THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 814, March 22, 2015
I don't know exactly what it is, but there
is something in democracy that selects for
the very worst in humanity: the craziest,
the most stupid, and the most evil.
HTML, CSS, Drupal, WordPress: Twenty Years of Progress
Special to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise
I built my first website in November 1995. It was just after the launch of Windows 95 and the first version of Netscape. For three years, I had been about half a dozen steps behind the cutting edge of the IT Revolution. It had been a matter of sending and receiving e-mails in raw Unix, and then in crude software packages with names like Elm and Pine, and of using a system called Gopher to download texts in atrociously-edited Latin or smutty, though often monochrome, jpeg files.
I built my website because I could. I strolled one day into the computer department at my university, and was told by the beardie man there who smelled that, as a trusted member of staff, I had the right to claim space on the server to host my own files. I nodded and walked off with his two page introduction to html coding. Hardly anyone read my writings in hard copy. I expected even fewer would read me on-line. It was probably for the best that I was right at first. What I produced, after a week of head-scratching, was a single page website containing about six essays. It was black on grey. After more head-scratching, I discovered how to break the monotony with headers an inch high, in red or blue. Even before I had tracked down all the unclosed html tags, I was enormously pleased with the result.
I got better over the next few months. By the summer of 1996, I had a website of about a hundred linked pages. Over the next year, this doubled, and I began to realise that for every one person who read me in hard copy at least a hundred read me on-line. A few days after putting up my first hit counter, I discovered how to lie with it. There was little truth in the million hits I claimed by the start of 1998. But there was far more truth than I could ever have thought possible when I was given that two page introduction.
It was now that I ran into serious problems with formatting. If you run a site of a dozen pages, you can keep going through them by hand to standardise and restandardise their appearance. You try doing that for hundreds of pages -- and trying to earn a living, and to keep your wife happy, and to produce more copy. You try doing that with a navigation structure based on frames within frames within frames. Oh, and try doing it for three different websites. Even with the Netscape Composer, it meant all night sittings, followed by more of the same every time I changed my mind.
I thought I had solved the problem in 2002. I found a book on css coding, and spent a week adding style tags to every page. I was very pleased with the results. They looked almost competent. There I rested for the next eight years. During this time, the websites I controlled grew mightily. Hundreds of pages became thousands. But I had arrived at a set of structures that sort of worked. The overall effect was increasingly dated. Other people were doing things that I could admire without knowing where to begin copying. But I had my structures, and I could publish a new page in only about half an hour.
Then, in 2010, I discovered content management software. It took months to get thousands of html pages into sql databases. But I brought myself almost up to date. With automatic formatting and indexing, it now took only a few minutes to publish something new. And themes and modules let me do all the things I had long admired without understanding. Indeed, the knowledge I had of html and css coding remained useful for playing with the style sheets.
It was soon clear, however, that I had chosen the wrong content management software. I chose Drupal 6. This is, I will insist, enormously powerful software. I believe the British State uses it for all its websites. You can do wonderful things with Drupal. But it was never designed for amateurs. It took weeks of obsessive hunting on the Web to find instructions in plain English for how to use the taxonomy and views modules, and to find examples of php coding to drop into the system to associate certain blocks with certain categories.
No knowledge is entirely useless. But every act of learning is a matter of opportunity cost. I am a writer. I make my living from fiction. The cost of the time I have spent on trying to learn Drupal 6 has easily been three big novels, not to mention the loss of time with my family that will not come again.
Still worse, I have been learning an obsolete system. Drupal 6 has given way to Drupal 7, and then to Drupal 8; and Drupal 9 will soon be out there. Each upgrade is radically different from the last. You cannot jump from versions 6 to 8, but must go up one at a time. There is limited forward compatibility. I did try, a few months ago, to take the smallest website that I control to Drupal 7. After a night of frustration, I gave up and reverted.
The final crisis came last week. For several months, my hosting company had been moaning at me about a repeated and unexplained growth of one of my sql databases, and an equally unexplained hogging of bandwidth. I was using up 80Gb a month. The problem seemed to be in the Drupal cache files. Search me what was happening, though.
And so, the day before yesterday, I installed a test version of WordPress. It took several hours to import the Drupal database, and then to convert the categories. It will take a long time to clean up all the thousand or so pages of my political writings. But, I went to bed with almost as good a website in WordPress as I ever had in Drupal. Plug-ins are easier to install than modules. Style sheets are easier to manipulate. The core software updates at the click of a mouse. Different widgets and sidebars can be configured in minutes to show with different categories. After two days, the underlying structure of my WordPress site is almost as good as I had after five years with Drupal. Its appearance is already better.
I will repeat that I do not despise Drupal. It does everything that WordPress does, and probably much more. But I also repeat that I am a user of content management software, not a developer. So far as I can tell, WordPress is like a cheap digital camera, and Drupal is like the sort of camera used by professional photographers. If you want to do something astonishing, you will not use the former. At the same time, people like me are not up to doing anything that will astonish. To do anything competent, we are better off with the basic model.
I doubt if my struggle with websites has reached a conclusion. Sooner or later, there will be something even better than WordPress for people like me. Until then, however, I will be a true and faithful lover of WordPress. If my basic understanding of php coding remains useful, I can rejoice that I shall never again have to sweat over importing nested tables into blocks.
Such is progress.
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