Thursday, April 29, 2010

Good podcast on Drupal and government

Here's a good podcast from BlogTalkRadio on the use of Drupal by government bodies.  It features an interview with Andrew Hoppin (the CIO of the New York Senate) and Michael Walsh (who does Drupal work for government clients).  The spot is called Open Source and Open Government.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Japan's Solar Powered Deep Space Craft

On May 18th Japan is going to launch the Ikaros, a solar powered deep space craft.  It looks sort of like a huge kite, and has very thin solar cells.  Diagrams and further description can be found on the website Inhabitat.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Trying my hand at talk radio

I've started trying my hand at internet talk radio, by getting an account on  So far I've done two tests.  The first one was hilariously bad, as I struggled with the controls.  Who am I fooling?  I couldn't find any of the controls, so I did a rambling monologue with lots of "dead air".  The second one went a bit better, aside from all the "uh"s breaking the stream of conciousness.

I'm going to do my first serious show next Monday May 3rd at 6 PM.  I'm going to discuss the perpetually wacky world of the SCO lawsuits.  The link above takes you to my latest show, as long as you're able to wait through the 20-seconds-too-long-for-internet-attention-span advertisement.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

What is Content Management?

One of the buzzphrases in web technology is Content Management, which is  implemented by a Content Management System, or CMS.  I've posted back-to-back articles about  Drupal, one of the most popular of these systems.   There were two interesting  news articles about Drupal (the release of drupal modules developed at the White House website, and the upcoming release of Drupal 7). Consequently I thought it might be a good idea to write a short article explaining what a Content Management System is, and why they have become such an integral part of contemporary web environments.

When I first started putting together websites in the late 1990s I spent as much time writing the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) to render an  article for  web browsers as I did working on the plain English language article I was writing.   While learning HTML was fun for me, it wasn't really the best allocation of my available writing time.  Often just getting the articles to display properly took more time and effort than composing and editing the text, not to mention the sheer number of keystrokes it took to hand-craft HTML.  A much simplified (and shortened) version of one of my articles might look like this:

  <head><title>The problems with directly editing Hypertext Markup Language</title></head>
    <h1>The problems with directly editing Hypertext Markup Language</h1>
    <p><a href="">Hypertext Markup Language</a> is a wonderful means of exchanging
    information over the <a href="">World Wide Web</a>.  The text surrounded by the  &lt; and  &gt; symbols give basic
    instructions which allow the web browser to render the document correctly.</p>
    <p>The problem of course, is that I have to focus on not only the flow and logic of what I have to say in the article, but details of page
     layout as well</p>
    <p>This creates a time consuming and error prone editing process,  not to mention the necessity to learn two unrelated skill sets.  And when
    other technologies such as embedded audio and video, online shopping carts, database access, and dynamically created content based on
    user input come into play, the whole package rapidly overwhelms the skill set of most writers or designers.</p>

Depending on the amount of time I put into the web page the quality of either the document, or the display (look and feel) of the document could vary wildly.   Some of my worst articles had beautiful appearance, and some of my best articles were almost unreadable because of sloppy visual presentation.

While there are a number of truly Renaissance individuals out there  who are able to write wonderful literature with beautiful graphics, and to program the website to accept user input, and render the page in an attractive and readable manner, these individuals are  not the norm.  Usually programmers are good at programming, graphic artists are good at graphic art, and writers and editors are good at writing and editing.

Pre-defined templates, and markup editing systems like Bluefish or Dreamweaver alleviate the problem somewhat, but creating large scale collaborative websites involving multiple writers and often multiple editors require a more complete solution.  It became increasingly obvious that systems were needed which would allow a writer to craft an article, upload it in a simple manner, and let the software deal with details including, but not limited to,   font, header information, page layout, and support utilities such as user comment text entry boxes and writer contact information.

This is where Content Management Systems come in.

The term Content Management System (CMS) usually refers to a general and full featured framework such as the free and open source Drupal or Joomla, or any of several proprietary systems, although more specialized blogging software does fall within Content Management.   

I'm going to use Drupal as an example, because it's the Content Management System I've used most.  It's a large free software project with a very  active development community.

The learning curve for getting Drupal set up can be a bit daunting.  If it's done from scratch it can involve the following steps.  Don't worry if you have no idea what the following steps really mean.  I'm just making the point that the initial setup and design can require some specialized skills.  It can involve  setting up and configuring a web server (usually the Apache webserver), linking the Drupal site to a database system (usually MySQL or Postgres), and if any custom work is needed on the site (beyond the thousands of modules available for download) some programming in the PHP language may be necessary.  It also involves decisions about the layout and design of the website, what functionality the site needs (does the site need blogs?  articles?  user comments? login and subscription?  a forum?  a shopping cart?).  After those decisions are made modules to accomplish the tasks need to be chosen, and options for the use of those modules and page placement needs to be configured, and a theme needs to be either chosen or developed to give a consistent look and feel to the site.

After all this is done, though, writers can concentrate on writing, visual artists can concentrate on producing artwork, and the technologists who run the site can focus on the routine tasks of updates and troubleshooting.

