Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, N.Charleston, SC

I would love to live and work in the Raleigh, Durham, RTP area of North Carolina … I’m fed-up enough with Rockville that if I could find a job in NC today, I’d move tomorrow. Barring that, I’d settle on Charleston, a charming community whose economy is just now recovering from the damage done when Jimmy Carter moved several Naval bases from this port city to neighboring Georgia.

Yet even with their ‘Digital Corridor’ initiative, it is not surprising to find a church in North Charleston that may or may not be graced with a code monkey, geek type such as the regular readers of this blog. Perhaps that is why I found myself blindly feeling about for my RayBans™ after my visit to the website of the Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church of North Charleston, South Carolina.

I don’t even know where to begin, so I’ll just work from top to bottom until ‘I can’t take it no more.’

The very first thing we see is a bright green, animated gif motioning us to “ENTER SITE NOW,” a prompt which begs the question, if you have to employ a flashing sign to get past your splash page, then what does that say about your the intuitiveness of your hyperlink? Moreover, what does that say about the utility of your splash page?

Just below, in huge lime green colors is a welcome message that consumes just about every inch of usable space ‘above the fold.’ Well, that and beveled animated ’email me’ gif button followed by a graphic of the proposed church floating that looks as if it has been uprooted by a hurricane … or is it supposed to be floating on a cloud? See the problem?

After all this, we’re visually assaulted with a nice bright cyan color that is equally intense on the fire engine red background, a scrolling marquee with something about vision … I couldn’t read it, it went by too fast.

Below that, an .AU file which when played, reveals an audio technician who needs to back off on the reverb.

Below that, animated gifs often used for under construction … only this time, it headers links regarding the construction of their new building. I had to click on those links to figure that out. In other words, here we have a church website that includes just about every deadly sin of church web design sans the dreaded spinning cross.

So how do I heal this site? I don’t, I start over, especially after viewing some of the subpages.

Like many similar cases we’ve discussed here in the past, there is a modest but useful informational framework. Modest in that, at least to me, the site is missing some important content, for example, where does the ‘Missionary in Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church come from? There is not enough information on the ‘Auxiliaries‘ page to figure this out. Instead, a page such as this should be drawn and quartered … well grouped into several pages so we can get an idea of the numerous wonderful activities that obviously go on at this church.

And that’s my larger point, they appear to have alot going on, so much so they can afford to expand with an ambitious building project, but I’m used to extruding the hidden information in a poorly designed site. My fear is that once again, we’ve found a wonderful church with a wonderfully unique purpose and personality within God’s body, but they’ve hidden their light under a bowl of bad and/or arcane design techniques.

Again, here is another case where a church might benefit from one of the many low cost turnkey content management solutions available these days. It’s only a matter of these fine folks sitting down and doing the dirty work of a comprehensive needs analysis … and then inputting all their great stuff into a great page.

What do you think? Got an opinion, a hot job lead? Leave me a comment, we’ll discuss.

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Ikea College Park MD – What we can learn from Ikea blowing a $350 sale

With any automated system, mistakes are bound to happen. Sometimes it is the end user’s fault. Many times it is a bug in the program, a server glitch or someone spilling a Pepsi on the keyboard. The point is simple; you need to anticipate that at some time, someone is going to make a mistake using your church’s website. The question is how does your response reflect your church’s purpose and personality? Being a little proactive may be the difference between a return visitor and someone never gracing the door of your institution ever again.

Case in point, last night Ikea had $350 of my dollars in their hands, but because of a faulty information infrastructure, a lack of contingencies and a queue system that enslaves the customer to the needs of the merchant, they let it slip through their fingers. Here is what happened:

– – – – – § – – – – –

Yesterday, my wife and I make the 40-minute trek from Rockville to the Ikea in College Park Maryland. No small feat as we are bringing along a sweet, but typical 4 year old. We took the pickup truck, which isn’t as comfortable as the Honda Accord, but then again, you can’t pack a computer desk and side unit in the trunk of the latter.

So we get there, I take the kid to the play area; my wife begins to hunt for the furniture she saw online. I wait 15 minutes with my anxious daughter because the play area staff is short handed.

