Showstoppers: When work just can’t happen

I screamed at our cat, and watched in delight as she scurried out of my way. This happened right after I slammed the phone down on my bitter half, because of an argument I obviously started. A few hours ago, I also scathingly replied to a mailing list post by some smart aleck who thinks that all websites should conform to his personal “standards.”

Someone needs to outlaw these menstrual cramps.

I consider cramps one of my “showstoppers,” which basically means a (seemingly) valid reason not to work.

Each person at work has his own list of showstoppers. The ones which are generally unavoidable, less frequent, and “reasonable” are usually tolerated. For instance, my boss finally considered cramps as valid showstoppers when a colleague found me crawling in the bathroom (although it’s not exactly a vacation staying at home and watching DVDs with a hot bottle on your tummy).

What’s in your Showstopper List? Here are mine:

  1. Menstrual cramps. A cramp, or dysmenorrhea, is a painful menstruation. Some women experience it, some don’t. Apparently, when the angels showered the women the blessings of unobtrusive menstrual cycles, I was locked up somewhere in a dungeon.
      
  2. Desktop computers. Not exactly a showstopper, but I have always considered it a major annoyance. Desktops are not only meant to take up the desk space, they are actually a form of Chinese torture meant to imprison me in my cubicle, to deafen me from the office noise, and simply to bore my brains out.
      
    Lest you think I had it going well in the workplace, I did experience working on a desktop in a previous job. Believe me, it was a major test of willpower. It was also a major test of resourcefulness — in the continuous search for office corners offering peace, quiet, and emancipation, and in figuring out the least eye-straining way to draft a report on a Nokia 9210.
      
    One good thing happened in that experience though: I rediscovered my handwriting, thanks to the numerous Release Bulletins I actually wrote in longhand while sipping a nice Chocolate Frappuccino in Starbucks.

There is no doubt in my mind that there would be more showstoppers to come. Stay tuned to this page.

And before I forget: what are yours?

Enabling search engine friendly URLs

Note: This was written for Mambo 4.5.1a Stable

Mambo has a special feature to make your URLs Search Engine Friendly (or SEF). This means that your URLs can be converted to a format that is recognized by most search engine spiders, giving your website a higher placement in search results.

An explanation

Website packages such as Mambo generate your website dynamically. Because of this, these websites usually have URLs containing certain special characters, such as ?, =, and &.

For example, the About section of chette.com used to have the following URL:

http://www.chette.com/main/component/
option,com_frontpage/Itemid,1/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=23&Itemid=48

Some search engines do not recognize URLs containing these special characters. This prevents some search engine spiders from indexing the other sections of your website, which may give your website a lower ranking in search results.

This website has SEF enabled, thus the About section has this URL:

http://www.chette.com/main/content/view/23/48/

Because search engine placement is important to a majority of web owners, the SEF feature of Mambo is usually activated.

SEF requirements

In order to use Mambo’s SEF feature, your server must meet all of the following requirements:

  • It must be running on Apache
  • It must have mod_rewrite enabled
  • It must allow .htaccess override

When in doubt, as your host provider if your server fulfills the above requirements.

Enabling SEF

Note: It is highly recommended that you make a backup of your files before doing any modification.

  1. Download your configuration.php file from website’s server, and save this on your computer.
      
    Open this downladed file in your favorite text editor.
      
    Now look for the line where $mosConfig_sef appears, and change the value to 1 (the default value is 0).
      
    Don’t change anything else, not even the quotation marks. The line should look like this: $mosConfig_sef= "1"

      
    Upload configuration.php back to your server, overwriting the old one.
      

  2. Login to your server once again, and look for the file htaccess.txt in your Mambo main directory. Rename this file to .htaccess
      
    Please don’t forget to include the period (.) before “htaccess”
      
    Note: Most FTP clients nowadays allow for the renaming of files by simply right clicking the file, and selecting rename.
      
  3. Login to your administration panel (/Mambo/administrator/).

      
    Go to Site > SEO. Verify that Search Engine Friendly URLs is set to Yes.
      

