How to use DIV tags for Layout instead of Tables

It’s not that I’m an anti-table zealot, rather I prefer to discourage the use of tables for simple issues of laying content side-by-side. For example, there are times you need to render stuff in parallel (that’s side-by-side for those of you in Rio Linda). In the past, you created a table then chalk-n-hug everything into place hoping that you never need to make the data accessible to text-only readers and that your fidgeting with column widths don’t cause some wackily inconsistent horizontal alignments … and/or had to add data on the fly.

Okay, enough theory – let’s demonstrate a common situation such as a page header or footer that needs to be centered to 99% of the page width and where you have a logo flushed left, some text flushed right and possibly some copyright stuff in the middle.

<div style=’text-align: center;’>
   <div style=’margin: 0 auto; width: 99%;’>
   <div style=’float: left;’>
         <img alt=’StrongMad Sermons’ src=’/archives/strongmad02.png’ />
      </div>
      <div style=’float: right; height:80px;’>
         <a href=’mailto:nospam@[127.0.0.1]’ title=’bmail’>Email Pastor Bad</a>
      </div>
      <div style=’float: none;’>
         Strongmad’s Sermons © 2005<br />
         123 Fluffy Puff Street<br />
         Strongbadia, US of A<br />
         718-555-1212
         </div>
      <div style=’clear: both;’></div>
      </div>
</div>

StrongMad Sermons
Strongmad’s Sermons © 2005
123 Fluffy Puff Street
Strongbadia, US of A
718-555-1212

I know, some of you are saying ‘… but Dean, I can do the same with a table with less taggery than your divs.’ True enough, especially with regards to having to declare the height on the center text block to match or exceed the height of the graphic, but can you quickly and effectively change the position, skin, color or visibility of your table? I can with mine (once I move my inline markup to a stylesheet). Even better, my text blocks are read contiguously in order – giving search engines and text-based browsers a fighting chance.

Mark-up theology (snobbery) aside, how about a situation where you want to line up three different elements such as an unordered list next to an image next to a block of poetic text? Tables again could be used, but again, this precludes any work downline to position stuff as is aptly demonstrated time and time again at the CSS Zen Garden – and somewhat aptly demonstrated in the sample below:

<div id=’strongflot’>
   <div style=’float: left; padding: 2px 10px’>
         <ul>
            <li>Lorem</li>
            <li>impsum</li>
            <li>dolor</li>
            <li>sit</li>
            <li>amet</li>
         </ul>
   </div>
   <div style=’float: left; padding: 2px 10px’>
      <img alt=”lorem ipsum strongbad” src=”/archives/strongbad03.png” />
   </div>
   <div style=’float: left; padding: 2px 10px’>
      Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet,<br /> consectetuer adipiscing elit …
   </div>   
   <div style=’clear: both;’></div>
</div>
  • Lorem
  • impsum
  • dolor
  • sit
  • amet
lorem ipsum strongbad
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet,
consectetuer adipiscing elit.
Integer viverra mi eu dui.
Suspendisse eu urna.
Suspendisse euismod mauris quis magna.

Sed accumsan,
magna sed vulputate bibendum …

Yes, I know some of you are cringing at the inline style encodings – which in real life should find their way into a style sheet. Using the last snippet as the basis for the following example, here’s all the code you need – with the addition of a spiffy dashed border:

<style type=”text/css” media=”screen”>
.strongfloat {
   border: 1px dashed #CCCCCC;
}
.strongfloat div {
   float: left;
   padding: 2px 10px
}
</style>

Not convinced as to why you want to do this? Then you need to read all the links enumerated in my post ‘The Mother of All Table Talks.’ There will be a test!

Evangelized and zealous for other CSS tricks you can play on your tables and columns? Then click, learn and apply ‘Making your DIVs behave like Tables.’

Got a nifty stuff of your own to strut? Leave a comment with a working hyperlink.

Posted in Uncategorized

Fellowship Church Excommunicates Microsoft Server Solution

Microsoft UberBlogger Robert Scoble opines in a post entitled ‘A church switches to open source and teaches us a lesson’:

The Fellowship Church, the fifth-largest church in the USA, recently switched its Web sites from Microsoft technology to Linux, PHP, PostgreSQL, and Apache …

Why am I linking to something negative to Microsoft? Well, for one, to challenge my coworkers. I’m hearing more and more of these kinds of switches and Brian Bailey’s reasons match what I’m hearing from other developers. We need to make sure our products and services solve the business issues that are out there today, not the ones that existed in 1995.

