Over the last several months I bought my first Mac, dived into Drupal, toyed with the Mac OS Terminal, wrestled with Radiant, coded my first CSS, and tried not to pull out my hair (good thing I have a lot).
The PC-to-Mac switch proved relatively easy, and sensible. Simple, intuitive, more stable, nearly virus-free, with quality hardware and design.
Now I want a new website. For me, web design began a long time ago in a program far, far away called Microsoft Frontpage (easy to use but impossible to follow web standards). Then I jumped ship for Adobe Dreamweaver (steeper learning curve but better-looking results). I also threw the odd blog onto Blogger (straightforward but limited in scope, and often excruciating to implement the basics).
This time around, I want my CMS (content management system) to be powerful and open-sourced. Drupal looked promising: fully customizable, updated by a worldwide community, with more options than a jailbroken iPad. Heck, even the White House uses Drupal. But the more options I explored, the less I really needed. So I shifted to the lean animal that is Radiant.
Now, to learn Radiant you need to be multilingual in technospeak. Use short form like cd, ls and pwd in the Terminal. Know what a ruby is, not to mention rails, Github and Heroku. Oh, and don’t forget CSS and XHTML.
Some definitions may be helpful here:
A command line interface, through which you can tell your Mac to do things it normally does, and some things it won’t do without using the Terminal. It reminds me of DOS on my old Windows 3.1 PC.
A free content management system that allows you to create websites or blogs. There is no visual design interface; therefore, you must learn some code.
A coding language. Said to be easier to read and write than other programming languages.
Rails (or Ruby on Rails)
An open-source web framework written in Ruby. It’s supposed to make programming web applications easier, assuming you have some experience in this area.
Git & Github
Git is a version control system. Github is a public place to store and share source code, a kind of social network for programmers.
A cloud-based hosting service popular with users of Ruby on Rails.
Cascading Style Sheets are used to define how pages are displayed on a website. CSS is essential in separating content (use HTML for this) and design (use CSS).
Extensible Hypertext Markup Language. Use this to determine how text looks, add images and links, and all variety of markup.
With the help of these youtube tutorials (uploaded by a kid probably half my age) I soon felt comfortable–and humbled–in the DOS-like shell of the Terminal. Now I can delete files or folders that the Finder gets stubborn about. So far so good.
Next up: I need to put (or push, in Radiant terms) my site onto Heroku. This means confronting–and subsequently googling–error messages like:
lib/active_support/dependencies.rb:55: uninitialized constant
heroku[router]: Error H10 (App crashed) ->
GET wonderwrites.heroku.com/ dyno= queue= wait= service= status=503 bytes=
Bear in mind, these are simplified versions of sometimes hundreds of lines spat back at me by the Terminal when I typed something it didn’t like. Fortunately, posting on the Radiant CMS google group got me past these road blocks. I even managed to install Github and get my site up and running in the local environment (i.e. on my computer), then fiddled with the CSS (which is not as complicated as it looks, until you look closer, and then it is).
I take pride in getting this far, despite taking (or perhaps because) two frustrating months. This also satiates my curiosity to look behind the web’s curtain and explore the raw machinery that powers the internet.
Then I tried to update my assets ruby, and got another error. Three hours later, and no progress made, I decided to stop juggling so many balls. I am a serious writer, but only a casual techie. Storytelling–not code–is my creative outlet. Time to focus on content.
In other words, time for the easy way out.
Where do I turn for help? My Blogger days are done. Tumblr and Weebly are, respectively, too flashy and too basic. Posterous appeared hopeful, yet it advertises itself as “the simplest publishing platform on the planet.” After the flexibility showcased by Drupal and Radiant, I wanted more control. WordPress.com seemed an obvious choice. It’s popular with writers, and offers reasonable customization.
So here I am, with a new space to share my words. And yet, a part of me yearns for the freedom I left behind. I don’t like using a template, but being unique bears a cost: you have to pay to modify the CSS (for this reason, perhaps WordPress.org is a better choice.)
Someday, my obsessive curiosity will woo me back to Radiant and her seductive code. For now, I’m going to work on content first, and design second. But I will finish reading Jeffrey Zeldman’s Designing With Web Standards. That way, I’m still peeking, at least a little, behind the web’s curtain. And the more I know, the less confined I want to be.