DNS for Novices

You’ve just been handed the responsibility of your church web site and are told to go buy a domain and set up an account on your web host. Or perhaps you know how domain names and web hosts work, in an Microsoft IIS world, but want to add the Apache server to your resume.

In other words, for one reason or another, you want or need to run your personal, church and/or charity websites on LAMP – an acronym for the Linux Apache MySQL Platform. So you take your old PC, burninate some ISO CDs and proceed to set up your own web and DNS servers in the comfort of your basement. Everything is fine until you run headlong into those pesky IP problems.

Now in the past, we’ve talked in detail about some of those wonderful Apache modules such as mod_rewrite. What we haven’t talked too much about is DNS, and acronym for Domain Name Service (or System depending on your religion).

In short, DNS is the way the way the Internet translates human readable domain names such as HealYourChurchWebSite.com, into computer/router a friendly format of

And while DNS isn’t all that hard, it’s hard enough that I would like to recommend to those of you thinking about running a personal development server a fine little article entitled DNS for Novices. As the article’s own description states:

You need this article if you’ve just bought your first domain name or you’re thinking about getting one, and you’re worried that you don’t know enough about the subject. You’re probably asking yourself questions like “Why do I need a domain name?”, “Whose fault is it if it goes wrong?”, “Exactly who am I paying this money to every other year?”. Well. Let’s start with some basics …

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(stop) Stating the Obvious

“[Mission statements] should be abolished because every Mission Statement ever written can be summarized in four words — ‘All babies must eat.’” — Vincent Flanders, author of Son of Web Pages that Suck

In considering a review of the web site for the International Gospel Fellowship of East Hartford, CT, one of the first things I noticed about this ‘brochureware‘ was the ubiquitous mission statement on their front page, followed by a statement of their core beliefs. Now this isn’t bad information to put on a church web site. I would however, suggest that this information be put on a sub page.

Generally, you’ve got two kinds of visitors to your site. Members who want information, in which case they’re probably already familiar with this information. Second, and of greater importance are seekers. That is people who are new or visiting to the area, or people experiencing some form of a spiritual crisis, emotional emptiness or physical need.

What I would suggest is providing the obligatory times and places on the front page (perhaps in a toned-down, off-to-the-side-sorta-way), but also something conspicuously placed that reflects your church’s unique personality and purpose. I mean think about it, I’ve never been to an International Gospel Church (IGC), in fact, I didn’t know such an entity existed until today. How does this particular IGC different from the Baptist Church down the street with a similar goal and mission? For matter, how does this church differ from so many others who state a similar mission online?

That’s why on the Redland front page, I list some of the most recent events and happenings. It not only makes search engines happy, it keeps the page dynamic and it gives a first time visitor some clue as to all the fun stuff we have going on.

In other words, while there is doctrine-o-plenty to be found at RBC, there are also smiling faces with warm embraces looking forward to your visit.

See how enticing that last sentence was? Now go, and do likewise.

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But if I move to Linux, what happens to all my sermons in Word?

A chief concern about moving to Linux is interoperability with Microsoft Office applications. Several office suites are available for Linux systems, but there hasn’t been a systematic study of how well these suites interoperate with Microsoft Office. We decided to conduct a small pilot experiment to explore how interoperable current Linux office applications are with Microsoft Office. On January 11, 2003, we downloaded 150 files from the Internet: 50 Word (.doc) files, 50 Hal Varian, ACM Queue, July/August ’03

Let’s face it. One of the big reasons your church or charity hasn’t moved to a Linux platform is because you’ve got so much invested in Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel. That’s no accident. Microsoft is merely following the “killer app. model” established some 22 years ago when Mitch Kapor’s Lotus 1-2-3 made the IBM PC a must-have business machine.

Put another way, many of us select hardware based upon the requirements of the operating system, which we select based upon the needs of the application software we intend to run. Oh sure, the process usually isn’t that linear, but explains why church administrators find themselves putting-out $300 a seat for Microsoft Office (and then live with the guilt of installing an unlicensed copy on their home PC.)

Why the blind faith MSFT? Well for one, all the pastor’s sermons are in Word, or in some cases, Word Perfect 5.n. The music minister has a library of praise songs saved in PowerPoint. Then there is the calendar for the sanctuary usage often saved in Outlook or even Excel. Then there is software to keep the books. To track visitors. To produce and distribute the bi-weekly newsletter. All on a Windows platform. So why move to Linux?

I mean even with an application as solid and flexible as InfoCentral, there is no popping a disk into the computer and mindlessly “NEXT >>” buttons … nor does the average church administrator feel comfortable with keeping such information online even if it is hosted on a well-armored intranet … provided you even have an intranet. Similarly, heaven help you with installing something as codependent GNUCash or as security conscious as eGroupware without someone in your parish who can speak pure geek (and is willing to read 27 pages of documentation).