Once again, the mighty Scobleizer offers us some mighty fine insights – and he’s entirely correct to point out that this isn’t so much an issue of Microsoft vs. Linux, but rather that the church’s business model and practice has changed over the past 10 years …

… and though I make my living in the .NET Framework, I firmly believe there are more effective solutions to be found on the Linux/Apache/MySQL/PHP (LAMP) platform than on Microsoft’s.

It’s the Economy Stupid

Sure, some of this has to do with licensing costs, no doubt of it. Someone donates an old laptop to your church sans distribution CDs leaving you one of two choices: pay Microsoft to license the apps on the machine or wipe it clean and install Knoppix to the hard drive as it comes already equipped with a ‘Windows-enough-like‘ interface and tools such as OpenOffice and Audacity.

Likewise, some churches don’t need to buy two copies of Microsoft Office, two copies of Windows and one copy of Project to qualify for the Microsoft Charity Open License. Those that do qualify can’t afford the ever-increasing costs in hardware to support the variety of overkill features that bloat products such as Word and Outlook – nor to support complex data products such as their SQL Server.

Brian Bailey goes into even greater detail over on his blog, Leave It Behind, where he enumerates 10 other cost-related reasons to explain ‘Why the Switch?‘ Here are just four to tease you into reading Brian’s entire post:

  • Developers
  • Complexity and speed of development
  • Browsers
  • The new guy

Porpoise Driven Paradigm Shift

Equal to the costs issues is the shift in how churches operate in an age of ever increasing and accessible technology. That is, to handle the growing complexity and volume of office operations endured by local churches and charities, jobs once handled by the staff are now being outsourced to members.

Moreover, as more churches find the need to jump through the flaming hoops of Warren-ology they also find a need to move towards a lay-driven ministry – even though most lay members never set foot into the church office.

Together, the need to outsource office work and to support off-site lay-workers has given rise to the need for many churches to switch to web-native solutions that use the Internet the same way many large corporations use an Intranet. More often than not the best place to find affordable solutions isn’t at Microsoft but at places such as SourceForge and FreshMeat.

Food for Thought

I already mentioned burninating a Knoppix CD and installing it onto the hard drive, but here are a few other bones (of contention) to gnaw on.

Sharepoint is a powerful portal product – but quite frankly, I can get pretty much the same functionality I would need for a mid-sized church or charity with Drupal, Mambo or XOOPs – and get them on a Linux/Apache server that costs me $9.95/month to rent.

Likewise, if all I want is a relatively simple content management system for my church, then why not employ a blogging application such as MovableType or ExpressionEngine? I can even extend the RSS templates of my blogs to include the RDF events module so I can import data into any number of open source calender options and/or into my MySQL database for a lot less programming than it would take to shove an event extended RSS feed into Outlook.

And nothing from Microsoft I know of handles lay-driven, off-site managed membership like InfoCentral – especially when I can modify both it and most of the other ‘open sores’ solutions I’ve mentioned on my Windows-based PC first using LAMP friendly development tools such as Sokkit.

Not So Evil Intent

My point is not to kvetch about ‘Microsoft Purchasing Evil From Satan‘ nor to come across like some Linux-loving /. geek/freak Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader … but rather to point out that Microsoft’s current crop of solutions just don’t feed the changing business model of today’s churches and charities.

Pretty much the same point Scoble made in his post, and why I’m glad new blog4Godr’ Bob Campbell turned me on to it. So what are your thoughts?

Posted in Uncategorized

Gary McSpadden Ministries – Partying like its 1995

When gospel music fans hear Gary McSpadden sing they may feel like joining along in their favorite hymn or praise song – when fans of usable websites visit GarySings.com (archive link) they may feel like partying like its 1995.

Back in the day it was okay for websites to have frames, Easter-egg colors, beveled edges and an eclectic mix of fonts and layouts. But 10 years on the web is like 70 in dog years – and so are aged contrivances such as spinning animated music notes, lime green table borders and embedded media that cause your page to sit up in the middle of the night and howl at the moon. Though in the case of a musician I can make an exception for the media … provided I have the option to opt out.