Finally, my daughter gets the green light and I try to hail my wife on our two-way radios. One problem, my wife put it down for a second to measure a desk. She turns around, the radio is gone, and some well-intended staff saw it and took it to the lost and found. I admire that to a degree; I would admire it a bit more had the employee first asked anyone within sight of the radio if they had misplaced such an item.

I lose 15 minutes trying to find my wife, who has to track down the lost and found to recover the radio to find me.

We get to the office furniture area, we look at alternate models, we decide on the ‘Galant Desk Combination Left‘, but it isn’t a “self shop” item. We get the attention of a very helpful staff person named Condi. She walks us over to a terminal, prints out a paper and instructs to get our self-shop items and then present the paper while we’re ready to purchase.

It takes 5 minutes to walk the maze from the office area to the self-shop area. There we get a CPU/printer cart to go with my wife’s desk, I get a “Jerker” table.

The wait in line at the register wasn’t nearly as long as it was on a previous visit, so I didn’t mind my wife had to walk down to the pickup line while I brought the truck around. I park the truck and wait. Time is running out, my daughter’s allotted time in the play area. I leave the truck in the loading area; my wife can see it … she’s still waiting.

I get in line to wait for my daughter. I get my daughter. I return my daughter to her mother who turns to me and points to a cart that has everything for the ‘Galant‘ desk unit … except the desktop. Looking up from the cart full of table legs, a ‘half round’ and frame, I ask the clerk where the desktop is. He non-chalantly informs us that they must be out stock because they couldn’t find it.

Now let’s stop here for a minute. First, when Condi pulled the item up on screen, she should have had a bright red flag on her machine tell her the unit was out of stock … yellow if there was only one or two left; at which point she could have called down to the warehouse to confirm the piece in stock, and hold it while removing it from the system. The system should have refused to print the order unless the out of stock unit was removed from the list of the purchase. Second, up on printing page, a message should have been sent to the warehouse to hold that unit … in fact, the entire request should have arrived at the shipping area before we did.

With that in mind, I inform them that I’m not going to by any of the parts of the desk unless there is a desktop. What is the sense in that? Especially since we were never informed when the desktop would be back in stock … if ever.

Let’s stop again, at moment the clerk realized someone had just paid for something that was out of stock, he should have informed the warehouse manager, and the manager should approach the customers; perhaps with free shipping when the unit arrives. If for no other reason because Maryland consumer laws are pretty strict about taking a customer’s money for unavailable item without prior agreement of the consumer. Instead, he points to the refund area, in which we must pick a number … 580, while the current number is 574.

We wait another 15 minutes, we get a pretty jovial guy who doesn’t mind us asking for a manager … we wait a couple more minutes … he comes back and informs us a warehouse manager will be right up. My wife asks the refund clerk if there is any way we can make sure a mistake hasn’t been made in the warehouse. The refund clerk shakes his head no.

Myself, having worked on a large POS/Inventory/Warehouse data systems for the largest Mac vendor to the Federal Government a few years back, I remark how impossible it seems to me that Condi was allowed to print-out a request for an item not in stock. How it is absurd that there aren’t procedures and mechanisms in place to deal with low quantity non-self-serve items. Especially since everyone is bar-coding everything in a day and age of high-speed data replication.

The clerk tries to tell me that it could other persons requested the same unit at the same time. Which was odd, we didn’t see a whole lot of people near looking at the desk, nor near Condi’s station nor loading such units in their trucks and vans. Nor does it explain how the person at the register is allowed to ring-up a sale to the out of stock after scanning the barcode. Though it does indicate to me that this young man’s sales talents are being squandered at the returns desk.

Exasperated, I kvetch to the cheerful young man at the refund counter that I can’t believe the system is so decrepit. He assures me that it is, and then proceeds to say, “I should know, I work with computers.” Hmmm … that must explain why he’s wearing the yellow shirt with the blue Ikea logo on it.

Don’t worry the refund guy was nice enough that I kept that thought to myself. Moreover, I inform him that he’s taken too many items off the purchase, that is, there was a $99 “Jerker” sitting my truck that I did want to take home … and no matter how frustrated, it would be stealing if he didn’t debit my credit.

We pay for the “Jerker” and leave the store; still no warehouse manager in site, my wife is frustrated to the point of tears.

– – – – – § – – – – –

It’s a long story, but I feel much better after writing it. I also hope you’re a bit wiser in understanding the importance of pre-empting mistakes, and when that doesn’t work, giving your users what they need to gracefully recover from mistakes.