  4. Test your website. Check if the URLs are already search engine friendly.
      
    If you encounter any
    errors, a good resource is the Mambo’s support community. Don’t forget to do a search first before posting a new thread.

Manigong Bagong Taon – Let’s Mambo!

Some of you might have noticed the new footer line on the website. Yes, for the past week, chette.com has been running on Mambo, an open source Content Management System (CMS).

Chette.com has been formerly using pMachine as its main engine. I had some reservations since the beginning — the developers have released a commercial version of pMachine, a big sign that support for the free version will be affected. Sure enough, months after I have downloaded it, pMachine is still stuck on version 2.3.

The decision to finally make the switch came in late 2004, when comment spams started invading this website. Manually deleting each spam was becoming a chore, as there is no comment moderation in pMachine (nor were there any patches or fixes released, for that matter). This made me realize the importance of a stable support system and community, especially with the continuous emergence of new spam techniques and website viruses.

The Shortlist

There were two packages left in the shortlist: Tikiwiki, and of course, Mambo.

It is a personal choice not to include Nuke packages (no offense to the users of PostNuke and PHP-Nuke):

  • I have this (maybe unfounded) fear that Nuke sites are a security risk waiting to happen,
  • I am very uncomfortable with their administrative interfaces, and
  • Sad to say, I have not been exposed to Nuke sites which have impressed me. Call me unreasonable, but this is one of my personal ways of really determining the ease of customization of a CMS package.

Why not Tikiwiki

For those who are not aware of Tikiwiki, it is an engine with enough features to make any website owner drool — polls, wiki, blog, image gallery, banner ads, etc.

The main caveat, aside from its clunky frontend and backend interface, is that this particular version Tikiwiki seems to disregard the basic functionalities of articles management — for instance, in the lack of flexibility in the display of category headers.

It does, however, have a lot of options for their blog and wiki. This may be attributed to the general direction of the development, which I found disturbing. For one thing, a lot of people (this writer included) already conceive that there is a very thin line between a blog entry and an article entry.

I actually believe that “blog” and “wiki” are mere methods of manipulating or displaying articles, and that article management, display, and categorization should be given priority by any CMS system.

Why Mambo

Mambo, winner of the Linux User & Developer Award 2004, gained extreme popularity last year. We ran a test during the 2nd quarter of 2004 on PhilMusic.com. However, this test did not produce any satisfactory results. Mambo was, at that time, a diamond in the rough.

However, this particular version, Mambo 4.5.1a Stable, was enough to bowl me over.

Ever heard of the expression “love at first sight?” In evaluating a website package, it is usually “love at first sight of the admin interface.”

Even in my full-time job as a software project manager, I emphasize usability each project, and make sure that usability tests are included in all test cases. I have learned the hard way that usability is the primary thing a Customer wants, yet ironically rarely stated in Requirements Specifications.

As a website manager of a personal CMS-based website in my spare time, the first impression is on the organization and labeling of the administration. Mambo’s usability might not yet meet the standards of Jakob Nielsen, but it is enough to merit the over 100,000 downloads of its current release alone.

As with most website managers, a big concern is the speed of maintenance and incorporation of templates. Mambo is living up to its “Power in simplicity” slogan, with an easy-to-use article management interface. Articles, or items, are classified into Categories, and Categories are classified into Sections.

Adding an article is pretty straightforward — all the pertinent fields are displayed on one page, and merely involved copying and pasting the articles. It also features the capability to include images in the body of the article by simply selecting the desired image from a list, and specifying the desired position.

Adding an image can be done on the same page, or thru Media Manager. I personally use the Media Manager to be able to control the folder structure of the images.

Customizing the templates was the ticket. The template basically involves two files (index.php and template_css.css), and there are numerous tutorials available on the internet. Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) plays a major role on the templates, and the CSS guide found in Visual Density is sufficient to determine what needs to be modified.