What Needs to be Done

In other words, while many of my deconstructions often offer advice on things that could use a tweak here-n-there, this is one ministry website that would be better off with a complete do-over.

With that in mind, what I would do if I had a bazillion dollars and all the time in the world to perform miracles of ministry websites? I think I’d first start off with re-defining the information architecture.

This actually wouldn’t be so hard with the McSpadden site as they have in their framed menu some essential elements that convey the purpose and personality of Gary’s message. I think I’d roll the Guest Book, Testimonies and Prayer/Praise Request pages into a single entity. Recordings/Videos and Order Form can be consolidated into a single, updated shopping cart. ‘One-ups’ like ‘Interview’ and ‘Discount Coupons’ probably don’t need an entire page – or perhaps the former rolled into a ‘Press Releases Page’ and the latter a printable popup.

Where it Needs to Go

I realize some of you think I’m too blog-centric, but to me blogging applications are tools well suited to personal news publication and cheap content management. I’m also noticing a healthy technology cycle where blogs drive search engines and search engines drive blogs – so as long as this wave is cresting, I say surf it.

Because of the limited time and technology resources a ministry such as this might have I’d probably go with TypePad – redirecting GaryMcSpadden.com and GarySings.com to something like GaryMcSpadden.TypePad.com and let SixApart deal with all the gory back-end issues. Some might suggest Blogger as a less expensive solution, but I think the multiple blog capability might come into play here.

As I said before, testimonies and stuff could be pushed into a singular category. And I’d go ahead and use TypePad’s multiple blog features to create the e-commerce interface, giving an expensive merchant account the boot if the current store isn’t generating four or five times its cost – and adding to product posts payment options available via PayPal, 2CheckOut and other such services that take a small slice of the action for handling all the nasty security issues.

If that prospect is unappealing then there is always the EBay/Dropoff Store approach (hat tip Ernie the Attorney).

One Stop Shopping

On the main blog, I’d create categories such as ‘About Gary’ that would contain the biography, press releases and contact information. I’d give the schedule a category of its own (maybe its own blog), using posts to describe upcoming performances – then write follow-ups and move the post into a category that would appear on the front page as ‘what’s new.’

If maintained, this would be an inexpensive and easy way to keep the page up-to-date, changing the skin/template as desired and/or technologies dictate.

There are other solutions but unless Gary Mac has a huge staff then this might provide him with a more convenient way of maintaining a web presences that meets and exceeds the goal of the existing site while alleviating the headaches of hosting.

Most of all, it would produce a site that has dynamic and relevant content compelling to his audience in a way that would seem warmer and more personal then the current brochureware website.

So whatta ’bout you? Got a good idea? Leave a comment in love.

Posted in Uncategorized

The 10 Commandments of Church Website Search Engine Optimization

One thing you’ll notice in many of my critiques is advice on how to improve a church website’s search engine visibility. While the following list is by no means a magic enumeration that if followed will guarantee you a great Google rank – not doing them is sure to put your website on the bottom of the heap.

When possible, I’ve provided hyperlinks to posts and article on this and/or other sites that will help you figure out how to keep from backsliding into the abyss of search engine invisibility.

  1. You shall have no text other than your church’s name, denomination, city and state correctly spelled in between the <title> tags of your church’s home page.
  2. You shall not make for your self webpage description and keywords meta tags that contain key words that are not related to your church’s ministries, purpose and personality.
  3. You shall have no text other than your church’s name, denomination, city and state correctly spelled in between the <h1> tag in the header of your church’s home page – even if you are using some form of CSS text/image replacement.
  4. Remember to keep your page content compelling, relevant and up-to-date.
  5. Honor your reciprocal links, even if you do it on a page other than your home page.
  6. You shall not create crufty URIs.
  7. You shall not word-stuff.
  8. You shall not forget to include content in the title arguments of your hyperlinks and the alt arguments of your image tags.
  9. You shall not kill well indexed pages.
  10. You shall not covet your neighbors search engine placement; you shall not covet their meta tags; you shall not covet their title tags; you shall not covet their heading tags nor their content.

