ledger can be scabbed on, no clamp left undone, or--gods forbid--missing. There is a specific and much researched way to go about constructing the base, extensions, and cantilevers of any and every scaffold. No matter the situation, chances are a procedure for getting past it has been put into play before, and adopted as a standard for construction.

The methods of construction for scaffolding are laid out and standardized by building codes to provide a solid, workable blueprint for designing and executing their erection. Each clamp is manufactured under precise detail so that no one clamp is unlike its cousins, and thereby holds no more or no less load. Each situation is accounted for so that every scaffold holds to a base set of designs and acceptable uses.

Of course I mentioned "chances are" for a specific reason. There are always the exceptions that prove the rule, and no doubt they will be found with enough practice. I practiced a great deal over one summer, erecting a disturbing number of scaffolds for welders, pipefitters, carpenters, etcetera ad nauseum. I remember running into a rather tricky structure that caused me to step back and try to evaluate the best procedure for advancing.

After careful consideration, and consulting it was concluded that we'd have to "engineer" an answer. Now for those not adept at reading construction-speak, "engineer" is a loose translation of "patch with bandaids and hope like hell it works." As curtly as I put that, the truth is that engineering involves a background knowledge of form, physics, and material. All elements are taken into consideration, from load weight to angle of suspension. Once the calculations were out of the way, we had a fine blueprint to go off of, and a rather unorthodox method of getting to the completion.

The building of this monstrosity brought about problems of its own, and facilitated the need to further "engineer" answers along the way. Once completed, however, the structure was sound for exactly its purpose, if for nothing else.

It held.

Built for one reason, and working for precisely that reason meant that we had succeeded. At least we had thought that we'd succeeded.

One party (aside from my consulting partner) has been skipped over so far. We had a laborer then who was apprenticing to become a scaffolder. He was with us from the end of the planning stage right up to the cessation of work on our abomination. This laborer was quick-witted, and quite adept at studying process. He took in each aspect of the farm-frigged operation, cataloging it away for later.

Had that one "exception" been the end of it, the adopted standards for scaffolding would have been perfect for the rest of the project, and I would have walked away amid a grin and a paycheck, and little else to be thought.

Of course life is never that easy, and being the Homer Simpson of reality, I didn't expect it to be.

My partner's and my "proprietary" usage of scaffolding form and physics knowledge was fine, as a singular entity in and of itself. However, when I was called to review a scaffold later that the aforementioned laborer had mainly constructed, I was more than a bit shocked. Here he had taken the principals that we'd dealt with but applied them in very odd fashion, adding excess extensions, and shaky base construction. I couldn't green tag this behemoth, but I had to realize that he had only applied what he thought was proper form, because he had been taught by situational work, and not enough about the standards of good scaffolding.

We had managed to create this monster in absentia, of a sort, by teaching its builder all the ways to work around the solid, workable, tried and true standards.

What was the reaction? Incredibly carefully, so as to avoid toppling, we had to deconstruct this work of sideline construction to be built up again in a safe, acceptable, and structurally sound way. It had to be recreated within the rules and codes that had been handed down before.


Because that's how it works best. That's how the structure is safe, and correct.

I'm not scaffolding anymore, but I always think back on that when I watch the piteous debate over adopting web standards to move forward. I can never say that what we had originally built for that "special" circumstance was incorrect, or that those innovations had no place. The truth is that they did have a place, and within their boundaries could possibly help forward the original goals of standardized technology. But, without the standardized methods, catastrophes can (and do) result, spawning more and more skewed monstrosities.

It's understandable to see why proprietary tags and non-standard markup came into effect. There was a severe lack of progress in web design standards once. Antiquated markup within HTML (which had no real business being a design language) needed a kick in the ass to advance. Browser manufacturers tried to further the ability of designers to create new and more megalomaniacal toys and visions (okay, maybe that part's just for me).

That period is over though, and it's time to get serious about this business of design. If you don't agree, you're on your own to decide whether you want to be the one to stand out on the cantilever of this farm-frigged scaffolding we call the web.

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Related Topics: Web Design, Web Standards


Peter Fielding makes the pretty things for, while he hunkers down in the frozen tundra of western Canada. Receiving his email by data dog sled, he is most often found lighting miniature garbage can fires for the homeless baby seals that power his cpu, and lobbying for the inclusion of Full Contact Page Design in the next Winter Olympics.

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