One of the biggest strength of Mambo, though, is on its strong support community. Mambo’s forum is a wealth of information, as long as you use the search feature wisely. The people in this community have an amazing knowledge on the Mambo code structure and an admirable sense of altruism.

There are still some features I would like to see in Mambo, though:

  • Commenting feature. Although there are downloadable commenting modules for Mambo, I would still like to see this feature as part of the package’s core components.

    The Mambo website explained that the lack of commenting support is due to the fact that Mambo is concentrating on its CMS features. However, I beg to disagree. There is already a paradigm shift on the definition of an article. Comments are now being seen as integral content, as they are being used by authors to update information about an article, and also by the readers to contribute to the article.

  • Capability to display a unique thumbnail for each content item.
  • Capability to display a unique category image (or header) for the article listing and viewing of the article.
  • User permissions. This particular release only supports two kinds of users: registered, and public (or anonymous).
  • A more usable menu and module interface . There are some menu display configurations that I have not yet figured out, which are located both in the menu and module interfaces.
  • A community to develop stronger integration with other open source applications such as phpBB and Coppermine.

And to conclude

As of this writing, chette.com is now proudly powered by Mambo.

This doesn’t mean though that I am closing my doors on the other CMS engines. As what we have learned thru our Mambo experience, what we have despised before may be what we might end up using in the future.

There is a steady growth in the open source development community, and as long as this community is around, I shall watch with baited breath on discovering the magic that they continue to perform.

Changing the copyright notice

Note: This tip was written for Mambo 4.5.1a Stable

The copyright is located at the footer of the website. On Mambo 4.5.1a Stable, the copyright displays the following text:

Miro International Pty Ltd. © 2000 – 2004 All rights reserved.
Mambo is Free Software released under the GNU/GPL License.

To change the copyright notice:

  1. Open the file includes/version.php in your favorite text editor.
  2. Look for the lines containing var $COPYRIGHT and var $URL.

    The var $COPYRIGHT line contains the first line of the footer, while the var $URL line contains the second line of the footer.

  3. Change the text between the quotes (‘text here’). Please be careful not to delete anything outside of the quotes.

Apparently, you can change the copyright notice to any text you want. I highly suggest, however, that you still maintain a link to the official Mambo website — after all, Mambo exists today because of the Mambo team’s hardwork and selfless contribution. Even a little link would help.

BTW, you can also make monetary contributions to Mambo by going to the Mambo website and clicking on the Donate Now icon.

All I want for Christmas is …

As we get older, I end up buying more and more gifts, and receiving less and less. Being a certified adult, I’m not allowed to throw a tantrum anymore, so I end up buying these things myself.

However, for the benefit of the people who love me (I hope you’re reading this, hehe), allow me to be materialistic just for this day:

  1. Replacement for my Nokia Communicator 9210. Nope, not a Nokia Communicator 9500. It looks tempting with its built-in Wi-Fi and other bells and whistles, but I am getting sick of carrying such a large brick in my bag. More so when I have to take out the entire damn thing just to answer a call or read a text message.

    I miss the days when answering a call only entails reaching into my back pocket, and pushing a teeny weensy button.

    I’m still dilly-dallying, though: One, this phone has served me in many ways (heck, I even use this to draft my proposals and reports). And two, I still haven’t found a phone with all the features I need — a speaker phone, external memory, capability to save messages in the external memory, capability to sync with my Outlook, capability to read PDF files, create additional Inbox folders, etc.

    I’m seriously looking at some Sony Ericsson models. The Nokia phones for the past few months have been quite disappointing. Not only are the Nokia phones starting to look like plastic toys, they fail horribly in terms of usability (Just check out those circular keypads).

    In case you have any ideas for a phone for me, please do send me a message.

     

  2. Hard disk + external hard disk enclosure. I’m a backup freak, especially after a bad disk crash a few years ago. As of the moment, I have almost 120 gigabytes of data that needs to be backed up immediately.

    The external hard disk enclosure is germane to my personal backup strategy. Although I am blessed with having a central server in our own home, with the highly creative viruses going around, I would feel more secure if my backup data is not connected to our network. Talk about paranoia, huh?