I promise to bring down from the mountain a much heftier article in the near future (most of it is already written), but its late and I’ve got some other mad-scientist fun to finish before the evening it out.

As with all lists, none of the above is written in stone … that said, if you’ve got an item or a related link to add … leave a comment.

Posted in Uncategorized

Beowulf or Mosix – solving the parking lot problem through simulation

Folks, this post is going to be hard to follow because it involves a hair-brained scheme, some CD burnination and about 4 or 5 old Pentium IIs and/ IIIs all networked together.

Its Sunday night and I just can’t get this idea out of my head. Yes, it has little to do with church websites, unless you allow facilities scheduling requests via your church website – or are just into taking old Pentium II computers and creating your own super computer to solve your church’s parking problem.

Scheduling Church Facilities

Perhaps one of the biggest headaches facing church administration is that of facilities management. Here they have all this building space they can rent to other churches, civic groups such as the Boy Scouts and/or to private parties such as weddings, christenings, bat mitzvah, you name it. Now a days this need is even greater as the cost of heating and maintaining otherwise empty facilities becomes increasing prohibitive.

The problem is finding software that accurately provides limited church staff on a limited budget with limited time to help them what essentially boils down to resource management and capacity planning – of which there are a number of commercial products, none of which I’ve taken the time to investigate – though tempted.

About all I did do was check out the system requirements of a number of systems, many Windows based, some Linux Based, some web-based – none of them super-computer based.

Why Not?

That is why not use super-computing power? Somewhat familiar with what goes behind facilities management applications, most I know of approach facilities scheduling from a project/resource management approach, though I’ve seen one attempt to get it done purely via combinatorial/integer optimization. OoOOH my aching head.

For those that approach calendars via a project management model, resources are put into a database then time-shared out to events, creating a calendar of consumed resources per event.

This is a good approach, but can cause a computer to grind to a halt when you begin to check for multiple conflicts across multiple resources all being assigned and/or shared at the same time – such as the church parking lot and/or the janitor.

In plain English – what happens to my parking and custodial resources when I schedule five Bible studies, a Boy Scout Order of the Arrow meeting, a youth leaders meeting along with three weddings and a funeral all on the same Saturday?

Big Problems

So I’m thinking about this parking problem and thinking about some software I saw back in 1993 when working on a Department of Justice/Immigration and Naturalization Contract which simulated three international flights arriving at JFK simultaneously – and what INS resources would be required to manage the flow.

Wouldn’t it be useful (if not neat) to develop an application that could do the same with your facilities, such as your mega-church parking lot on an Easter Sunday with three services weighing in at 5,000 people per service? Then provided the results as a web-service?

Cluster Me

So where’s where my hair-brained scheme comes into play. Why not take some otherwise useless computer hardware someone has donated for the tax write-off, network it together and put it to use as your own facilities management/parking-lot simulation super-computer?

To me, the question is, which cluster solution to use? Beowulf or Mosix?

From the Beowulf Website:

“Cluster is a widely-used term meaning independent computers combined into a unified system through software and networking. At the most fundamental level, when two or more computers are used together to solve a problem, it is considered a cluster. Clusters are typically used for High Availability (HA) for greater reliability or High Performance Computing (HPC) to provide greater computational power than a single computer can provide.

Beowulf Clusters are scalable performance clusters based on commodity hardware, on a private system network, with open source software (Linux) infrastructure. The designer can improve performance proportionally with added machines. The commodity hardware can be any of a number of mass-market, stand-alone compute nodes as simple as two networked computers each running Linux and sharing a file system or as complex as 1024 nodes with a high-speed, low-latency network.

Class I clusters are built entirely using commodity hardware and software using standard technology such as SCSI, Ethernet, and IDE. They are typically less expensive than Class II clusters which may use specialized hardware to achieve higher performance.”

From the Mosix Homepage:

“MOSIX is a cluster management system that can make an x86 Linux cluster run like a single high performance parallel computer. It is particularly useful to run intensive computing and massive I/O applications.

In a MOSIX cluster there is no need to modify or to link applications with any library, or even to assign processes to different nodes, MOSIX does it automatically – just fork and forget, like in an SMP.

