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The website gets serious

I spent 10 years fiddling with a half-assed version of this website. I put a handful of files up on my personal website back in 1999.

By SportsterPaul on May 29, 2011 12:45 AM

I would work on one of my 6 running Sportsters or 2 basket cases and take pictures, but publishing a website was pretty clumsy back then. Over time the old Netscape Composer turned into Komposer. That got improved until it became unusable. Then in 2010 a whole flurry of things happened that got me charged up to work on this website.
First, I registered open-sport.org at 1&1 internet. I got a slight upsell package on a Linux host. It costs about 10 bucks a month. I copied some files over from my personal website. I played with them a bit and got the hang of using the 1&1 control panel to administer the site. I figured out how to set up pop mail as well as IMAP mail in my Thunderbird email program. I played with the webmail service that 1&1 includes with their hosted package. I figured out how to make some parts of the site password-protected.

I then endured the usual mix of misery and delight that comes with doing any new project. One encouraging thing thing was my discovering an 80-dollar program called Stylizer. It taught me cascading style sheets in less than a month. Bear in mind I knew a little about playing with Komposer to get things to look OK, but no style-sheet experience.

I played for months trying to figure out how to get images to fit right and be readable. I spent weeks trying to implement a way that you can just hover the mouse cursor over a picture and it will get bigger so you can see it better. One huge challenge I made for myself was a decision to make my web-pages liquid. I want then to fill the whole window of your browser. Nothing looks more hacker-hobbyist to me that websites that are a narrow strip that runs down the center of Firefox. I can zoom it up, but that is still half-assed. Most websites are not liquid, including all the big news, TV and magazines. Wikipedia is a liquid site. Even back in my pre-Stylizer days, architecting liquid web pages took me months of experimentation. I tried to get my pages to look good and print good in Firefox, Explorer, and Opera web browsers. It wasted months of my life. So I gave up completely on Opera, gave up on printed pages looking good in Explorer and gave up on pretty pages in everything. I have not even tried Chrome or Macintosh or smart-phone browsers.

I did re-learn the old maxim-- simple is better. I tried to do everything the "modern hip" way using <div> tags, only to get so frustrated I went back to tables, if only so the printer would not cut pictures in half. I learned to have a CSS style-sheet for print. That way when you print a web-page from this site I can remove search boxes and navigation stuff that is pointless on a printed page.

What really got me jazzed were content breakthroughs. For years I had wanted to do a Sportster field identification guide. Kinda like the field guides birdwatchers use, it would help you identify different year iron Sportsters and better yet, identify any Sportster part. It would help people understand what would fit what and how parts changed over the years. The solution came like a ton of bricks. I could use Harley factory parts books to make a big chart of all the part numbers for a certain piece of the motorcycle. Then I could use my hover-picture trick so that when you point the mouse at any part number, a picture if the part pops up. That and some special "tell me a story" pages to describe how various parts got changed by the Harley engineers and why. I did a page for primary covers and it came our beautiful. It will be years of work to do the whole motorcycle from 1952 to 1984, but the framework is there.

Then came more misery. I wanted a blog, so I figured out how to install WordPress on the site. Since I wanted a custom look and a liquid page, I spent a couple months making my own template and adapting what I now realize is some really goofy style-sheets to make a liquid 3-column blog. Yo can still see the goofy colors I used in the prototype, trying to understand what the style-sheet was doing. The real problem I have with WordPress is that it is not really web pages. It is a computer program. It fools you browser into thinking there is a real web page somewhere, but really there is just a blog directory with a computer program sitting in it. More misery, including learning how to create a sql (structured query language) database using the 1&1 control panel and link it to the blog software.

To compensate for this misery was a design breakthrough. I realized the home page of a website should look like the cover of a magazine, not the table of contents like all the software geeks make 99% of the sites look. Once I decided to have a dramatic cover image on the homepage, a lot of things came together. That meant there would be a table-of contents page as well as a masthead page. There would have to be a directory full of the back-issues home pages. Then, in addition to this blog for comments and personal ramblings, I decided I needed website sections for repair articles, customization, design, and that field guide. I also wanted to have some wikis where readers can make a web-page that features pictures and descriptions of their Sportster. And finally another section where readers can post pictures of their shop or garage.

I was still annoyed that WordPress is a program, not a web page publisher. Then, right at the end of 2010, I discovered Movable Type. They had just made their blog software into a compete website publishing system. It was just an accident, a casual aside by some guy, that Movable Type works by creating a real html web page on your site, instead of being a computer program that hoaxes you into thinking that you are looking at a real static web page. And I mean a real static html web page, not the bullshit database generated-pages that WordPress calls a static page.

It took a couple months of suffering to get Movable Tye installed on 1&1 and working. Like WordPress, Movable Type needs you to create and link to an sql database you make in the 1&1 control panel. But here is the huge difference: WordPress runs a program when anybody on earth looks at my web-page. It runs php scripts and accesses the database every single time somebody does a web-page view. Movable type does its software computing and database access only when you click in the "publish" button. That can be at 4:00 in the morning when your web-host server is not busy. The implications are profound. Running scripts and accessing databases, you can see how a WordPress blog will slow down and break as the page views go up. A Movable Type blog just serves out pages and works fine on a 10-dollar-a-month hosted web package. Sure, when somebody leaves a comment, Movable Type has to run scripts and access the database, but that is a much more rare event than all the simple page views your site will get.

Now most of the software misery is over. I have figured out how Movable Type works so I can architect the site and get all the sections working. Now it is just playing with site design to make things pretty, plus doing a ton of work getting all the articles and the field guide done. I also have tens of thousands of hours of work I have done over the years designing Sportster stuff in AutoCad, SolidWorks, and OrCad. All that I will be putting up in the design section.

Life is fun again, I feel like a kid.

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