    Sigh. I will probably end up purchasing this myself by January. Look at those peso bills with wings, flying away…
     

  3. Harddisk-based MP3 player. Fine, I admit I don’t really need it. It just looks so cute! :) :)

    I don’t think I would want an iPod, though. The iPod’s casing look a tad too sensitive. It also looks a little too, er, "feminine" for my taste.

    I imagine myself owning an iRiver or maybe a Creative — something which looks sturdy, can hook up with an external compact flash reader, and view photos. I don’t care much about the built-in FM radio (I would rather listen to AM radio, thank you very much), although the ability to record voice and watch videos will be a big plus. Oh, will DivX codec support be asking too much?
     

  4. Smaller digital camera. Thanks to my bitter half, I have great digital cameras at my disposal. I am eyeing some smaller ones though, especially since I spend a lot of time with my not-so-camera shy nephews and nieces.

    I know I will get a Canon, I know I will get a camera with video capabilities. Unfortunately, I also know how much they cost.
     

  5. Cabinets. I am an organizer freak. I constantly have to tolerate the raillery from my officemates whenever I see the servers’ casings detached, or the computer cables zigzagging across the office floor.

    The cabinets are for my room, though. I saw the perfect cabinet in Home Depot, and I can’t wait to get it and start arranging my cables, CPU, printers, hub, UPS, TV box, fax machine, 2-line phone, and other unidentified flying gadgets.
     

  6. The perfect shoulder bag. Despite what my relatives say, yes, I am still a girl deep (deep, deep down) inside. And yes, I also do want a nice shoulder bag.

    I get a lot of bags during the year — from Divisoria bags to the once-so-fashionable original Jelly Kelly ones — most of which I have either given away, or have not withstood the test of time.

    I can’t have a small bag, since I have a fondness of carrying my little gadgets with me, among other things. However, I can’t imagine myself carrying a humongous bag either — the kind which makes the mall security guards look suspiciously at you.

    Spacious, horizontal rectangular, black, and preferably in leather or a very nice canvas.

Merry Christmas!

An FPJ Kwismas?

"This Christmas is a time for grieving.
The Sad Christmas of 2004"

So goes the headlines, as written by people who are shallow enough to think that FPJ is the only loss experienced by Filipinos.

Christmas has always been both a time of celebrating and grieving, not because of the death of an actor turned politician, but because we remember the loss of our very own loved ones, which comes in full force on the very day that families are supposed to be together.

The people in the print media aren’t the only ones who have grossly underestimated us. For the past week, regular television programming (and regular news for that matter) had to give way to the hours-long coverage of the wake of FPJ, interviews with his friends in politics, and live testimonies from anonymous FPJ fans. Even my cousins, very much die-hard FPJ fans, felt saturated and gave cable TV a try.

Dear media, please give us a break. We’re more real than that.

The Pickle Jar

Much as I would like to take credit for this story, this is actually from a forwarded email. This is for those who, like me, were lucky enough to have a pickle jar for them, and now have one of their own. By the way, my pickle jars are actually empty Coke plastic bottles. I use a cutter just big enough to fit a five-peso coin.

The pickle jar as far back as I can remember sat on the floor beside the dresser in my parents’ bedroom. When he got ready for bed, Dad would empty his pockets and toss his coins into the jar.

As a small boy I was always fascinated at the sounds the coins made as they were dropped into the jar. They landed with a merry jingle when the jar was almost empty. Then the tones gradually muted to a dull thud as the jar was filled. I used to squat on the floor in front of the jar and admire the copper and silver circles that glinted like a pirate’s treasure when the sun poured through the bedroom window.

