(Recovered from About.com)


Interview by Linda Roeder

March 14, 2000

Name Of Site: Cartania

URL: http://www.cartania.com

Age - How old are you now? 41

When you started your site? 37

Marital Status? Married

Occupation? Computer interface designer and writer

Hobbies - What do you like to do, besides keep this site?

I've spent years studying a nine-dimensional mathematical structure, a kind of maze, which I find beautiful and interesting. I also read, hang out with my three cats, and spend as much time as I can with friends and family. I particularly like meandering conversations. I've been exchanging weekly audio tapes with one close friend for more than 25 years now.

Location - Where are you from? Where are you now?

I was born in Montana and raised in southern Idaho. After ten years of college, I returned to Montana and spent five wonderful years in a cottage on the Continental Divide. While there, I met my wife online and the two of us wound up in the San Francisco Bay Area. We live in an old Victorian on the island of Alameda. I like living in Alameda because it's quirky and no two houses are alike.

Why did you start writing your Web site?

I am a great believer in PONARVs, Projects Of No Apparent Redeeming Value. Projects we do for irrational reasons, for love or for fun or for the hell of it, carry us to places we can't predict, and often end up providing surprisingly practical rewards. My very first web page was an essay about PONARVs. I soon realized that my nascent website was itself a PONARV, one that would carry me to places I couldn't predict. That's when the pages started flying!

Why do you write a site about you?

Because that's the only thing I truly know about. I think of myself as an artist. Art is self-expression. So I am, by my nature, driven to express myself. And I think that web pages are a legitimate art form. In fact, personal web pages may be the purest form of self-expression.

I am fascinated by the challenge of distilling experience into words and pictures and then sending it all out into a vast, intangible ether so that total strangers on different continents can connect with what I see inside me. The greatest praise I receive from visitors is that they feel as if they know me.

And if I do a good enough job, my pages may survive me and connect with people who haven't even been born yet. I don't expect this to happen on any grand scale, but it pleases me that my web site might someday become a wonderful legacy for my daughter.

Do you communicate with readers of your site?

Yes. If they take the trouble to write a comment in my guestbook, I usually send a note thanking them. Occasionally we strike up a brief correspondence. At the moment I'm in the midst of a wonderful exchange with a woman in Tennessee; we are pondering what happens after a mid-life crisis. I had a really interesting debate with a guy in Canada about dreams. A young man in Africa wrote to tell me that one of my essays helped him get through a difficult break-up. A delightful woman in Portugal reads my essays aloud to her cat (and her husband). I regularly dispense free advice about digital cameras and web design and get letters from school children about my Civil War pages. Some of the most touching letters come in response to the eulogy I put up for my father; readers often end up telling me about their own fathers. These interactions are what keep me going.

How much email feedback to you receive from your site? Is it mainly positive or negative?

I get about a hundred notes each year. In over four years I think I've received only one (mildly) negative e-mail from a guy who thought I wasn't baring my soul sufficiently.

Have you met any new friends because of the site?

Yes! I made one friend in Belfast who got me interested in genealogy and eventually inspired me to travel to Ireland. He fed my wife and I, took us in, and helped me with my research; we still keep in touch. That trip inspired a web page on Ireland which brought me to the attention of a councilwoman from another Irish town. We've been corresponding for years and she even sent a beautiful dress for my daughter. I've also made contact with some distant relatives I never knew I had.

Has your motivation changed over time?

Not much. My energy level ebbs and flows, my design sense has been slowly evolving, but I still approach each new page in the same way and for the same reasons. The only significant change involves the family history section, which has been growing steadily since I became a father. I have always been motivated by the challenge of conveying interesting content in an interesting way. But now I am also motivated by the challenge of uncovering and preserving family history that might otherwise be lost. The more I dabble in history and genealogy, the more I see how little survives the march of time. My growing instinct is to resist that inevitable tendency through my web pages.

How has it changed your life?

It's convinced me that I really can reach people through my words. It's carried me to far-away places, like Ireland, and back in time as I research my family tree. It's made me feel less impermanent. If I'm hit by a bus tomorrow, at least some small part of me will remain.

