Web Design: Satisfying Accomplishment

Most of you reading this are already lost, right?

I spent most of last night in my office working on a website. It’s a little thing I’m doing for myself, five or six pages with some video. It’s difficult to explain the feeling, but creating a website is really rewarding in a creative way.

The first step was installing WordPress on a webserver. It only takes a few minutes. WordPress is very mature. Ease is built in.

Most of you reading this are already lost, right? Here’s WordPresses own explanation.

WordPress is web software you can use to create a beautiful website or blog. We like to say that WordPress is both free and priceless at the same time.

The core software is built by hundreds of community volunteers, and when you’re ready for more there are thousands of plugins and themes available to transform your site into almost anything you can imagine. Over 25 million people have chosen WordPress to power the place on the web they call “home” — we’d love you to join the family.

This site is built on WordPress too. The new site looks nothing like this!

WordPresses ‘themes’ creates the look. There are thousands of themes I could have used, but I modified the on that comes standard (it’s called Twenty Ten). That’s the most rewarding part!

Reskinning the theme requires a little programming skill in wrangling three languages: php, css and html. I know just enough to be dangerous. That means I’m writing with a few books at the ready because there will be questions! If I did this more I’d be a lot faster.

It’s all so elegant. Within a few minutes what began as an instantly familiar barebones WordPress site began to look like the site I wanted!

I spent five hours working on the site last night. It’s nearly done. Later tonight or tomorrow it will be done.

I have a very satisfying feeling of accomplishment.

My Life In Web Design

There were a few hours spent being stumped. That was overcome through a lot of reading, inferring and head banging!

It’s almost 4:00 AM and I’m sitting here looking at a website I designed for a friend’s business. I can’t show it to you because it’s not live and it’s not mine to preview–but it looks like a real professional website. Wow! Who knew?

There are around 20 pages on the site and almost as many pieces of video. It took dozens of hours to piece together. Quick comes later with more practice.

The site is simple and clean. It’s a hack of another theme I found online, though most of the parent/child resemblance is gone. The site is very blue.

The surprise to me is I can do this for someone else and have it come out looking nice. That’s not an overwhelmingly confident statement, is it?

There were more than a few hours spent stumped. Everything ground to a halt. It was only overcome through a lot of reading, inferring and a moderate amount of head banging! Mostly the CSS and HTML came together easily. Everything made logical sense as design problems were faced and solved.

What I’m clumsily trying to say is at this moment I have a feeling of inner satisfaction and accomplishment. I am the master of a young man’s game.

Website Gets Thrown Out And Rewritten

The commands are short and powerful. You can accidentally do a lot of damage with Putty!

striped-bkgnd.pngI have learned the pleasure and pain involved in website creation. This is pregnancy and childbirth combined. If nothing else it feels so good when you stop!

I woke up early this afternoon and discussed my design progress with Helaine. The site was just not looking right and I was considering throwing it all away–three full days of work. Unfortunately, it was becoming obvious more work wouldn’t fix my problems.

“I know that’s what you want to do,” she said. She didn’t encourage me to restart, but she didn’t discourage me either.

I bit the bullet and opened Putty, my SSH client. Putty resembles an old school terminal screen–black and white with no graphics. It’s powerful because Putty allows me to control the remote server. The commands are short and powerful. You can accidentally do a lot of damage with Putty!

mv site old_site

With that cryptic command three days of work was moved to the Internet equivalent of a railroad siding. Everything was intact but now out-of-the-way. I then created a new site directory, a new database and reinstalled a fresh copy of WordPress. It didn’t take more than ten minutes to have a fresh website.

Fresh and empty.

Last night I found Mimbo, a WordPress theme. I download a copy and activated it. These website condiments are small and download in a few seconds. Now I had the makings of a website.