When the jar was filled, Dad would sit at the kitchen table and roll the coins before taking them to the bank. Taking the coins to the bank was always a big production. Stacked neatly in a small cardboard box, the coins were placed between Dad and me on the seat of his old truck. Each and every time, as we drove to the bank, Dad would look at me hopefully. "Those coins are going to keep you out of the textile mill, son. You’re going to do better than me. This old mill town’s not going to hold you back." Also, each and every time, as he slid the box of rolled coins across the counter at the bank toward the cashier, he would grin proudly. "These are for my son’s college fund. He’ll never work at the mill all his life like me." We would always celebrate each deposit by stopping for an ice cream cone. I always got chocolate. Dad always got vanilla. When the clerk at the ice cream parlor handed Dad his change, he would show me the few coins nestled in his palm. When we get home, we’ll start filling the jar again.

He always let me drop the first coins into the empty jar. As they rattled around with a brief, happy jingle, we grinned at each other. "You’ll get to college on pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters," he said. "But you’ll get there. I’ll see to that."

The years passed, and I finished college and took a job in another town.

Once, while visiting my parents, I used the phone in their bedroom, and noticed that the pickle jar was gone. It had served its purpose and had been removed. A lump rose in my throat as I stared at the spot beside the dresser where the jar had always stood. My dad was a man of few words, and never lectured me on the values of determination, perseverance, and faith. The pickle jar had taught me all these virtues far more eloquently than the most flowery of words could have done.

When I married, I told my wife Susan about the significant part the lowly pickle jar had played in my life as a boy. In my mind, it defined, more than anything else, how much my dad had loved me. No matter how rough things got at home, Dad continued to doggedly drop his coins into the jar. Even the summer when Dad got laid off from the mill, and Mama had to serve dried beans several times a week, not a single dime was taken from the jar. To the contrary, as Dad looked across the table at me, pouring catsup over my beans to make them more palatable, he became more determined than ever to make away out for me. "When you finish college, Son," he told me, his eyes glistening, "You’ll never have to eat beans again, unless you want to."

The first Christmas after our daughter Jessica was born, we spent the holiday with my parents. After dinner, Mom and Dad sat next to each other on the sofa, taking turns cuddling their first grandchild. Jessica began to whimper softly, and Susan took her from Dad’s arms. "She probably needs to be changed," she said, carrying the baby into my parents’ bedroom to diaper her.

When Susan came back into the living room, there was a strange mist in her eyes. She handed Jessica back to Dad before taking my hand and leading me into the room. "Look," she said softly, her eyes directing me to a spot on the floor beside the dresser. To my amazement, there, as if it had never been removed, stood the old pickle jar, the bottom already covered with coins.

I walked over to the pickle jar, dug down into my pocket, and pulled out a fistful of coins. With a gamut of emotions choking me, I dropped the coins into the jar. I looked up and saw that Dad, carrying Jessica, had slipped quietly into the room. Our eyes locked, and I knew he was feeling the same emotions I felt. Neither one of us could speak.

Even though your parents may not have had a pickle jar, they made sacrifices for you that were not visible. Cherish the silent love that they shared with you.

Blog shift shwift

I was a proud user of Blogger. I have been a member since the year 2000, and it has faithfully kept and squealed my secrets, whatever the case may be.

I thought it was pretty cool to use something as unusual as Blogger. Unusual because I am part of a community wherein using free application service providers are not the norm ("Why use one, when you can create or install in your own server?").

With Blogger, I was unique.

With Blogger, I was also incessantly chided. It was only a matter of time, according to my "bitter half", before I finally become "true to myself," and customize a full-featured blogging application.

After almost four years, the time has come. I declared August 2004 as the time for change, among other things.

And so I began my research, and compiled a list of open-source blogging applications (too bad about Movable Type, huh?). I basically:

  • read the reviews,
  • visited sample websites,
  • browsed thru various support forums,
  • scanned user manuals, and
  • basically wasted my entire weekend.

At long last, I have narrowed it down to three: Nucleus, WordPress, and pMachine.

I’m a firm believer in the evaluation process. Although feedback from other users help (and unsolicited advice does not), each user has different needs. The only way I can choose the application is for me to actually install and try it out.

Thanks to Fantastico, I was able to instantly install both Nucleus and WordPress in the server.

