In July of 1997, Dave Biondi in Texas offered free webhosting for SBE chapters wanting to create a site. Having wanted to learn HTML and the various allied technologies, I went for it. Netscape’s browser came with a decent HTML editor, so with a Sams book in my lap, I created the first chapter web page. We registered an independent website a couple of years later, still using the Texan.net servers. That first web page still exists, though the logo has been updated and the site is now hosted in San Diego at Aplus.net.
The idea of informing the San Diego broadcast engineer about the SBE chapter and local industry news seemed obvious. At that time, Ron Foo and John Barcroft at KGB were working hard publishing the monthly SBE chapter print newsletter. I wanted more local content and eventually to help relieve them of some of the laborious processes of composing, copying, folding, stapling, stamping, and addressing. Some chapters, like Portland, do such a consistently good job of covering local events that it just seemed possible to do that here. And the intended audience was supposedly wired, so wouldn’t it also be possible to set-up web and e-mail distribution?
In 1997, I had a brand new screaming 160 MHz Macintosh Performa 6360 and quickly bought the BBEdit text editor and some cheap graphics software. With some Apple Quicktime macro programming, I could create a webpage from plain text paragraphs in seconds. I created web banner ads for our sponsors and at one time had 24 in circulation, some artistically pleasant, others not so much.
The only problem with this technique is that it creates static web pages. If your design later changes or you get new sponsors and need different banners to rotate, you have to re-render the HTML. I looked around for a more dynamic web page publishing technique, but I couldn’t find anything well enough documented that I could learn it in what little spare time I had. I did learn and implement Cascading Style Sheets, or CSS, which is a cool way to write a central design structure with a single text document.
In 2001, when I gave the job a rest for a year, webmaster Tim Toole won the SBE Chapter Website of the Year award.
In 2004, I created a potentially commercial site called Benx.us (Broadcast Engineers’ News & eXchange), but it really demanded collaboration and everyone else had their own gig going and didn’t want to combine efforts. Hackers seemed to enjoy exploiting the PHP forum vulnerabilities so that I had to reload the site daily for a while. With respect to the forum, people had different interpretations about freedom of speech. I took it down after a few months.
In 2005, I discovered the underworld of open source content management systems (CMS). These systems, depending on the increasingly popular open source PHP web task language and SQL database, automate all the dynamic web pages. All you have to do is customize a template and install the desired working modules. If you are seeing this in the summer of 2007, you are looking at the Mambo CMS with a customized JW Tribute template. Look at this site for a peek at what it looks like elsewhere.
I haven’t seen much discussion about this, but that pile of code makes the site seem vulnerable. First, many of the modules they distribute don’t work. That’s probably due to the classic mistake that amateur programmers make in writing for their particular circumstance and not to the greater design framework. Often they just lose interest while chasing all the bugs. We tried to use Mambo for an intranet at work, but customizing it got us into a mire of spaghetti code that we didn’t have the time to devote to–time is money. All that PHP code and that one, big, increasingly vulnerable database make me quite afraid that one day the site will be broken and I won’t be able to reconstruct it. Yes, I back it up, but what happens when the host updates PHP and MySQL and some of the code stops working? Meanwhile, the webpages from before 2005 just sit there as little text files, ready for viewing–simple, like an old car.
So for SBE36 version 3, I’m looking for a simple implementation of PHP and CSS, from which I can make a site from a structure of stored HTML insert text files. Sort of like the original site, but with dynamic style, banners, and menus.
Ideally, there should be one SBE supersite with virtual chapter sites built-in. You contribute articles and checkoff boxes as to where they should be read. But that’s not in the spirit of the ever independent web.
Why do all this work?
I thought about this question and at first came up with noble answers about informed citizens in a democracy and all that, but it’s more primal, really. Writers are simply compelled to tell the stories of their time. You ask Bob Gonsett of Fallbrook, Clay Freinwald of Seattle or Kent Randles of Portland and I suspect they would have to admit the same thing–that telling you about what is going on is something that just has to be done and we’re just going to do it.
Not that my work is as consistent or as high quality as theirs. In fact, it’s simply a product of the time and interest I have to devote to the task–no more, no less.
I try to use a couple of principles to guide me. One is to confirm information. Another is to give others a voice–especially if they disagree. Another is to try to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s a small community. We all make mistakes.
So we do it because we like to inform, because we like to read our own taut script, and because once in a while someone says, “I read that article you wrote and really (liked it) (learned something) (it made me think) (laughed).”
Thank you just for reading.