Mimbo is touted as a ‘magazine’ theme. It isn’t made for blogging even though WordPress is primarily blogging software. It ‘ages’ entries in various categories independently of each other. It has room for an unbloglike ‘sticky’ entry which will remain prominently displayed even as new content slips beneath it.

Designing a website is conceptual. You need to think about how each piece will relate and interact with all the others. That is the part I was most confident about. It’s good to be naive!

By late afternoon the site was coming together nicely. Mimbo took care of most of my presentation worries. I customized its look. The polka dots at the top of this entry are part of the site’s background. Amazingly the pages look good! My main concern from the previous iteration was gone.

Now I was ready to install the key component of this site–the ability for users to create the content destined for the home page. The plugin didn’t work. It literally did nothing. I poured over forums and the sparse documentation that came with it.

The real shortcoming of free software isn’t how it works but how you learn to use it. Those who write software are seldom adept at telling others how to use it. I suspect a huge percentage of the best stuff in software is never used because no one knows it’s there.

I opened Putty again and made some changes to the inner workings of my web server. It was only a few lines of code–really someone else’s work cut and pasted. Immediately the plugin worked! My submission form was live.

I started to add dummy content to the site. These are entries that contain nonsense text. It looks like English but actually has no real words which might distract you. Online “Lorem generators” provide this stuff!

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Duis vulputate elit vel dolor. Vivamus sollicitudin est nec eros vehicula dapibus. Vivamus in lorem. Curabitur at sapien tempor odio hendrerit lacinia. Suspendisse congue risus non justo. Nullam odio turpis, dapibus quis, sollicitudin quis, rutrum sit amet, orci.

It only looks like Latin! It’s gibberish.

Tonight I showed the incomplete site to a few friends. Most seemed suitably impressed.

It’s getting close. The next few dozen steps are cosmetic. Stylesheets will be tweaked. Some underlying HTML code will have to be reworked. In my dreams this doesn’t take long. In reality who knows?

Sometime in the next few days I’ll be asking for your help. In order for this site to go live it will need lots of user generated content. I’ll save the specifics for later.

This is a little one-man-band website. I take that back. It’s a one-woman-band website because it’s my wife’s and she will administer it.

It will not cure cancer. It will not compete with Yahoo! or Google. It has potential.

I’d Like To Program

I dabble with computers. I can take them apart and put them back together. I write code–not a lot. Not very well. I can rewrite other people’s code in languages I hardly know. I wish I knew more.

Specifically, I wish I knew more about PHP and MySQL. I’d like to write in those languages. They’re a powerful combo.

This is a good time for a quick lesson about the web and it’ll be pretty geeky. I’ll understand if you stop reading here.

If you’ve never written a computer program you should know there are lots of computer languages. Most are optimized for a specific task. All the languages are distinct but they are similar.

The underlying programming language on the Internet is HTML–hypertext markup language.

You can create HTML using PHP, another language. The reason you use PHP to create HTML is because PHP is built for databases. Using databases you can insert fresh information into otherwise static webpages.

Think of sites you know that always look the same even though their content is always changing–this one for instance. Most likely PHP (or Microsoft’s equivalent) is working behind-the-scenes to insert the data into pre-ordained slots.

MySQL is a database program. I’m not 100% on the licensing but it’s basically “free to use and modify” software and it’s running some huge websites.

If I knew MySQL and PHP I could develop websites. I’d like to do that. Scratch building websites is a design process not unlike architecture or writing a book. It’s a creative process which appeals to me.

There are online tutorials, but I haven’t found anything yet that is well taught and at the right pace. Distance learning is not for the faint of heart nor the uncommitted.

Shed No Tears For Netscape

When I first hit the Internet, there was no World Wide Web! Websites were textual affairs with named structures like Gopher, Archie and Veronica.

The world changed when Mosaic and then Netscape Navigator were released. The web became more akin to the printed page. Over time, Netscape Navigator dominated… until Microsoft caught on.

Ciao Netscape.