MOSIX supports different cluster types, including clusters with different CPU speeds, like our 72 processors cluster”

Which one to choose?

Just fork it and forget it is very appealing to me. It is also appealing to others, such as Simon Willison who writes:

Since clustering only kicks off for longer running processes this woudn’t be much use for something like a web server farm, but could be ideal for tasks such as compilation or rendering where individual processes perform computationally intensive work for a long period of time.

Even more fascinating is ClusterKnoppix, a modified Knoppix distro that uses an Open Mosix enabled kernel. Burn a bunch of CDs, boot some standard networked PCs with them and you’ve got an instant cluster.

Simon had me at ClusterKnoppix – and ClusterKnoppix has me thinking Mosix is the right tool for this overkill job. No simulation language required, just enough language skills to simulate a simulation.

Then once you’ve shot your foot clean off doing that, you can create a web service so other church applications across other operating systems, such as Outlook. After all, its not like Apache doesn’t come bundled with Knoppix, and not like you couldn’t use a little bit of Perl, PHP or Python to take requests and return simulation-based conflict analysis for your church’s resources in a yummy XML format.

Okay, I’m drooling now so I’m going to quit – but that’s my idea, and I’m sticking with it. Hope you are as amused by it as I was during the course of the day.

Posted in Uncategorized

Landover Baptist or Ship of Fools or Wittenburg Door? You Decide.

Asked what he thought of critics, Mel Brooks replied, “They’re very noisy at night. You can’t sleep in the country because of them.

Still one of my all-time favorite quotes, I again find it a perfect reflection of how I feel when I receive ‘love notes’ such as the response to my recent review entitled ‘Church of the Spinning Animated Gif:’

This is one of the most ‘unchristian’ christian sites I’ve ever seen. Everything is laced with sarcasm, judgemental language, and slamming people for creating a website. This is basically a parallel to churches where their members routinely slam people for what clothes the wear to church when they don’t wear a suit. I’m sure God is very concerned about topics like spinning gifs and flash-enabled websites. I think you should rename this blog, Movable Type/Firefox Pharisees.

My initial reaction was amusement as I considered the irony that ‘Mike near Nashville‘ made his point with a comment laced full of the very same ‘judgemental language’ and personal ‘slamming’ of which he accused me — go figure.

Nonetheless, I think Nashville Mike’s message offers me an excellent opportunity to bring new visitors up-to-date on what this site is about, and why I feel it useful to build-up the Body online by tearing-down some of the not-so-good practices that plague so many church websites.

God concerned about spinning gifs?

You betcha He’s concerned. When a person moves to a new town, they no longer look in the phone book for a church, they look online. Clinical research from authoritative sources such as Pew/Internet confirm that when people turn to spiritual topics, they turn to church websites for the answers. Unfortunately, many of these seekers are turned away by crufty church websites that are more style than substance.

Why do poorly designed church websites inspired seekers to move on elsewhere? I think the answer is best penned by e-vangelist author and all-around-good-guy Andrew Careaga when he wrote in an article entitled “The Church-Internet (dis)connection:”

“We in the church must change our way of thinking about the Internet. If we don’t, we’ll end up with our own subculture online, just as we have in ‘real life.'”

‘[S]ubculture online’ is a nice way of saying Christian Ghetto, which is exactly what we have when so many of the Children of the King continue to proffer the online presence of a pauper.

Put in technical terms, this isn’t about casual wear versus suits, this is about clothing church websites with reasonable structure, accessible content and usable navigation as opposed to dressing them up with the rags of cheap tricks, Cross kitsch and other Jesus Junk.

Top-shelf web designer Mike Boyink best summarizes this sad situation when he opined in the article “Church Web Sites – What We Don’t Know:”

“People are going to the web, and your church site, with a specific task to do, or question to answer — lets forget about having to entertain easily-bored surfers.”

God concerned about spinning gifs? You betcha!

Routinely Slamming People

About once or twice a month now, I receive a “touch not God’s anointed” message from someone who somehow construes my constructive – albeit somewhat snarky – criticisms of church websites as hate-filled attacks on churches and/or their members.