Fortunately many web hosting environments have the installation of Drupal or Joomla! already handled, and you can activate it with a single click.  Also there are many contract programmers and consultants who can work with customers on designing and configuring a Drupal or Joomla! site.

For more information on Content Management Systems the following links might be useful:
For general descriptions and definitions:

The Wikipedia article on Content Management
The Wikipedia article on Content Management Systems

On particular implementations of CMS

Drupal's home page
Joomla's Home page

Books about Content Management and Content Management Systems

Content Management Bible
Content Management for Dynamic Web Delivery
Enterprise Content Management Methods: What You Need to Know

Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy
Content Management Systems (Tools of the Trade)
Content Management Systems for Libraries: Case Studies
Professional Content Management Systems: Handling Digital Media Assets
Using Drupal
Pro Drupal Development, Second Edition
Front End Drupal: Designing, Theming, Scripting
Joomla! 1.5: A User's Guide: Building a Successful Joomla! Powered Website (2nd Edition)
Using Joomla: Building Powerful and Efficient Web Sites
Joomla! Start to Finish: How to Plan, Execute, and Maintain Your Web Site (Wrox Programmer to Programmer)

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Drupal 7 slower but more scalable

Drupal, the powerful and popular free and open source  Content Management System will be slower, but more scalable and more easily able to handle larger sites in version 7, which will probably be released sometime between June and September of this year. Scalability can imply a number of things in systems design, but in this context it means the ability to increase the size or load of a system without thoroughly redesigning the system itself. This is desirable if a web site is either a large and complex one or starts off small and experiences rapid growth.

The article Drupal Upgrade to Be Slower but More Scalable on the PCWorld website reports on Drupal project founder Dries Buytaert's statement on the release at the DrupalCon meeting in San Francisco.

For a shorter summary here's a clip from the YouTube channel BCS1957.

Friday, April 23, 2010

White House Web Team Releases Drupal Modules

The White House technology team released four Drupal modules to the free software community (as described in an article from Ars Technica).

Drupal is a free, open source Content Management System (CMS).

The main purpose of a CMS is to allow people who are collaborating on a website to post content without writing the code (HTML, Javascript, among others) necessary for the site to be displayed in a browser.

Content Management systems are in part based on the reality that writers are not web designers, and visual artists are not programmers.  The systems automate and modularise the work so a writer can focus on their craft without worrying about the details of how it gets displayed, and it also allows for a great deal more automation of common website behaviors.

So in the case of say, an online newspaper, the web designers set up the CMS framework, so that the journalists, editors, and photographers can focus on generating the content without also having to become programmers or web designers.  Once the content is generated, the journalists and photographers just upload their work, the editors exercise control over what gets posts, and the content management system takes care of the details of managing and displaying that content.

In the case of Drupal, programmers write modules to handle  a certain task.  One example would a blog module.  Another would be a module to accept and handle comments to a blog.  Another might be allowing an article to be downloaded as a PDF file.  These modules are made available to the development community, and can be freely downloaded and used by website designers.

The White House website uses Drupal to manage its content.  The WH  technology team developed a few specialized modules and released them so that other designers can use them.  In my view this is a great service to the Drupal community and the community of Drupal end users, and they should be commended.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Google's Agnilux acquistion

For the past two days there has been a great deal of discussion in the business and technology press about Google's acquisition of the secretive start-up company Agnilux. Agnilux was founded by individuals who had been part of the Apple team which developed the chip for the iPad.

There had been some speculation that Google would use Agnilux to develop low power processors for cloud computing servers.

The New York Times, however, ran an article asserting that the company was primarily purchased for its expertise in hardware-software integration, and that their primary focus may be to port Chrome and Android onto other platforms (tablets for example).

The founders of Agnilux include Amarjit Gill, Puneet Kumar, and Mark Hayter, all of whom were officials at P.A. Semi, and were absorbed into Apple when that company was aquired by Apple. At P.A. Semi Gill had been the VP for Sales and Business Development, Kumar had been the VP for Systems Software, and Hayter was the Chief Systems Architect and VP for Systems Engineering.

Red Hat 6 Beta released

Red Hat has released their beta version 6 today. Here's their press release.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Perl 5.12 released

Perl 5.12 has been released, and you can read about it at this link to the Perl 5 porters mailing list.

Among other improvements it brings Perl in closer compliance to the Unicode standard.

A complete list of changes and additions can be found here.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Ed Roberts, September 13, 1941 - April 1, 2010

Henry Edward Roberts, developer of the first popular personal computer, the Altair, died yesterday at the age of 68.

He is best know in the technology world for producing the Altair, based on Intel's 8080 microprocessor. This kit computer was popularized in the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics. It was also the host for the first Microsoft product, Altair BASIC, developed by Bill Gates and Paul Allen.

Roberts made radical career changes in the 1980s, first becoming a farmer, and then entering medical school and becoming a physician in rural Cochran, Georgia.

More on Roberts can be found in this Wikipedia article.