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July 15, 2002

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By the time you read this, I’ll be by the pool at a resort in North Queensland. Lucky me.

While I might be relaxing and recovering from my recently completed PhD dissertation, you probably have Web sites to build, and maybe you need help and advice. I frequently receive email from readers asking for book recommendations and Web sites about CSS, but right now I’m not checking email. I wouldn’t want to abandon you, though.

So here are my recommendations for books and Web sites to check out. These aren’t the only resources that are worth looking at, of course. They just happen to be the ones that I use myself or, in the case of the books, the ones that I actually own. If there’s some resource you think I’ve missed, by all means let us all know in the feedback forum below. Meanwhile, please accept this article as my reply to all similar email asking for pointers to resources.

Books

One of the great things about the recent explosion of interest in CSS and standards-oriented Web design is the range of books now available that at least purport to explain these standards and help Web authors use them in their work. The two that I own and recommend are both by CSS guru and now Netscape standards evangelist Eric Meyer. The best introduction to the basic ideas of CSS are found in Cascading Style Sheets: The Definitive Guide . Also known as the O’Reilly “Fish” book, this is an excellent book for Web authors beginning on the Web standards journey.

If you’re already progressing beyond the basics, have a look at Cascading Style Sheets 2.0 Programmer’s Reference, also by Eric Meyer. Try to get beyond the hideous typography, because the content is worth much better than the layout it’s been given. Eric Meyer has consistently produced the best explanations of the box model and the rules for floated boxes, and I find I go back to those explanations regularly, especially when I’m trying to work out exactly where certain browsers are going wrong.

Two books that I don’t own, but others have recommended are Cascading Style Sheets: Designing for the Web (2nd Edition) by Hakon Wium Lie, Bert Bos and Robert Cailliau and Cascading Style Sheets: Separating Content from Presentation by Owen Briggs, Steve Champeon, Eric Costello and Matthew Patterson.

Lie and Bos were both involved in the writing of the CSS specifications; Lie is now an employee of Opera. One of the advantages of this book is that, being among the authors of the spec, they can discuss its intent as well as its literal details. I found a borrowed copy of this book particularly useful when I was wondering, for example, whether the CSS px unit should be rescaled on Mac screens. This book is also packed full of practical advice for Web authors, and comes with the recommendations of people whose judgement I trust, even though I don’t own it myself. Similarly, the book by Briggs and co-authors represents the work of several respected researchers on the practical aspects of designing with Web standards.

Web sites

If I listed all the worthwhile sites on CSS, we’d both be here all day. And since all the good blogs get linked by all the other good blogs, it won’t take long to find them if you start at zeldman.com or glish.com or thenoodleincident.com and work from there. You’ll find tutorials, templates and all manner of useful information. Once you’ve got the hang of these more accessible resources, check out the specs themselves. You’ll find they’re actually much more readable that a lot of people make out. The reference material and validators at htmlhelp.com are also very good. If you’ve wondered what the difference between htmlhelp.com’s validators and the W3C versions are, they give errors and warnings in the same places, but sometimes the wording of the htmlhelp.com version is a bit easier to understand.

The resources on browser support are also very good. The Mozilla team have resources on CSS support for their family of browsers, including an excellent dissection of CSS1 support, using an annotated version of the original spec. Microsoft, for all its proprietary tendencies, at least tends to ’fess up when it’s being proprietary. If you want to compare CSS support of different browsers, WebReview is the canonical source, or you can try RichInStyle.com.

Another issue dear to my heart is analysis of the usage of different browsers by MacEdition’s readers. To do this properly, you really need to take the non-humans out of the figures. That means having a good sense of what browsers are really robots, spiders or email siphons. It’s also useful if there are robots or spiders that you actively want to block from your site for some reason. There are a number of sites out there that compile lists of different user agent tags and work out which are real people and which are just robots. None of them are truly comprehensive, but taken together they are pretty complete. If you’re interested in excluding spammer tools, check out sendfakemail.com’s list. There’s also a site that lists the user agent strings that are considered to be non-human, or at least non-advertising viewing. Sites that want to have their traffic audited by this site need to exclude all those user agents from the figures first. Psychedelix.com also lists robot agents, while the Webmasterworld forum seems to be the haunt of Web authors who also actively look at their stats in this way.

Resource collections

There are so many different tutorial sites. That’s one of the reasons why I’ll never write a basic tutorial; everyone else has already done it. Similarly, I could put together a list of links myself, but why, when so many people have done it before? Some of these sites have tried to be comprehensive, while others only collect the links to the really good resources. So let me let you in on a secret; when I can’t remember the URL of a particular useful site to recommend to a reader, nineteen times out of twenty it will be linked from Websitetips.com’s CSS resources page. So if there’s something I missed, check Shirley Kaisers’s websitetips. It’s probably there. Similarly, check out webstandards.org’s resources page.

Communities

As with Web sites and tutorials, there are literally hundreds of sources to choose from. My favorites are the CSS-Discuss email list on CSS, and Evolt’s thelist for Web development more generally. Both lists are full of smart people who understand the issues, and the signal to noise ratio is very high. Unlike the UseNet newsgroup, there is very little trolling, because most of the subscribers to the lists are already with the standards-oriented program.

So there you have it: if you can’t get enough of CodeBitch, here are the substitutes. Meanwhile, the weather is gorgeous. Wish you were here.

— CodeBitch (codebitch@macedition.com) is the grumpy cow who does the HTML production for MacEdition. Read other articles by CodeBitch

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