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Wednesday October 19 2005

The search for blogging software has taken an optimistic turn.

I apologize in advance for the perhaps rather technical nature of this post. I appreciate that not everyone is fascinated by my travails with the act of blogging. I read a great article once which made fun of how many blogs are mired in a self-referential swamp, dealing as they often do mainly with posts on how the author is getting on with blogging. Or not. Rest assured that I'm also aware of the sweet irony of occasionally posting to say that I haven't been posting a lot. Still, the whole point of having a blog is to be able to write what and when you want. Something to do with the democratization of content creation, freedom of the press, underground publishing dragged into the twenty-first century and a general urge to stick it to the media a bit. I mean, however boring I might get - and in any case someone'll be loving it - at least you don't have to pay for this content and then dig around amongst the car ads for the content. I'm worth every penny I cost :)

So what's going on with my blogging software? Well, here I'll get fairly technical, although please be assured that my affinity for html and so forth is minimal. I'm just someone who feels that it's good for me to do a bit of writing, paint-balling the web with my stuff in the hope of scoring a palpable hit once in a while. If this resonates with you at all, you probably will find the following interesting. I'll try to make it as clear as possible...

I do love that "..." thing. I know I shouldn't, but I do. Something to do with fear of commitment and being too definite no doubt. Still, in-depth critiques of my expressive style and grammar will have to wait. Today we talk of publishing mechanisms.

So, the blog. What is it? A load of writings, organized by date. Simple as that. A web site is content of any sort which is presented in any way, simply having to be available on the net to distinguish it from a word-processing document or text file. Links not even compulsory. I've seen sites which are just long, long pages which are periodically added to. Any consideration of visual style or structure is purely a decorative issue, and also an issue of accessibility. It makes sense to assemble your content in such a way as to encourage the reader, of course. All the media hype about blogging is bollocks, really, unsurprisingly enough. Just as podcasting is a buzzword for taking an audio file and disseminating it in a form which facilitates playing it on a few different electrical devices, blogging is fundamentally a way of allowing people to easily create text and spread it. Posts are dated so that new content is obvious to the reader, and because it may or may not be interesting for historical purposes to trace the date of a post. It's just a diary on the web, and the content might be anything. I think it's important to examine and demystify these things. Content is king, and the methods of organizing and publishing it are a distant second.

Now, given that we've taken the trouble to write some stuff and stick it on the web, it's a safe assumption that we want it to be read. But of course any number of people might read a blog without leaving any trace. I and others have counters, of course, which means there is some basic way of tallying the number of visitors to the site. But there's no actual discussion without commenting. So the next step after publishing posts organized by date is to have the ability to spark a discussion alongside those posts. That's what takes ranting into the void to the level of a communal pursuit. To get an interested community of readers involved requires a public forum. We all know that there are various software solutions to this, ranging from the crude use of simple email to the sophisticated implementation of actual discussion forums. All manner of stuff. But anything that actually gives the ability to have a train of comments and responses following on from a post necessitates a software solution. You can publish stuff to a blog or site, and it'll just sit there on the server you use, visible to all. But to allow discussion requires that server to run software. And that's the rub, you see.

Not all web space that comes with an internet account allows scripting. Mine doesn't. Costs extra. So immediately one gets into having to rent some proper hosting and implement an arcane selection of pieces of software, potentially in a range of languages, in order to get the desired functionality. Wait a minute, you say, that's a big step from ftp'ing a few pages to your free-with-your-ISP-account web space. And you'd be right. That's why - tada - most blogging is carried out on sites like LiveJournal, Blogger and countless others. These services take all the sting out of the whole thing, and allow you to create a blog with commenting, sub-communities of users and various other bells and whistles simply by having a browser and an urge to write something. All the admin is handled by the service on their servers. In many ways, this is a perfect solution. You can get a free account, or for a small cost a more capable one. Free is sufficient for most casual users. A side effect of these services is that they have a degree of innate publicity; tools are generally provided to find like-minded blogs and users. They're communities. It's really just an updated extension of the old AOL homepages thing, where you fill in the blanks and choose a visual theme and hey presto - you have a site. No renting server space, no tweaking endless configs, just maximum return on effort. No wonder these things are all the rage.