For example, what happens when your user types in a URL that doesn’t exist on their page? I personally prefer to give them the name of the attempted page, along with an explanation, a menu/method of navigation and the search form.

So what happens when the user can’t find something on the search form? Have you taken into account they might not know how to enter an effective query? Along with instructions, do you have an “advanced form” which dumbs down some of the options in the forms of additional radio button and/or check box elements?

Have you instructed members of the church office how to respond to errors and inquiries? Do you provide any type of documentation to help the users and/or the church staff circumnavigates the site?

Here’s the point, if you don’t address the potential for “oopsies” on your church’s website, then you are probably insuring that a potential visitor is going to visit some other church after they frustrated with your website and leave forever.

Ikea had $350 in their hand, yet they let it slip through their fingers. Worse, we’re not likely to go back to buy anything else after having to wait in five different lines of 15 minutes each, three of which was to pay for a cash and carry item that was not in stock … or couldn’t be found.

Don’t let the same type of thing happen to your church’s website.

  • put systems in place that keep everyone on the same page
  • have contigencies to deal with mistakes and/or complaints
  • put the needs of the seeker and/or member above that of the system
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When Christian Spammers and PowerPoint collide

What’s more irritating than people spamming in the name of God? How about the same knuckle-head directing you to a website that takes 5 minutes and 20 seconds to download on a 56kb dial-up? That’s what I discovered after someone representing themselves as Casey Dean (CDean2412@aol.com) clicked on each of the obfuscated email addresses on the contacts page at Redland Baptist Church, spamming everyone, except the webservants, with the following message:

Please view this website Eagles Club and pray for God to show you if you’re to become a covenant partner. Our goal is to raise up a Generation of Debt Free Believers (Romans 13:8) by Breaking the Bondage of DEBT(Proverbs 22:7) for any other info contact me.

Needless to say, I was confounded and confused how giving away $100 a month, and spamming total strangers, would make me debt free. So I prayed about it and here’s the Bible passage that came to my mind:

And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. – Mark 11:15

So I began the process of formalizing a complaint. Since the email was actually sent from an AOL account, I merely forwarded the routing headers along with the offending message to abuse@aol.com, but I wasn’t done. With this spam hurled at our bandwidth the week prior Easter, and compelled by Scripture to bear His likeness, I wanted this to be a thorough scourging. At I first thought it might be instructive if I issued the following Linux/wget command and walked away for an hour or three:

# note – don’t let the wordwrap fool you, it’s all one command line
export http_proxy=http://proxy.provider.com:80/;
while [ true ] ;
do wget -r -nd –proxy=on –user-agent=”All Your Spam Sucks”
–delete-after http://www.eaglesclub.info/caseydean > /dev/null ;
done

But that would be returning evil with evil … and I suspect it is also illegal. So instead, I visited the spamvertised website as part of putting together an email of complaint to the website’s hosting company, Yahoo. What I found convinced me to instead turn the other cheek as the site’s current incarnation is far more damaging then getting their host provider to shut them down.

Here are some bullet points on why I think it better to let them wallow in their existent state of affliction:

  • This site is essentially unavailable to the demographic they’re trying to reach;
  • the site epitomizes all that is wrong with Christian spam;
  • the site is the definitive example of ineffective ‘brochureware’;
  • this site serves as a reminder to never publish PowerPoint generated content that can otherwise be rendered with HTML.

It’s on these last two points I want us to focus on.

Brochureware
All too often, legitimate Christian ministries offer an online presence that is little more than ‘brochureware’, a term nicely defined by the good folks at the TheoBlogical Community. There are two problems with this approach:

  1. Telling existing members what they already know doesn’t serve their ongoing needs.
  2. Unless you have a static, 2 dimensional church, then the brochureware approach fails to convey the true personality and purpose of your parish to potential visitors.

Instead, figure out creative ways of presenting the cool people in your pews and pulpits that distinguishes it from all the other churches listed on the Internet. At RBC, our most popular pages are our sermons (which I need to update). They feed the needs of the members, and give visitors a clue as to what they’re likely to hear on a Sunday. I think you would have to agree, this is a far more effective way of conveying what it is we believe than the canned, church-speak, one-size-fits-all mission statement.