Do your friends and family know you keep this site/read it? If so have you had any really negative experiences as a result? If not why?

Many friends and family members do know about the site and check in periodically. I've not had any really negative experiences yet. I think that's because I have made a conscious effort to keep my site light and relatively inoffensive. I take more risks when writing my fiction, but haven't posted any of that on the site. Yet.

How has your Web site benefited you? Your friends? Or total strangers?

It helped me land my current job and can sometime serve as a portfolio in my professional work. I haven't received any direct money (I don't display any ad banners), but I have received small dollops of fame - my pages have appeared on TV and in a book. The letters I get keep my spirits up. And my technical skills and design sense have improved.

Friends and relatives get a kick out of it; they clamor for more pictures of my daughter. Over 12000 people have visited my digital camera page and I've helped a lot of people with technical questions and purchase decisions. My webmaster resources page and the site itself have helped many people build sites of their own. School children across the country use my history pages in their homework assignments. The site contains valuable information for other genealogists. And from what I can tell, the site has provided solace or amusement for countless weary surfers.

If you had to do it over again from the beginning, what would you change?

Nothing. The site evolves in an organic way. When I see something that needs changing, I change it. I like not knowing what new directions it might grow in.

What are your favorite things on your site?

My Journey to Ireland and Flying Lesson pages are especially nice to look at. I am proud of the tribute I put up to my father. One small gem is the world map which appears at the bottom of the visitors lists - little lights on the map show where my visitors come from.

When looking at other people's Web sites what do you look for as a viewer?

I look for beauty and intelligence, for clean, efficient design and well-crafted, witty, thought-provoking writing. I especially value creativity, a look or stance that is genuinely different from anything else on the web. A sense of playfulness is always nice - I don't like sites that take themselves too seriously. The best sites let me catch a glimpse of the world through someone else's eyes.

What is "one word" that would describe your site?


Because of your site do you consider yourself a Web celebrity, an exhibitionist, a public figure, a writer, an innovator, or something different?

A writer. My site makes me feel like a real writer with a small but loyal audience.

How do you tackle the mechanics of Web design and how do you deal with your frustrations when you can't do what you envision?

I usually perfect a visual design in Photoshop and then code the HTML by hand. I keep things dirt simple: no frames, javascript or style sheets, just tables and transparent spacer gifs to put each element in its place. I test on Netscape and IE, on Macs and PCs, with different screen sizes and make sure each page will fit even on a 640x480 screen. Because of gamma correction my images look darker on PCs than on Macs, so I lighten my images and work hard to bring the size down so they'll download quickly.

Color resolution is my greatest frustration. The Windows color palette system is a mess and a huge percentage of Windows users still have their machines set to 8 bit color (or worse!). Images that look breathtaking on the Mac regularly turn into grainy smudges in garish circus colors on the PC. I often do a lot of extra work to reduce the number of colors; the resulting images look so-so on the Mac but at least they have a better chance of surviving on the PC. I'm not strict about using the web-safe palette because it's too limiting and it's actually not all that safe on PCs anyway.

Despite my efforts I sometimes can't do what I envision. So I just keep playing, moving things around, trying new effects, until I stumble on something that works. I sometimes drop my first attempts for weeks or months at a time, then pick them up and try again with fresh eyes. As a rule, I won't proceed with content until I have a satisfactory visual design. In Cartania, function follows form.

Why do you think people are interested in you and what you have to say?

One visitor told me that I "can write well of Big Things: abstracts, intangible concepts like love, death, aging... without slipping into the quagmire of cliche." I try to keep a sense of humor and also keep things clear and simple. Many visitors come in looking for some useful information and then, because the site is easy to navigate and "easy to read", they start to wander and "get tangled up" in my pages.

So it's not that I myself am all that interesting. But because I look at the world with open eyes and report what I see in a simple, open way, I "strike a chord." Readers see themselves in my pages, which is always interesting. Another visitor told me that my site "was done with such heart and style!" That's what I try to do.

What compels you to design beautiful pages and to write from the heart (beyond just the usual question of "why do you write a Web site?")

I honestly don't know. But it feels good, so I keep doing it.

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