By John Bryan
Notes on the technology:
In the past every single part of a website was often hand created from scratch and required arcane knowledge of strange incantations such as PHP, SQL, HTML and Flash. Even computer nerds who had their own mystical knowledge such as EPOS, C+ or VB would be bereft of understanding. Content Management Systems (CMS) separate a lot of the gobbledygook by providing a ready-made blank website that does not require the web designer to re-invent fire, the wheel and the electric toaster. Also they allow a site's content to be updated by normal humans without their hands being held by a web wizard. CMS systems separate the gubbins from the doings: after all you don't need a degree in auto-engineering to drive a car so why should you need to know how the internet works just to write a web page.
One of the later generation CMS systems that has the benefit of learning from its predecessors is DRUPAL (www.Drupal.org). It is a rising star in the world of website platforms that allow a single web designer to create what would take many years of sunlight-shy developers working for some big corporate company to create.
It is also part of the now long-time trendy "Open Source" free software movement. In a universe where the rule "You get what you pay for" is quite rigid, large community-written projects such as this can have highly expensive commercial products beaten hands down. For example how many paid-for software suppliers have potentially hundreds, if not thousands, of programmers able to assist in changing the software to your needs? And, for that matter, if you want to alter the software yourself to exactly fit your requirements, with commercial software it is completely forbidden and there are all sorts of security systems in place to prevent you from using what you have actually paid for.
CMS websites, and Drupal especially, are built in quite a Lego brick style in that when an additional functionality is required there is often a ready-made brick (module) that can be added on to do the job. In the 'Open Source' world, if there is no suitable module, then a web developer might create one for himself and then add it to the pool of ready-made modules. Any faults in the CMS software are reported on the Internet, then those faults might be fixed by someone else on the Internet. In this way a single website may use CMS software and modules that have been jointly created by hundreds of programmers from all around the world in a scale of co-operation that is quite staggering.
Editing the content
Back in the early 80's, even before this web designer had a bald patch, computer word-processors such as Wordstar were human-unfriendly, requiring strange esoteric key presses. They would show whatever you were typing as a very fixed style display, no matter what the chosen font or size that would be printed. Therefore what you wrote bore no relation to what came out on the printer. Later, so-called WYSIWYG editors were created. This stands for 'What You See Is What You Get', and a computer typist could see how what it was they were creating was going to look. All this is taken for granted now on computers with modern software like Microsoft Word but in the newer, still evolving, world of the internet, websites often require the content author to enter strange command codes such as [b] or <hr />. Imagine what the end result will look like.
To save Cécile Menon (this site’s webmeisterin) from needing to type in a computer version of Klingon, the site has a WYSIWYG editor installed, namely FCKeditor (written by Frederico Caldeira Knabben). WYSIWYG editors such as this give a visual online word processor that avoids the need for the site's editor(s) to use the very human-unfriendly HTML language so that it does not need a computer nerd such as myself every time something needs to be added to the site.
In the virtual world of the Internet, even I, as the website's current technical bod, have never seen the physical computer which it sits within. The website runs on a server near Manchester (UK), dedicated to it and only a few of our other customers. It is managed and constantly monitored not by a mass-market hosting service but by a smaller and very professional hosting company that allows me within seconds to talk to a human who can tell me exactly how the computer is at any moment in time.
Previous maintainers had created this site in an early version of Drupal (4.7), so the credit of choosing what is a 'best of the crop' system belongs to them. In 2007/2008 a quite long process of upgrading to Drupal 6 took place as, due to all the new and improved features in Drupal, a lot of the old site's facilities had to be completely recreated. Creating a new site from scratch would have been at least ten times easier but then it would not have been the Clive James website and would not have its considerable content. Once the new site was switched on we then could really start adding new features and improvements such as the onsite bookshop and the Index which uses Drupal's Taxonomy facility to list content by the people that the content is about.
Any future changes are of course subject to the big man's approval and wishes, but they are likely to include RSS feed of content updates, disability access and printing aids, and improved listing and indexing of content etc. Certainly for the time being the site is actively evolving and improving whilst trying not to spoil or drastically change the current usability and style of the site.
And the real credit goes to…
A pretty or technically-sophisticated website is meaningless without the content that gives it its reason for existence. This website already contains about 500 pages of actual real content that has been created or collected and compiled by Clive James and his much-hassled assistant Cécile. The Internet is about content. Without that it is just noise.