Power-less Point
In the same way it might be convenient in the short-term to scan and publish an existing bulletin or newsletter, it is equally convenient to “Save As” a PowerPoint presentation to “HTML.” I put special emphasis on “HTML” because what PowerPoint really does is create a huge JPG file for each slide then creates a HTML file wrapper to contain the bloated images.

In the case of our spammer, he took his slideshow output to a new level of inconvenience, using Yahoo PageBuilder to concatenate all 21 of the 80k images into a single index file that takes close to a minute to download on my beefy DSL line.

Don’t do this!
Even if you’re not a spammer, please, please, please do not be deceived into taking the wide-door of short-term convenience, such appearances of convenience are spawned by satan to seduce you into a long-term maintenance nightmare. Specifically, any updates have to go through a single person’s individual PC each and every time. Worse, the end product is completely unscannable by search engines and the search features of an individual’s browser.

For example, because the Eagles Club contains mostly graphic-generated content, I couldn’t use the F3 search feature on my browser to find keywords or phrases. Instead, I had to hit the PageDown button 17 times to get to the 13th image to find out how I was going to, in their words, ‘break the bondage of debt;’ and I quote:

“There are no guarantees of income. All illustrations are based on you getting your 3 covenant partners and them getting their 3 covenant partners and them getting their 3 and all covenant partners maintaining their $100 monthly auto-ship.” – http://www.eaglesclub.info/Slide13.JPG

Now in the case of the Eagle’s Club, it could be that they were just trying to avoid searches made by the good folks at the Federal Trade Commission. For the rest of us, this is a good example of how to make your site invisible to seekers in your area using Google and/or Yahoo.

So do me a favor, if someone thinks it is a good idea to publish your church’s website using PowerPoint, strongly suggest that they instead consider using Flash instead. And for those of us who really don’t like Flash, there are a number of free and/or low cost text-based solutions available at places like HotScripts.

Yes I know, I’ve been a bit Josephus-like in my critique today, but I’m of the opinion that if charlatans put the energy used to peddle the enslavement of ‘godly‘ pyramid schemes into a real ministry or business, then we would truly multiply our ability to feed the hungry, address the needs of the widow and the prisoner, and lead individuals to a saving knowledge of Christ.

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It’s 9:40 AM Sunday, do you know where your PDA is?

Just to show you how old I am, here’s a story I can recall from the chilliest days of the Cold war. Legend has it that a big hulking IBM Mainframe mysteriously “disappeared” while riding the rails to its destination in West Germany. Several years later, IBM received a parts order for a mainframe dubiously located in Moscow … bearing the “missing” computer’s serial number. As Karla Jennings so aptly put it on page 163 of ‘The Devouring Fungus:’

“The United States couldn’t bust the KGB for theft, but the Kremlin couldn’t get its parts either.”

A cute story from mother Russia to remind you to scold your pastors about the perils of portable computing. Here’s one from ‘Down Under‘ that may hit closer to home:

“LAPTOP PCs with top-secret Defence material were among the more than 1000 laptops stolen from government departments over the past four years, an inquiry has found.” – 04apr04 – The Australian

In other words, one of the easiest methods of me breaking into your church’s servers would be to borrow your youth pastor’s PDA for an hour or so while he’s sitting adjacent to the pulpit nodding agreeingly in rhythm to the staccato of the pastor’s sermonizing.

Think about it, among your church staff, how many of them have their passwords written down on a Post-It Note™ taped to the bottom of their keyboard and/or have their systems automatically fill in the blanks in response to a basic authentication prompt? Now think about this quote from a ComputerWorld story posted on this date three years ago today, in response to some State Department laptops that went missing on April 19, 2000 :

“If your firewalls, intrusion-detection software and encryption technologies make you feel safe, think again.

As the recent incident involving the theft of a U.S. State Department laptop demonstrates , having the best protection against external hackers means little if sensitive data is allowed to simply walk out the door.”

So unless your church’s current security measures exceed that of a secure government facility, here is some required reading to get you and your church staff started on the path of righteous physical security of your portable computing:

There will be a test, unfortunately for the unprepared, I won’t be the one administering it!

“But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear;” – 1 Peter 3:15
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Calvary Chapel North Phoenix

In the past, I’ve joked, “FrontPage doesn’t kill websites, people using FrontPage do.” I think the same could be said for any WYSIWYG tool, especially those that handle not just HTML, but the generation of navigation buttons, banners and other pre-CSS elements. This would include NetObjects Fusion.