There is, however, a drawback to this business of subbing out all the work. And that's that you are at the mercy of the service you choose. If I cook up a few tasty articles in an editor and then transfer them to my web site, then it really doesn't matter if the company that owns the server goes bust, changes hands or just doesn't like what I'm doing. I have the original documents, so I can just squirt them at another bit of online real estate, can't I? If I change accounts because I can get cheaper access from someone else, then no big deal. I just post the stuff up wherever else I choose. Not locked into a format or a location. The same is not true of, say, Blogger. For all my hard work to be preserved for posterity as a Blogger user requires Blogger to remain operational and well-disposed towards me, and we can't take that as a given. Tech is fickle, and change is fast. I've read the terms of service. Now this worries me, so I've spent the last few years using a piece of software called Blog which I'll now explain. I've explained it before, but I believe that it's better to do so again than refer you to a clutch of past posts. Better for the flow.

So Blog. It's free, and although it's a bit buggy and not developed at a great rate due to the business of the author, it does offer a unique capability. What it does is allows you to keep your entire blog completely under your control. It consists, really, of an editor and a database and an ftp package all rolled together. You write the posts in the editor, and then hit the publish button. At this point the posts are turned into html pages and squirted at any old passive, non-scripting enabled web space that you like. And behind the scenes the dated posts are organized in the database bit. There's a little more to it, but not much. It's really clever actually. Change the server address in the config, and you can just publish the whole site somewhere else. Undeniably a great tool for those who want to retain control over their content. But, and it's a big but, if you want all the bells and whistles of a site like Blogger with the neat commenting and so on, then you need to have the scripting on the server and so on. This is where we came in, of course.

So what do I want? It's simple. I want to use Blogger (and you'll probably know that I already do) with the commenting and the community and all the nice touches, but NOT with the lurking fear that all my writing is held on their servers alone, and subject to the whims of capricious fortune (forgive the mangled bardery). I want the freedom I enjoy with Blog, where I hold my site at home, but the facilities of a nicely run hosting service like Blogger (and as an aside, Blogger's great and I highly recommend it). This is an impossible dream, unless the previously mentioned hard route of renting a host and installing a load of scripted facilities is followed - and hey, I like to write but I hate to do infrastructural stuff with code. It hasn't escaped my notice that there are an awful lot of pieces of blogging software out there, most of which combine aspects of client side (my computer) and server side (a commercial service somewhere) operation. What I have only recently discovered, though, is anything which retains copies of what I write on my own machine while allowing me to publish to a service like Blogger. The default method of using Blogger is to call up their editing facility in your browser and do the whole thing online. If you're on dialup, of course, this is slow and expensive. I'm on broadband, but geography can be a cruel mistress for some. What I've wanted is something that can create my site as I do in Blog, but allow me to run it on something like Blogger.

Blog and Blogger are not related, by the way. And blog as a common noun is not to be confused with Blog, the package. If I'd have written it I'd have called it Ploot, or Stepladder, or Stripy Cat or something just to lessen potential confusion. Still, whatever.

Now I have found two free packages that mean I can create my posts on my own machine, and then send them to something like Blogger. Thus I retain physical ownership of the content, although only in the form of separate text files. No actual database on my machine as with Blog, but Blog's not perfect (aside: Blog has some of these capabilities too, but I'm keen to experiment with something new after three years of keeping the faith). Still, the new stuff I've been playing with is a hell of a lot better than nothing. And it may be sufficient to persuade me to use Blogger as the primary vehicle for my blog. Then you can be spared my endless agonizing over the whole issue, and also comment on the posts in an organized server-side fashion:

"stop going on about software"

"I disagree. I like that he does that, and I like his cute shiny head"

That sort of thing.

In conclusion, I'll say that of course the server-side edit-and-post-all-in-a-browser method used by Blogger at al does of course have the advantage that you can post from any old computer, internet caff or whatever, which is vital if you travel widely or simply don't have the gear. So bear in mind that my control-freak method does require a home based box. But I want permanent records, dammit. So without further ado I'll say that if you feel the same way then you should perhaps do the install, squint and prod thing with Chronicle Lite and w.bloggar. Of the two, I favour the latter. Only because there's less pissing about to get it going though. And, frankly, I like the mad name.

Sooooo. If you take a look at this site one morning, or on the basis of this post late at night because you can't sleep, and you find that there is an archive of posts and then one saying "come over to the Satellite, home of a thousand neat links and commenting facilities galore,the water's lovely" you'll know that I've jumped ship. I think it'll happen, and I think it'll be a very good thing. I've wanted more of a community feel to this site since I began it. It's what the net is about, after all.