Yesterday, AOL (the current owner) announced it was the end of the line for Netscape Navigator. A few friends wrote to make sure I knew. And, they all wondered if I would shed a tear?


Actually, I see Mozilla Firefox as the natural successor to NN. As long as Firefox stay’s in production I’m a happy guy.

Unfortunately, in the time between Internet Explorer’s ascent and Firefox’s birth, Microsoft decided not to bother following standard HTML and CSS protocols.

Things look different in Internet Explorer than other browsers… because IE does it wrong. But, since they have the vast majority of market share, the other browsers (doing it right) are looked upon as inferior.

Pretty sneaky.

Where was I? Oh, Netscape. Thanks for blazing the trail. I actually already thought you were dead.

Working Hard In PJs

Usually, by this time of night, I’ve posted something on the blog. Today I’ve been very busy. I’ve been working on a new website.

I hinted around about this site before… but it’s taking a long time to get it up to speed. And, as was the case earlier, I’m not ready to reveal much about it… other than to say it will only interest a very small percentage of those reading this blog.

Building a website is like building anything else – you need a vision. The finished product might differ from that early idea, but there’s got to be something to aim for. It has been tough coming up with the vision.

Finally last night, around 4:45 AM, it started to come into focus. I was playing around in Photoshop and found a design for the site’s logo. It was an accident. I did something wrong, but liked the result! It contained enough elements of style and typography to start defining the rest of the page.

As I continued, I was constantly reminded how little I know about web design! The nuts and bolts are done in a few very simple computer languages: HTML and CSS. I am picking up what I need on the fly.

If you’re really interested, your browser has the ability to show you the ‘source’ for any web page you’re on. That’s what the browser sees and what I was writing today. Though there are fine programs for doing this, I chose to write by hand in a notebook program.

Over the past few years, I’ve read about inconsistencies Microsoft designed into Internet Explorer. In some cases IE works opposite the standards! There are workarounds, but the first time you look at your page, and then watch it get mangled when displayed in IE, is very frustrating.

Maybe I’m being a little too innocent, but I think the site can be mostly finished this weekend. That would be great.

Unfortunately, as little as I know about web design, I know less about the next steps! Wish me luck.

Thanks Google – Much to My Surprise

As websites go, this one isn’t Wal-Mart, it’s mom and pop. Actually it’s just pop, as mom doesn’t code websites in PHP, HTML, CSS and the other obscure computer languages I deal with.

What I’m getting at is, this is a very small site run by one individual. Though I want lots of people coming here, I have no way of attracting them except by links from other sites (always appreciated) and citations on search engines like Google.

A few months back I noticed lots of people going to my September 2003 archive page. What was driving them there? The answer: Google!

If you go to Google’s image search and enter “hurricane photo“, the resulting page has one shot of a ship that stands out. That phony hurricane photo, which has been circulating across the net for years, is on my site.

Yesterday I found if you enter “Thanksgiving Day Parade“, one of my photos is first on the screen! Interestingly, if you leave out the word “day” you’ll find someone else in the top spot and my photos nowhere to be seen.

Website traffic is not the difference between life and death for me. On the other hand, more is definitely better. By understanding how Google decides to do what they do, I can get more people here. I think I understand why my images do so well. Now if I could only get my text to register the same way.

Drudge’s Graphics

I read Matt Drudge all the time. Actually, that’s an exaggeration because the vast majority of what’s on Drudge’s site is just links to other places.

It looks to be written entirely in html – the simplest of web languages. Its most sophisticated feature is the javascript code in ads, written to try to evade pop-up blockers (and it certainly beats Google’s toolbar).

Drudge doesn’t run much in the way of images. Tonight there are three showing on his page. Amazingly, they are all being hosted on websites other than Drudge’s. Two are in yimg.com, which I think is a Yahoo image server, The other is msn.com.

If he’s not paying for this privilege, since it certainly can be done without permission, it’s the equivalent of powering your house through your neighbor’s electric meter.