Like FrontPage, one generates an entire website with NetObjects Fusion by selecting a template, creating an information hierarchy, and then filling in the pages. The software in turn, handles everything from headers to footers, and everything in-between. Want to add a new .gif rollover for the new page you created? No problem, it is generated for you automagically.

And like FrontPage, NetObjects Fusion suffers from the same Achille’s Heal, that is, if you selected a sucky template, then you got a sucky page. Fortunately, editing and/or creating your own NetObjects Fusion template is far easier than rolling your own FrontPage template. At least this was my conclusion after creating the 1998 version of Redland Baptist that received a 5 star rating (out of 5) from C|Net … back in the day when they did site reviews.

Unfortunately, not every church has someone who can figure out how to create a template, which is why I’ve always encouraged purchasing a template for users of FrontPage. I recommend the same for users of NetObjects Fusion, even though some of the templates that came out of the box are “okay;” at least “okay” enough for or five years ago for me to copy and modify to taste.

This is certainly what I would recommend to the webmaster(s) at the Calvary Chapel of North Phoenix. That is, if they are planning on the continued use of NetObjects Fusion, then the first healing act would be to upgrade from version 4.x to version 7.5. If the stock templates aren’t sufficient to meet modern demands for fluid, dynamic usable and accessible pages, then I would purchase a good-looking template that addresses the above needs and correctly reflects the personality and purpose of Calvary Chapel … but only after he/she/they sit down and reorganize their data.

For example, I count three instances of “click here,” a phrase that should be avoided and supplanted with meaningful text and/or images that are obviously hyperlinks.

Similarly, there is a menu choice along the top entitled “Pastor Bob,” whom I would assume is on staff. So why not make the top menu choice “Our Staff” and lose the bright blue text of to the left and center that reads: “To contact any of our staff, click here.”

Along with bright blue, lime green and cyan are also employed to represent hyperlinks, or as I like to describe this scenario, the users have to think about what should be obvious because of “a wide variety of standards.” Visit their “This Week” page and you get hyperlinks in fire engine red and a tannish-yellow-brownish color. The cyan and lime green are no longer representative of hyperlinks, but are used to yell at the user, even though they are the bulk of the content on the page.

Color inconsistencies and ‘cheap looking‘ icon issues can/will also be resolved with the purchase of a nice looking template … or perhaps by subscribing to an online content management service, though I would think $100 upgrading NetObjects to version 7.5, and another $50 on a template might be just as cost effective.

Send email the really old-school way
Of course, no amount of website generator is going to fix problems like the use of the scrolling parchment Jesus Junk email hyperlink or the bloated 74kb image of a brick building. For that, I recommend buying the book.

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Mirroring Websites with wget, curl and/or tar

From time to time, it is a good thing to back up your entire site onto a different computer/server, even if your entire site is database-driven.

Take my situation two weeks ago, when my former host provider shut down the RBC site because of a false spam report. Even though no spam had actually been sent from redlandbaptist.org, my former host’s upstream provider demanded action. In response, my former shut down the site with no notification despite their existing terms of use to warn on the first time, suspend on the second, etc… After I threatened legal action, the host provider and I found a middle ground where he agreed to put the site online, and I agreed to move my sites elsewhere over the course of a weekend.

Fortunately, I was already moving sites off this host I personally found troublesome. The Redland site was the last to go. RBC was last because there are legacy portions of it that are not entirely data-driven. That is, with my other sites, I merely dumped the MySQL database off the old machine, install a fresh version of MovableType on the new site, pipe in the data, hit rebuild and viola!