WordPress

I ditched WordPress after an hour of tinkering. I found it too simplistic, and getting the required output takes too much code manipulation.

Nucleus

I tried Nucleus, and was actually becoming fond of it. I loved manipulating the skins and templates (after finally figuring out what they meant), and almost built an entire website around it.

However, I got frustrated when I tried to create a hack that will show the headlines of related articles. Surely, there must be something else which will easily accomplish this?

pMachine

With much hesitation, I installed pMachine. I had my reservations (and still do) about it. It has a highly commercial website which gives the impression that it is a Movable-Type-in-the-making. After all, who wants to receive an email after a few months stating in legalese that the script I was using is already for sale?

But I was getting frustrated (not to mention desperate), so I hurriedly installed it, and peeped inside the control panel.

Love at first sight

I was holding my breath. I immediately loved the way the control panel was organized. It took me a few minutes to figure out the purpose of each section, and how to modify the configuration.

Additionally, pMachine spoke my language (which is a cross between English, Filipino, newbie-techie, and basically a lot of unintelligible baby talk). I easily got the hang of the tags and variables, and started creating my own templates.

After approximately 3 hours, I have integrated all my templates into pMachine, uploaded a few sample articles, got my contact form working, and customized my search form.

As of this writing, this website is proudly powered by pMachine.

What web hosting company would you recommend?

The safe answer is always: "It depends on your needs."

It’s a tricky business recommending a web host, and I’m unfortunate enough to be asked that question frequently. I even have a ready script in hand, presenting 3 to 5 options to a client depending on their requirements, complete with a comparison chart, and a table of pros and cons.

There are instances when giving a hosting recommendation is not as risky, and in these instances, I won’t hesitate to mention the sites which come to mind everytime the subject of hosting comes up: I would personally recommend Site5 for Linux, and maybe Intermedia for Windows (not Linux). I know a lot of WiseWomen who swear by Pair. My brother is currently hosted on a Philippine-based webhosting company called Site.com.ph Digital Interactive, and is very happy with it.

I admit we host a lot of commercial websites in Intermedia. Some of our clients prefer LiveStats for viewing their website’s statistics, and their sleek DeskPilot for checking their emails from the web.

However, with big hosting companies, the impersonal attitude of the support personnel can be very off-putting, sometimes bordering on rudeness. For instance, I remember requesting SSH access for one of our accounts hosted in Intermedia. After filling in a request and providing them with the required information, the support personnel curtly replied that he cannot grant us SSH access on the reasons we provided. Period. (Ironically, they have previously granted us SSH access on our other accounts. Their client base must be so big as to bypass that information.)

Also, I’ve learned to be wary of hidden costs — in restoring from a previous backup, fixing a corrupted table in your database, DNS configurations, in upgrading/downgrading hosting plans, etc.

Thank goodness for hosting companies such as Site5. My feelings toward Site5 are very strong, and a bit personal. Back in 1999, when I was probably The Ultimate Newbie in their entire customer base, people like Matt and Todd were already there, patiently answering my questions — from Perl paths, to tips on backing up my database and DNS configurations.

I wasn’t actually the easiest (or smartest) customer in the world, but I have yet to encounter an email where they would refuse to give me any support because it was "beyond their scope of responsibility." In the rare case that I did ask a far-fetched question, they have always pointed me to the right direction, and even went as far as give URLs and tips on how to do things efficiently.

Fast forward to 2004, where thankfully, I don’t bug them as often:

  • I have finally gone past that newbie stage (even if, at times, I still feel like one)
  • Their NetAdmin leaves little room for questions
  • They practically have all the features I need. Do a comparison with other virtual hosting companies to see what I mean.
  • Most of all, they don’t forget their old customers. Did they implement a new pricing scheme that is better than what I originally got? No problem, here’s an additional 750MB space. I’m a little tight on cash this month, can I downgrade my plan first? No problem, consider it done.

Their slogan claims that they’re the most trusted name in hosting, and in my book, there is no doubt.

Check out their website at www.site5.com.