Drift Into View 1: Prelude

Monday, 23 August 2004

I rebuilt this site not just to redefine its look, but to learn how dynamic web sites are built. I'm going to spend the next few articles here explaining what happened during the site's construction and the interesting little things I learnt along the way.

At the end of 2003, you see, I decided it was time to pull back from some of financial and Japanese studies I was engaged in, and plug some time back into my main interest. Not taking over Vice City as some might believe, but software technology. I wrote down a list of things to do.

I spent many hours re-designing Intersect as Home; after the success and frustration of that exercise (that I will relate in a later article) in January 2004, I had to prepare myself for the next course on my technology menu.

I could hear a voice in my head. It said: Dude, it's the new millennium, look around, web sites have shopping carts and user preferences. Look at Home. The most interactive and dynamic element is a tiny graphic with your mail address on it. Sweeeet. Okay, time to level up.

Now, the truth is, I don't play games that much and I rarely play new games. You'll find me near the bargain bin next to the other poor saps, sometimes fighting over the last copy of System Shock 2. So I decided to scratch that and try again.

So I started sketching ideas for the new site layout. I had no desire for a site that drips so much content from every pixel it looks like an infected wound. I did consider dropping the article down like a piece of paper from a navigation bar across the top, but trying to pull that off in every browser would demand time. Style was not the point of this particular exercise and I certainly was not building the site to satisfy a masochistic reflex...

So it became a simple bar down the side with text on the right. Originally, the bar was going to be dark but that implied the articles would be against a bright background, and I don't like bright backgrounds. I also didn't want flashy graphics - Home has enough of that - but I knew I needed to get the logo right to represent the site.

It was not until I had chosen a name for the site, which finally came to me when I was trying out some domain name searches, that I came across the final logo design. After I had expended many dead trees scribbling attempt after attempt I was surprised at how comfortable I was with a pair of italicized letters. It was a good complement to the minimalist site design. Also I could bang it out in Powerpoint in two seconds, which sold it to me.

At the same time I was reading up on PHP and MySQL. My main resource was PHP and MySQL Web Development by Luke Welling and Laura Thomson. It was a bit basic in places - there were chapters explaining how a database works - but I didn't want anyone making assumptions about my knowledge of either PHP or MySQL. Probably not the ideal choice, but good enough for my purposes.

Let's flash back to real life for a second folks. At the same time I was planning to remove myself from Japan. This was no small hit on my mental resources. I had a pretty good idea that trying to get MySQL and PHP working on my PC was going to be one monstrous time pit, you know, the time no-one counts when they tell you open source saves money. I was unwilling to throw myself into that wholeheartedly amidst the great international transition. I pottered around with both MySQL and PHP during the spring of 2004, but it was only when we hit summer and I left my job that I felt I could do the web site work properly.

So far, I'm just setting the scene, providing mood. In the rest of the series, I will discuss in more detail MySQL, PHP and the longer-than-expected process of getting the site running for real.