While there are several PC based options for mirroring a site, I wanted something that would take files from one Linux server and move them to another. I had three choices. First, there is wget, a nice little GNU tool for offline reading and site mirroring. As Jim Roberts writes in his article “Mirroring Websites with wget“, the syntax is insanely simple:

wget -mirror -w 3 -p -P c:\sokkit\site\rbc ftp://username:password@ftp.redlandbaptist.org

My only problem with this approach is that much of the legacy stuff at RBC was image related and/or offline because it is seasonal. And though I employed the “-p” option, not all images made the cut, nor did any of our offline archives for obvious reasons. So another solution, at least where images are concerned, would be to use a Perl program that employs another command line download tool simply known as curl:

perl curlmirror.pl -p -s 800 -o rbc -t /home/backupsite/rbc http://www.redlandbaptist.org

Unfortunately, since I have several files with a .php extension, I get the same filename mangling that I would with wget’s offline reader syntax:

wget –mirror -w 2 -p –html-extension –convert-links -P c:\sokkit\site\rbc http://www.redlandbaptist.org

The above syntax converts urls like http://www.redlandbaptist.org/index.php?sid=123 into http://www.redlandbaptist.org/index.phpsid_123.html. Great for viewing, not so great as a working backup.

There was another way, one that insured I got all my files, all the correct paths and all the correct file ownerships and permissions. Unfortunately, this method required shell access, and though my former host provider was kind enough to put the site back online, I seriously doubt he would have honored any request to restore ssh access. So I cheated, I downloaded a ‘modified copy’ of the Gamma Web Shell.

‘Modified copy?’ The Gamma Web Shell allows an individual to execute shell commands directly from their browser, so you can imagine the security implications of installing such a program. So on my local PC, I first modified the password to something huge and random, I limited the commands allowed, and then I changed the code to accommodate changing the file name from WebShell.cgi to something hard to guess. Once modified, I ftp’d it to the old Redland site, and then entered the following commands:

mysqldump -uUSRNAME -pPASSWRD -opt mydatabase > databasedump.sql

tar -zcvf shebang.tar.gz *

Please be warned, if you go this route, you are putting your site at great risk. Don’t blame me if you get hacked. You have been warned. In fact, I only did it because my back was against the wall. That said, immediately after executing the above backup commands, I deleted the shell program. Then uploaded a text file full of Lorem Ipsum using the same name to make sure it couldn’t be reconstituted from the trash.

After these security precations, I FTP’s the backup file to the new host, invoked the command “tar -zxvf” and was back in business almost instantly. I also FTP’d the tar.gz backup file to my home PC and ‘burninated‘ a CD as a ‘suspenders and belt‘ precaution.

So how about you? What’s your method of mirroring and/or moving sites? Remember what I said this past August, “if you fail to plan, then you’re planning to fail.

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Image Map Hell – Bethel Presbyterian Church

Ten seconds is the industry standard for the amount of time it should take for the data to get from your webserver to the client’s browser. Anything more than that and you run the risk of the user clicking elsewhere, never to return to your site again. As usability guru Jakob Nielsen puts it:

“10 seconds is about the limit for keeping the user’s attention focused on the dialogue. For longer delays, users will want to perform other tasks while waiting for the computer to finish, so they should be given feedback indicating when the computer expects to be done. Feedback during the delay is especially important if the response time is likely to be highly variable, since users will then not know what to expect.”

So imagine my chagrin when it took 30 some-odd seconds for the home page of the Bethel Presbyterian Church of Kingston, TN to load via my beefy DSL line.

What happened, and how would I heal this church website? After poking about the function signatures of the underlying Javascript, I believe this page was created using “Adobe GoLive 4,” a product which at the time of its release, boasted of robust image mapping capability.

not every job requires a ball peen hammerAs a programmer, I’m impressed by the Code Monkeys at Adobe, however I’m not so sure it’s wise to market ‘image mapping for idiots’ as a major feature of any WYSIWYG HTML editor; at least not without some government-style warning. To me, this is like trusting my 4-year-old daughter with a Ball-Peen hammer. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a good kid who loves to help her daddy do work around the house, however, I would bet large sums of money that the thrill of using the “grown-up” tool would become the focus of her energies. In other words, regardless of the task, every job in and around the house would require a wack or three … even in those cases when the nail had a nice Phillip’s Head slot in the top.

In the case of the Bethel Presbyterian Church Website, “hammer time” has resulted in a front page that contains 160 unique image items … and a sound file to boot. In plain English, an individual visiting the page using a 56k modem would have to wait a bit over 73 seconds for the entire page to load … provided they’re using an image enabled browser. To see how a search engine or the image impaired might see the site, why not give it a gander using the Delorie Lynx Viewer … I assure you, you’ll be shocked by the results.