On the other hand, most small to mid-sized churches and charities I know have one machine dedicated to accounting (hopefully) behind a locked door – with membership info ported via sneakr-net in the form of delimited ASCII or DBF files. The rest of the computing activity is limited to sermons, letters, newsletters, fliers, slide-shows and some simple list management and/or cost analysis by varying members of the ministerial and administrative staff. For those situations, I would suggesting taking you take a good long look at using OpenOffice, even if for now, it is on a Windows Platform.

Last month, Hal Varian at U.C. Berkeley, along with his son Christopher, published an article in the ACM Queue entitled MOXIE: Microsoft Office-Linux Interoperability Experiment. Now for those of you who aren’t nerds, the ACM is a rather prestigious and well respected educational and scientific society. Moreover, being a professional association, the ACM isn’t prone to some of the marketing and advertising forces that pull many technical magazine in one direction or another. So when I see an article that essentially says OpenOffice, and it’s kissing cousin StarOffice can import 97% of existing Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents, I pay attention.

I would also burninate two CDs and give one to my church administrator and my youth minister the next time I see him and with absolutely no technical verbiage, explain to him that “the software on this CD can save you $300 per software seat, and is compatible with just about every document you have.” If I see they’re interested, I might also add “it also lets you export your ‘Write’documents to Adobe Postscript and HTML format … and your ‘Draw’ and ‘Impress’ documents to Flash with a couple clicks of a button” … which is another coupla hundred of dollars saved.

What about the 3% of unreadable documents? Well, after reading the article along with some input from over at SlashDot, I doubt that too many music ministers are using the math or macro features in Word to compose this week’s hymn. Moreover, it seems that Microsoft Office has about the same failure ratio in reading it’s own documents.

Why the evangelism? It’s about talents. When people give your charity money, they’re hoping that more goes to those in need, than to the needs of the back-end operation. It’s also about accountability and integrity. Even if you continue to use legally licensed copies of MS Word at your office, giving them a compatible office suite on their HOME pc may help your minister stay out of software hell. Deploying OpenOffice, even if it is on existing Windows platform that is currently equipped with an (aging) copy of MS Office, is practical and realistic step in that direction.

… From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. Luke 12:48b
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Galileo Mission Ends with Dive Into Jupiter

Okay folks, I’m back from vacation! Yes, those posts you saw all last week were written ahead of time and used a combination of the BloggerAPI and CRONtab to post the articles in my absence. Of course, now the fun of coming back to a D.C . area that has been hammered with hurricanes and as of last night, 4 more inches of rain … but I digress.

But I digress with intent. Today’s message has nothing to do with church or charity web sites. It has to do with one of my heros, George Peters. Yes, we’re related. He is my father, my mentor, my example for so many of my good traits. He is my hero, and he is now enjoying a well deserved retirement in Florida.

So what has this got to do with the Galileo? Everything. Just to give you some perspective on the how long it takes to get from one planet to another, the Galileo was the last project my father worked on as part of his 30 year career at NASA. In fact, I got to see the “oversized basketball,” behind some very thick glass while it was going through a battery of testing up at the Goddard Space Flight Center here in Maryland.

Anyway, the Galileo was sent on it’s final mission late Sunday night. Collecting data as it was intentionally directed into Jupiter’s atmosphere in a fiery final plunge towards this jovial planet’s surface.

So here is yet another tribute to my father, and to space exploration – both of which have contributed so much to what my life is today in so many good and positive ways (velcro, fidelity, and other essential things). Thank you Dad … and farwell Galileo!

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Drive yourself nuts with .NET

One of my favorite geek blogs is KeithDevens.com. An accomplished coder, he provides several useful insights on the things that I face both in my day job, and when I’m coding-up a plug-in or such for my favorite church web site. Last week, Keith offered a link to a site that offered an extensive list of programmer tools — a link worth a visit to KD’s site alone.

In describing the linked site, Keith remarked that “A lot of the stuff there applies only to .NET and so don’t apply to me yet …” In response to this statement, a reader commented: “I use c#/.NET professionally at work and what i have to tell about it is just the same as about php: looks good at first but too much annoyances.” Indeed!

For those of you who don’t speak fluent geek, please forgive the code-monkey talk, but selecting a programming language can make the difference between walking tall or blowing your foot clean off. With so much hype out there over what’s hot and what’s not, I figure a venture into some gruesome reality might help.

.NET allows you to connect to your database and essentially ‘copy-off’ data into a stateless and disconnected entity called the DataSet. Think of it as a local copy of a large corporate database. Within the DataSet, you can establish DataTables and DataViews. You can also establish DataRelations, that is, you can map the associations that connect various Tables and Views together.