Thanks for staying with me thus far, in all senses!



Posted at 9:27 am by Jim Woods

Tuesday October 18 2005

I see my local Tesco Superstore,

home of the bulk of my scoff and all of my socks, have begun selling a selection of relatively low-end digital cameras. Wonders will never cease. Actually, I was just trying to do another "what's in my bag?" photo for Flickr - and yes, I am really really into luggage and having my stuff with me and Flickr - when it became painfully evident that my current digital camera is woefully deficient. Well, that's not totally true; it's a great carry-all-the-time device, but if lighting conditions aren't great it's hopeless. No flash, you see. Still, I got it half price for £30 and it's usefully small and tough. I will need something a bit better, with a flash and a bit of optical zoom and a display, eventually. I use old-skool mobile phones so I don't have a simple camera built into one of those.

My ex-girlfriend repossessed her big old Konica 3.1 megapixel device which I had been using for more "proper" photography. Not such a bad thing, as it was a whopper and very battery-hungry - but I did like having the facility to take reasonable pictures. Given that I'm a fairly occasional lensman, I'm always hoping to save a few bob and delay the purchase of my own camera. Photography isn't really like that though, since the times I wish I had a camera are not particularly predictable.

It seems that £100 will buy something that will do me well, although another £25 or so will need spending on a decent sized media card and probably the same again on a charger and some decent capacity NiMh batteries. So £150. Can I bear to part with the money right now for something I may not need for a while? Answer, probably, is not yet. Coming up to Christmas is not the best time of year for me financially.

And of course the longer I wait the better and cheaper these things will get. I like that. It's why I have old-skool kit in the main.

Back to reading up on cookery and the new wave of chopper bicycles. Oh, and check out Tesco Mobile: undeniably cheap calls under most circumstances other than roaming. Not that I want to come across as a great evangelist for Tesco, but lower prices are lower prices. Ethically, it gets a little complex. Financially it doesn't.

I have abandoned all structure on this blog at the moment. The feeling is that it's better to write anything than nothing, but this is open to healthy debate. You'd think my life was all about electronic gadgets wouldn't you? Perhaps a good time to remind you all that Inchoate Satellite has a plethora of links (and little else) which trace part of my extensive and eclectic meandering about the online world. Probably a better reflection of where it's at for me, and front-running candidate for becoming my main blog if I can just find a way to easily keep a local copy of the content. It would be nice to have the commenting so a bit more discourse could be entered into. This site could then revert to being a site rather than a blog, and then the lack of facilities would be rather less of an issue.



Posted at 3:26 am by Jim Woods

Monday October 17 2005

The general fettling

of acoustic guitars, coupled with a healthy interest in spending the night on licensed premises listening to music and shooting the proverbial, has rather hindered my blogging here. I've been trying to learn a few more songs to do on open sessions, and I've been engineering and producing an album for a friend. I've also been making the effort to listen to some new stuff. None of this, you'll have gathered, makes for lengthy entries here. Sorry. There's a great deal that I'd like to do with my site, but then I've been saying that for a while. Proper hosting is an expense, and right now I'm trying to cut my outgoings rather than add to them.

Perhaps I'll substitute hosting for Sky, since watching the telly really isn't something I spend much time doing. I was just taking stock recently, and I realized that I pay an appalling amount for television in general. £21 per month for Sky, £10 for TiVo and just over £10 for the TV license itself. £40-odd for something which I sometimes enjoy, but which can often seem like hard work to keep up with. Certainly worth reconsideration, I feel. I mean, that's twice what I pay for all my electricity! Perhaps I'll spend more time listening to music and podcasts and save the price of a fair number of albums. I must say that the five for £30 deals which the large record stores do are very tempting, and I often use them as a way to stock up on new stuff (to me) as well as back catalogue.

On a positive note, my resolve this year to visit museums more has been very successful and rewarding. And I've been doing a respectable amount of reading. Getting out on the bicycle and getting more exercise needs a little more attention than I've been giving it though.

I quite like the idea of doing some podcasting, but I'll need to give a bit more thought to content before I simply record a lot of unfocussed ranting and railing. Mind you, I have a lurking suspicion that that might turn out to be more of a crowd-pleaser than anything else I might come up with. We'll see what happens when I get a portable recorder and set to work...




Posted at 3:01 am by Jim Woods

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