So how would I heal the Bethel Presbyterian Church Website? I’d start with their Web Site Index; organizing the tons of compelling content this site has to offer into major categories, such as “About Us” and “Ministries.” Once this is done, I’d select some service that provides some form of off-the-shelf content management. I’m not talking one of the many fine open source CMS solutions out there, but rather one of the many hosting services that cater to churches in just such a situation. I’d do this because I suspect that’s what the great folks at Bethel Presbyterian were expecting from GoLive.

For example, a few months ago, I ripped into the First Baptist Church of Frederick for ‘hammering‘ their entire site in a similar fashion using Flash. Their response? They took their compelling content and enlisted the services of “Church Community Builder.” A good service that is bit pricey for my taste, but then again, I have access to a dedicated server and twenty years of programming experience. To a church such as First Frederick or Bethel Presbyterian it is money well spent.

Sure, it’s not nearly as fun as shooting yourself in the foot with MovableType, pMachine or Mambo, but then again, not everyone can wield a hammer … nor should the ‘coolness of the tool‘ ever become the focus of our efforts.

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Tweaking Instapundit’s New Design

When it comes to issues of the law and punditry, and even to a degree digital photography, �ber-blogger Glenn Reynolds has it all over me. However, when it comes to issues of website usability and accessibility, I think I might have the advantage over the otherwise all knowing Instapundit.Recently, the good Dr.�s site underwent a very nice facelift: bolder fonts, bolder colors, less distracting presentation of his blogads and permalinks, and a useful �Don�t Make Me Think� style navigation/menu bar along the top. In other words, I like it, I like it a lot. That said there is some tweaking I might affect before blessing this redesign as completely done.

Perhaps the biggest problem I have with the site is the �active pattern� employed as borders. I found my eyes drawn to what I perceived as �motion� along the fringe, instead of keeping my eyes centered on compelling content that has always been king at Dr. Reynolds� site. It makes reading the site for any length of time difficult � almost to the point of a headache.

Next I�d reword �Stylesheet Switcher� to �Change Font Size.� The former may give the user the impression that they�ll get the old stylesheet, even with the iconic help directly below the words. I�d then take this entire block of code and switch its ‘above-the-fold‘ position with the somewhat buried Search box input form. Most browsers allow the user to change the font size on their own � while server-side searches on a site as chock-full of great content as Instapundit are likely to be in greater demand, or to quote the godfather of usability:

“Search is the user’s lifeline for mastering complex websites. The best designs offer a simple search box on the home page and play down advanced search and scoping.” – Jakob Nielsen

I would obfuscate the email address.

With these quick fixes out of the way, I would strive to use a (generated) tableless layout. Not to prove I�m a hip-cool programmer guy, but primarily because it would allow me to switch to a variety of formats merely by switching the CSS. As it stands now, there is a separate PDA and Print page; the latter of which could be healed with a little bit of �Miracle Print.� I�d make sure the new layout had a footer that offered some simple text hyperlinks all of the useful navigation elements from the top.

I think I�d then do something about reworking the archives page. There is quite a bit of information that I would think of interest to any one into history or political science. Especially anyone in the process of writing a book needing a roadmap on who said what regarding recent political events.

If I did move the search form/block to the top, I would then rework the search results page to include revenue-bearing elements such as Google’s Adsense. After all, the user is explicitly conveying their immediate interest in the form of keywords and phrases, the exact information revenue-bearing programs use to determine who sees what ad. As long as you’re going to have ads on the page, go all the way.

Again, please note, we�re talking tweaks here. Obviously this page has been rendered by a professional who knows what she’s doing. Given the great cloud of witlessness that plagues many weblogs and church web sites, I’d say there are plenty of positive elements on the newly designed Instapundit website that are worth emulating. That said, because the site is the gateway drug of blogging, I would like to see it as addictive as possible.

What do you think? Leave a love note, lemme know.

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A portable solution to full photo memory cards

With Spring in full bloom, Summer isn’t far behind and with it, come opportunities for mission trips, vacations and other situations in which we find ourselves traveling about with our digital camera. And with this so too comes the prospect of running out of space on your camera’s memory card, as many of us traveling to Jordan discovered the hard way.

For example, though Chuck Holton and I had planned on FTP’ing our photos to the blogJordan photo gallery, we soon found the dial-up lines at the various Internet cafés and hotels too slow. Fortunately, a member of our trip had a laptop with a CD ROM burner and was generous enough to let us ‘burninate’ a CD or three.