I think any reasonable person who has read my postings since May of 2002 can easily conclude that I rarely, if ever go after an individual. I can only recall one instance in response to a church webmaster whom after reading a critique here took over the front page of his church’s website to send me a personal message. Oh wait, there was one other instance, when I received spam from a ministry after taking the extra effort to ask the minister to remove me from his list privately (and nicely) first.

No, in fact Mike, TN has publicly levied at me a false accusation, pure and simple. As proof, I’ve listed some quotes from past critiques – hyperlinked so you can check the context yourself:

There’s plenty more like this among the 1200 or so posts on this site … but the point isn’t so much a defense of what I do here, but to understand that I’ve put this blog out here so we can all learn from our mistakes — even if it means laughing at ourselves from time to time.

If you’re still not convinced, then why not search this site for those times I’ve bestowed kudos and compliments on those whom after reading a review here have brushed-off the temptation of taking a critique personally and instead have taken on a teachable spirit and improved their church’s web presence. Here’s just one example of many:

UPDATE – 25jul03 – Not long after receiving a nice email from the webservant, this site underwent a rather nice and effective redesign. My highest kudos always go to those with teachable spirits – and here is one case where the lesson was well learned and well implemented. Well done! If you’d like to see what the site looked like before, you can do so via the Internet Wayback Machine:

Slamming People? No. I’m slamming unusable navigation, inaccessible content and incoherent site structures in the hopes we all learn how to avoid it and/or fix it so our church websites better convey our church’s personality and purpose. Failure to do so … well permit me to quote Tim Bednar a bit out of context as his point is as applicable to a church [website] as it is to the “Purpose Driven Church Model.”

“But whatever is in style now will inevitably be out of style soon, and the cycles of change are getting shorter and shorter, aided by technology and the media. New styles and preferences, like fashions, are always emerging. Let me give you a word of advice. Never attach your church [website] to a single style – you’ll soon be passé, and outdated.”

Most ‘unchristian’ christian site … ever ?

Actually, that dubious distinction goes to the not-so-good folks at Landover Baptist (LB). While I love religious parody – Ship of Fools and the Wittenburg Door come to mind – the bitter boys over at the LB win the title of most unChristian website hands down (with a dishonorable mention going out to Westboro Baptist Church).

In fact I’ll go one step further, again for Tennessee Mike’s edification, and the education of new users. Behold some of the fruits of my labor that you may decide how ‘unchristian’ this site actually is:

There are other more secular demonstrations of my time and talents that have none-the-less spared many of us from pr0n or spam … but I think my point is clear enough …

Body slamming? No thanks, there are enough people who’d rather find fault without the benefit of offering solutions. On the other hand, I know my feet are made of clay – which is why I prefer to pull the speck out your church website’s eyes — in love –while having you guys and gals help me yank the plank out of mine.

Critics == Crickets?

Unfortunately, I fear Mike from Nashville will continue to mistake my constructive criticisms of church web designs as church member bashing. Perhaps because it is easier to get all stiff in the neck to fire-off an anonymous email to an insignificant player such as myself than engage a larger audience in a debate over something far more serious, such as the Church’s addiction mediocrity and its impact on their online presence. Who knows?

What I do know — well actually it is my (humble) opinion that — I’ve offered enough point-by-point detail to provide a good example of how this site works and how to go about discussing my critiques intelligently, without name calling and/or second guessing God’s Grace and Salvation in my life — or the lives of others. Remember folks, we are judged by the standard in which we judge others — and not always reaping what we sown — you’ve been warned.

Oh, speaking of divine wisdom, here is how the entire Mel Brooks quote went down:

  • Interviewer: What do you think of critics?
  • Brooks: They’re very noisy at night. You can’t sleep in the country because of them. But, otherwise, I like them.
  • Interviewer: I think that’s crickets you’re talking about, sir. I meant critics.
  • Brooks: Oh, critics! They’re no good. They can’t make music with their legs.
Posted in Uncategorized

Church of the Spinning Animated Gif

As I wander about the great cloud of witlessness that is the church online I often wish that’d I win the lottery or something so I could spend the rest of my days on God’s green Earth healing church web sites, feeding the information hungry, and leading lost souls online to a better way at leading lost online souls to Christ. But that would mean having to take up gambling (or something) so the best I can hope for is enough spare time to redirect earnest but errant church webmasters through the narrow-path of usability.