You can also DataBind these DataViews and DataTables to webControls. These are pre-fabbed HTML entities, when bound to a table or view, are automagically populated with data. As simply put as I can make it, you connect to the database, create a table, fill the table, bind it too something such as a DataGrid (a <table>) or a Drop Down List Box (<select>) … and voila, it is populated with the data in the table without you having to loop through each record in the DataTable/View.

dim ds As DataSet = New DataSet(“DropDownLists”)
dim dc as OleDbConnection = New OleDbConnection(“…”)
Dim da As OleDbDataAdapter = New OleDbDataAdapter(“SELECT … from Parents”, dc)
da.Fill(ds, “Parents”)
Dim dv as New DataView = New DataView(ds.Tables(“Parents”))

So let’s say you have Drop Down List Boxes, in which one is the co-dependent on the other; meaning if I select an option on the first drop down, then the options in my second drop-down change according to their DataRelation. Don’t be frightened, it happens more often than you think.

Dim dr As DataRelation = _
New DataRelation(“ParentAndChild”, _
myDataSet.Tables(“Parents”).Columns(“parent_id”), _
myDataSet.Tables(“Children”).Columns(“parent_id”))DropDownList1.DataSource = dv
DropDownList1.DataTextField = “Parent_ID”
DropDownList1.DataValueField = “Parent_Name”

Okay, so I’m all set. After jumping through all of the above flaming hoops, the only thing left to do now is to put some code in the SelectedIndexChanged event of the parent DropDownList1 in which I merely use the DataRelationship to define the data in the child DropDownList2. Of course, the trick is getting the data in the right format.

My first thought was that I would merely assign the ChildRows to the 2nd DropDownList object:

DropDownList2 = CType(myDataSet.Tables(“Parents”).Rows(i).GetChildRows(“ParentAndChild”), DataView)

No such luck. So after about an hour of reading copious documentation and usenet feeds, here’s what I finally wound up with:

DropDownList2 = myDataSet.Tables(“Parents”).DefaultView(i).CreateChildView(“ParentAndChild”)

My point here is not to dissuade you from using .NET. It is an incredibly powerful tool. But like all industrial strength power tools, there is a trade-off. Hopefully my venture into geekdom will give you a better idea of some of the real-world issues faced by someone who’s cut himself more than once with this tool. As always, your mileage may vary.

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Free Applications for Churches/Charities …

Busy, busy, busy today, but enough about my problems, let’s talk about yours. Specifically, your needs, or rather, the needs of your church and/or charitable organization. Specifically your information technology (IT) needs.

It should be little or no surprise to anyone that churches and charities have needs, automation needs. Needs to raise revenue (e.g. dontations). Needs to actually collect the revenue. Needs to tell people about how great your organization is so they’ll give you their revenue. Needs to allocate the revenue against existing projects/ministries(needs). Needs to track and/or account for the allocation of resources.

That said, we don’t want to get ourselves in a situation where we’re expending so much on automated forms of revenue collection, allocation, acccounting, etc… that the organization merely exists to … well feed the automation needs.

This means keeping the costs down if and when feasible, especially if you’re a small to medium size organization; such as a church.

While I have in the past talked about saving some bucks by using OpenOffice over MS Word, Linux over MS Windows, etc … I recently discovered this page that offers a far more comprehensive the Top 10 Free Software Applications for Charities: 2002.

In order of need (application type), this site offers some automation alternatives you may not have considered.

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TypePad, a cool publishing tool:

Brought to you by the same talented people that brought you MovableType, TypePad bills itself as:

the simplest and most powerful service for publishing full featured weblogs and photo albums.

Hey, who am I to argue that? Having been part of their beta test process, I myself would now subscribe to their reasonably priced service if I wasn’t such a Perl-headed geek.

That said, I can see where many a youth minister doesn’t want to become an expert in regular expressions and/or the finer points of recursion versus iteration.

I can also see where many a youth or music minster also doesn’t want to maintain a full-blown church web site, yet has a need to communicate to those involved with their ministry on a frequent basis.

Add to this a need to post photographs of events, and to allow those laypersons in leadership positions to contribute compelling content and you can see where a nice weblog can serve as a flexible and convenient means to get their message out online.

To me, TypePad is a resonably priced solution that fits these needs, without the fits and starts one gets from a variety of ‘free‘ blogging services.
Moreover, the pricing structure is such that you can upgrade your package to buy into feature such as scheduled posting, email blogging as well as maintain multiple blogs.

If you’re not pleased with some of the “weight” some of these “comprehensive church content management services” are offering, then why not give TypePad a look?