Who Came Here in 2003

I don’t have an incredibly long history as a webmaster. So, for me, it’s often confusing and at the same time interesting to peek at the inner workings of this site. I have owned the domain name geofffox.com for a few years, but it’s only been since late July that I’ve mounted this blog and photo gallery.

My webserver is actually located in Chicago, and run by hostforweb.com. It is shared with other small websites. I have access to most of the server’s guts through shell programs.

In order for you to see what you’re reading now, I have to upload all the files and images and programs from home. There are a number of programs, like the one that produces the weather forecast meteograms that run on clocks and execute a few times a day. I had to write the scripts to do that too.

Running this website has forced me to learn a little about a bunch of computer disciplines, like php, Perl, bash shell scripts, html and a veritable alphabet soup of minutiae. It’s been challenging and like Blanche Du Bois, I am often dependent on the kindness of strangers. The more I learn about computers, the less I realize I know.

With the year over in less than four hours, I though I’d summarize a little of what’s gone through this site in 2003. Since it was only born in July, the stats are (hopefully) less than what I’ll get to publish in 2004.

7.76 GB That’s the total amount of data I’ve spit out. It melts down to 10 CDROM’s worth… or a few DVD’s. The majority of my hits go to the United States, but most of Europe and the Pacific Rim are represented as well.

271.69 MB That’s what Google slurped up. Loads of spiders and crawlers moved through the site, picking up the data that goes into search engines. Google took down nearly 5 times as much data as the next biggest search engine and was responsible for 6711 page views by users. I have chronicled elsewhere my rise in the Google rankings – a feat which both intrigues and fascinates me.

Giblet gravy That’s the most used search engine phrase that sent people to the site. They must have been disappointed because I used the phrase to illustrate a point that had nothing to do with cooking. The next most requested phrase was Scotty Crowe, John Mayer’s road manager.

Thanks to everyone who’s written to ask me for John’s email address. Even if I had it, I couldn’t give it out. You will be glad to know your admiration is not misplaced. There’s a whole lot to admire about John. I don’t think he’ll be spoiled by success.

I’m not sure how or why, but people searching for dangerous Internet cafes in las vegas nv and she had to remove her shoes airport ended up being sent to geofffox.com.

My cousin Michael and his wife Melissa in Sunny Southern California became blog readers. More than anyone, Michael made me realize I could use an editor from time-to-time. I try to spell and grammar check, but you need a dispassionate eye too.

My dad reads the blog every day. That pleases me more than he’ll ever know.

From time to time I’ve looked at my logs, seeing where readers are coming from. There’s someone at NBC in NY who reads pretty regularly, same at the vendor of our station’s weather equipment and Mississippi State University, where I’m taking courses. Most readers are connecting through residential addresses, but I’m amazed by all the different companies and universities that are listed.

Once, I made reference to probes of my home computer by a virus ensconced in a PC at a San Fransisco Honda dealer. I made an analogy that used the word ‘doorknob’. A few days later a computer at a doorknob manufacturer downloaded a significant portion of this site. They’ll be as surprised as the giblet gravy crowd.

In 2003 approximately 17,000 separate viewers came calling to this site. Collectively you visited 30,000 times, downloading 872,000 files. My page counter now sits just north of 60,000.

Every word I write is read, re-read, edited, punched up and perused again before it goes online. One of the more pleasant surprises of blogging is how challenging and how much fun it is to write. I never felt that way about writing before.

Often it is a cathartic experience, allowing me to get something off my chest. Other times it’s fun to let you in on something I observed and want to share.

My family puts up with this to a point. I reveal a lot in this blog, but not everything. A friend wrote to tell me he was surprised to see this ‘warts and all’ self assessment. If there are warts here, they are a small portion of my own personal wart colony. Like most people, I keep a few skeletons in my closet.

Thanks for reading. It really means a lot to me. Really.