Case in point is the New Life Vineyard Fellowship of Birmingham, AL.

A Confusing Conundrum

First let’s talk about earnest and effective redirection. Somewhere between September 2000 and May of 2001, it appears the church changed its domain from vcfbham.org to lighthousevineyard.org – without apparently (note I said apparently) changing the name of the church. Then it looks like the church, I’m guessing somewhere between 2003 and 2004, the powers-to-be changed the name of the church, only this time, they were fortunate enough that the Granite Creek Community Church was no longer using their domain – which now matches the name of the church: http://www.newlifevineyard.org

Now I’m not against churches changing names or domains, though I do strongly feel that the domain name should closely either match the name of the church, or match the church’s 1 line catch phrase and/or slogan.

Rather, one of the primary healing topics I wanted to discuss was how to successfully redirect individuals to a new site – and/or have multiple domain names aim at the exact same site.

Redirecting the Lost

On Linux systems, the most direct and most effective way to do this is through the mod_rewrite mechanism – specifically by modifying the .htaccess file to read something like this:

RewriteEngine On
RewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST} ^(www.?)oldsite.com$
RewriteRule ^(.*)$ http://www.newsite.com/$1 [R=301,L]

Through the magic of regular expressions, the above snippet merely replaces the old URL with a new URL, while (presto-chango) keeping any and all query string arguments the user may have entered. While this can also be done programmatically – I prefer the .htaccess route as it tends to keep my well indexed sites, well, well indexed.

That said, not everyone has the expertise to do this, and since I’ve already shown you a Linux solution AND since today’s example is running on an IIS server, one sure-fire way to handle a redirect is to create a default.asp file that reads as follows:

<%
   sQS = trim(Request.Servervariables(“QUERY_STRING”) & “”)
   if len(sQS) > 0 then sQS &= “?” & sQS
   Response.Redirect “http://www.newlifevineyard.org/Default.htm” & sQS
   Response.End();
%>

The reason I’d use server-side .ASP versus client-side Javascript is that a server-side works regardless of the user’s browser & configuraiton, and in most cases redirect appears to the user immediate. This as opposed to client-side redirect built-into the HTML generally does not — well, I take that back — if you keep the page small and fire-off a simple single line of JavaScript without too much fanfare or graphics on the old page then you can probably get the same “immediacy” impact you get w/server-side execution; e.g.:

<script language=”javascript”>document.location=http://newurl.com/</script>

If that fails, you need to make sure there is a <noscript> solution that includes the “refresh” meta tag to get the job done. If there is an HTML solution in your future, don’t forget to neglect what’s between the <title> tags as well.

Today’s example uses a JavaScript solution, but puts it on a timer. Now this isn’t so bad at first – that is to tell users that there’s been a change. But now that the change has been in effect for some time now, it is probably time to ditch the delay.

Church of the Spinning Animated Gif

Those of you who regularly read my rants about Jesus Junk know my feelings about the ubiquitous spinning cross found on so many church websites … but just in case you haven’t heard this one “if your church doesn’t have a spinning gold cross on its steeple, then you’re not allowed to have one on your website.

While the New Life Vineyard Fellowship (NLVF) is thankfully devoid of Cross Kitsch, they’ve got just about everything else. Well, okay, that’s an exaggeration but the does employ those irritating spinning email icons that StrongBad makes fun of in episode #51 simply entitled “website.” If you haven’t viewed this very good piece of Flash Animation – do so now – keeping in mind it is a parody of what not to do.

Along with spinning email icons is a flashing “upcoming events.” Now one of the reasons this site needs to “flash” its users is because of the overuse of fire engine red, an eclectic mix of navigation, and some colors and background combinations that make the site look as if it was developed back in 1997.

If you’re using MSIE, you also have to deal with “page fades,” “drop in text” and a few other page transition type tricks that may seem neat at first, but tend to annoy regular repeat visitors – provided you have any after abusing their bandwidth with such silly stuff.

Style over Substance

Now here’s what really gripes my cookies about the NLVF’s web presence – and makes me wish I could heal such sites on a full-time basis: they have done the difficult task of organizing their content and making a fairly compelling of why someone should attend on Sunday. But then they go and hide their light under a bowl of gizmos and garishness that could be easily overcome with a simple off-the-shelf template for FrontPage or DreamWeaver, or via a blogging mechanism such as MovableType and/or Expression Engine.