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Sokkit the Web Server Tool

Sokkit, the product formerly known as PHPGeek, which was the product formerly known as PHPTriad, is a fast, efficient and economical way of installing Apache, PHP and MySQL on your Windows platform.

I’m sure some of you uber-geeks will scoff as at such a product, opting save the $19.95 price by compiling and then installing each of the above. For me, I prefer the convenience of running a single .exe to get Apache and PHP up, and then an add-on .exe to install MySQL. A process that took me all of 10 minutes … mostly because I had to shut down the IIS server.

From there, I was able to install Drupal and do some development work on the blogs4God redesign while I’m on vacation. The Drupal install took about 20 minutes, not because of Drupal, but because of some site-specific stuff I wanted done.

Okay, in English for those of you who don’t speak pure geek. By installing Sokkit, you can leave your production website alone, and customize a ‘test’ or ‘development’ version of your site on your home PC. No Internet connection needed. No need to run a separate Linux box w/Apache at home (as some of us are known to do). Just make changes, and view them all from the comfort of your localhost.

In fact, the $44.95 deluxe version of this product, along with a service such as NOIP, can give you all you need to run a small web site from your home, or church basement, though I would advise against the latter for security reasons.

About the only knock I have on this product is that I could find no mod_perl, that is a module to run Perl … which if I’m correct (and if I’m wrong about this, leave a comment) … then these guys should make one available so they generate some serious bucks. I may be wrong, but I suspect such a tool at its current pricing structure would be very attractive to the MovableType crowd.

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The forking of b2 …

One of the things that make MovableType so popular is its extensibility. For example, with no small effort, I was able to create plug-ins and templates that elevated this blogging tool into a simple content management system. Of course, this is fine if you know and enjoy the Perl, as I do.

For others, PHP is their poison, so it is not surprising to find many fine PHP-based blogging tools. One such system is b2. Because of its Open Source nature, one can customize the output into a variety of formats, such as a church web site.

That said, as with many Open Source products, the developer has moved on to other interests. As a result, three ‘forks’ of this popular blogging tool have recently arisen. Derivatives you may find useful if you are looking for a blogging tool as the basis for your church or charities content managlement system. Here they are in no particular order:

Each has strengths and weaknesses. I personally would lean towards whatever tool has a broader appeal. Not because I want to be in the popular crowd, but because I want to hitch up with a product that’s going to be around for a while.

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A Lorem Ipsum test of my Blog

This compelling content of this test is brought to you courtesy of the “Lorem Ipsum Generator.”

As their site explains: “What is Lorem Ipsum? Lorem Ipsum, or Lipsum for short, is simply dummy text of the printing and typesetting industry. Lipsum has been the industry’s standard dummy text ever since the 1500s, when an unknown printer took a galley of type and scrambled it to make a type specimen book. It has survived not only four centuries, but now the leap into electronic typesetting, remaining essentially unchanged. It was popularised in the 1960s with the release of Letraset sheets containing Lipsum passages, and more recently with desktop publishing software like Aldus PageMaker including versions of Lipsum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Donec erat. Etiam a odio. Donec pretium, metus in tempor ultricies, est purus sagittis lacus, sit amet vulputate sem turpis vitae turpis. Nullam at neque et dui ultrices porttitor. Vestibulum tristique pulvinar sem. Curabitur iaculis magna at lorem. Sed consectetuer. Curabitur molestie. Sed id sapien. Mauris in leo vitae wisi tempor mattis. Etiam nec leo. Pellentesque enim quam, viverra quis, dignissim id, vestibulum non, nulla. Etiam tincidunt mollis arcu. Fusce nunc turpis, malesuada sed, gravida eu, vestibulum a, quam. Nulla volutpat dui sit amet eros. Donec sodales mauris eget quam.

Cras fermentum, justo vitae elementum varius, urna nunc vestibulum nulla, vel accumsan ipsum nunc in orci. Sed sed sapien at turpis dapibus cursus. Curabitur gravida tortor ut lacus. Nulla nec mauris a diam malesuada euismod. Nunc purus sapien, malesuada sit amet, sollicitudin nec, tempus eget, leo. Morbi hendrerit. Fusce egestas nibh ac mauris. Donec eget arcu. Aenean leo urna, molestie vel, pretium vitae, pellentesque non, ligula. Etiam tempus, tortor a semper pretium, lectus ante malesuada odio, id vehicula lorem dui eu mi. Etiam metus enim, interdum quis, pellentesque et, placerat nec, tellus. Pellentesque vel quam. Nunc sit amet elit ac urna sodales auctor. Mauris vestibulum sapien ut neque. Vestibulum sit amet lorem sed lectus convallis malesuada.

Just do me one big favor? Go ahead and use this fine verbage as filler if need be … just make sure you remove it once your site goes into production.

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