This of course assumes you have the time and wherewithal to download and burn your memory card to a single CD, as Glenn Reynolds reminds us:

“I bought a 512MB card, which I managed to fill entirely on my trip Wednesday. I’m reluctant to go bigger, though, because I like being able to archive a whole card on CD. I guess I’ll get another. I hope the price keeps dropping.”

But traveling with a laptop can be a royal pain. Aside from getting ‘gate raped’ at various airports, you’re always worried it’s going to get stolen, going to crash, or going to burn to a crisp because not every country does AC power the U.S. way … even if the power converter ‘says’ you can.

So the next time I go on some extended trip, and instead of waiting for ‘the prices to keep dropping’ on memory cards, I think I’m going to put my hard-earned cash into something like the Kanguru FC-RW: Portable Flash Card Burner. A device, that for about $200, allows me to directly plug in a memory card of any format and burn it to a CD without having to deal with the flaming hoops of bringing along a laptop, with a USB card-reader/adapter, then firing up my CD burning software, dragging and dropping the files, etc … just to plug’n’play while the device does the dirty work for you.

How about you guys and gals? Got suggestions and/or solutions? Leave a comment and let’s discuss.

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Consider the costs of hosting your church website from the church office.

Just because your church can afford a small business DSL connection with a dedicated IP address doesn’t necessarily qualify you to run your church’s website from the church basement. There are many security issues that can and will compromise both your church’s web presence and/or your member’s confidential data if you’re not capable and willing to take the pains to lock-down your systems. In other words, it might be worth the $7.95 a month it costs these days to let someone else do the hosting for you.

For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? – Luke 14:28

The Scenario
You join a church in a relatively affluent suburban neighborhood. In turn, your church office can afford something along the lines of a Verizon small business DSL account to handle all their Internet needs, which also includes the blessing of a dedicated IP address. As a result, you decide to offset the money spent on Internet access by hosting your church’s website on a donated Pentium class machine using the Apache web server running on some variant Red Hat Linux.

Cool beans, you’ve cut some overhead costs and now have the advantage of being able to physically access your machine. Of course, physical access is a two-way street, as it also means some neer-do-well can walk away with all your work, your data and passwords. Similarly, unless you take steps to segregate your network, that is unless you put some sort of wall between the computer that hosts your website and the computers on rest of the church office network, you’re also exposing all of your church’s sensitive data to a host of nefarious network attacks.

Ignorance != Bliss
These are just few of many security issues you take on when you host on your own. If ignorance is bliss, then definitely do not read anything from the Hacking Exposed series unless you’re ready to spend a weekend or three doing what they say. Advice I suggest regardless of whether you’re running Linux/Apache or Windows Server 2003.

Another cost to consider is maintenance. Installing a firewall and/or rolling your own IPTables configuration on your server is just the beginning of securing your church’s web server. At some point you’re going to get probed and/or attacked. What do you do when your LogWatch cron job emails you the following?

Dropped 6 packets on interface eth0
From 61.131.58.194 – 3 packets
To 123.456.789.000 – 3 packets
Service: smtp (tcp/25) (** IN_TCP DROP **,eth0,none) – 3 packets
From 62.112.174.18 – 3 packets
To 123.456.789.000 – 3 packets
Service: smtp (tcp/25) (** IN_TCP DROP **,eth0,none) – 3 packets

Or how about this potential ‘Active System Attack‘ I enjoyed thwarting this morning on a dedicated server I manage?

9 Time(s): attackalert: Connect from host: ns1.et.pku.edu.cn/162.105.142.3 to TCP port: 111
4 Time(s): attackalert: Connect from host: ns1.gse.pku.edu.cn/162.105.142.3 to TCP port: 111
3 Time(s): attackalert: Connect from host: oldcpq.hedu.pku.edu.cn/162.105.142.3 to TCP port: 111
2 Time(s): attackalert: Connect from host: v480.gse.pku.edu.cn/162.105.142.3 to TCP port: 111

Penny-wise vs. Pound Foolish
The point is, unless you’ve got the networking, operating system and security chops to make a ready defense, then it may be more cost effective to let someone else host your site so you can keep your hands full of managing the compelling content aspect of your church or charity’s website.

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