Here’s what I’d suggest to the NLVF webmaster – visit other sites, successful sites, that quickly and easily instruct a new user where to go, and don’t encumber repeat visitors with little nifties that only server to detract from the message. Moreover, I’d take care of some real issues such as adding TITLE and ALT arguments to hyperlink and image tags – I’d also get rid of confusing navigation such as clicking on Pastor Lamar’s “John Wimber-like” face and getting a page that contains a singular image that says “building for sale.”

In other words — and feel free to quote me on this — unless your church hires a Chinese plate twirler to perform while your pastor is preaching, then you’re not allowed to add other show-boating gimmicks and side-shows that have little or no relevance to the purpose and personality of your church and its online message.

How about you? Agree, disagree? What else would you do to heal this church website?

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Skype and the accidental missionary

I’ve been meaning to write about Skype. For those of you who many not heard of this service, Skype is a very simple and very easy-to-use Internet phone application that is free if you talk computer to computer (p2p) – provided each computer has Skype installed.

With Skype, I have already enjoyed conversations with people around the globe, including two wrong numbers who called me because I guess I signed early and took a name more popular than I had realized. Here’s an example of Skpe’s ease in the form a delightful distraction from a very nice lady in Ireland. I was having a hard day at work, and believe it or not, the following ‘wrong number’ made my day (please note, somenicelady is not the caller’s actual id):

somenicelady says :11:40:26

hi is that Dean Peters from the US? Don’t know if i have the right person!!

Dean Peters says :11:40:44

well so long as there is only one of me, yes, I’m in the US of A

somenicelady says :11:41:08

are you the Dean Peters i know??

Dean Peters says :11:41:20

I have now way of knowing that from my vantage point.

Dean Peters says :11:41:34

(mind reading capabilities diminished these days)

somenicelady says :11:41:50

do you know SOMENICELADY?

somenicelady says :11:42:03

from Ireland?

Dean Peters says :11:42:15

I dunno, where do you know Dean Peters from?

somenicelady says :11:42:21

nicaragua

somenicelady says :11:42:32

he worked there

Dean Peters says :11:42:43

well, haven’t been to Nicaragua so I guess that’s a negative

somenicelady says :11:43:16

sorry for bothering u…must have the wrong person…there’s another dean peters in the world then!!

Dean Peters says :11:43:27

my evil twin, I’m sure

somenicelady says :11:43:37

haha…thanks anyway!!

Dean Peters says :11:43:42

np

somenicelady says :11:43:46

the luck of the irish to u!!

Wow, I think tht is the first time I’ve enjoyed/welcomed a wrong number … well actually I didn’t so much mind a similar call from a nice gent in South Africa about a month earlier … but I digress.

As the above exchange exhibits, I’ve been able to use Skype to talk to people all over the World – for no money down. In fact, once my wife finally gets moved down this weekend, I’m going to install Skype on her PDA/Pocket PC so she can talk to other Skype’rs when she’s out having her therapeutic Chai at the local Starbucks … but I digress … again.

My point is simply to point out that regardless of your platform, you now have a way of contacting summer missionaries … well heck any missionary, so long as they have a computer, an internet connection, and Skype.

Hmmm … y’know, I’m wondering how hard it would be to remaster a Knoppix with the Linux version of Skype (in this case the Debian distro) … hmmm ?

Then add some sort of online Bible application … something lightweight from the Sword Project … hmmm.

That way I could buy an old laptop off of E-Bay and equip my missionary friends with several bootable, Bible-enhanced CDs along with a cheap computer complete with a robust and free operating system enhanced with a nice communications suite … that they could leave when the return home? Hmmmmm ….

If I could only find the time to do such geeky things for the Great Commission … hmmmm.

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HIPAA (HIPPA), Disclosures and your Church Website

Posting sensitive information online isn’t just a good way to discourage new visitors, it is also a good way to get an existing member to quit while sending you to jail or worse – get your pants sued clean off.

It’s sorta fun and freaky to get comments that mention an issue I’m about to cover in an upcoming post. Yesterday’s comment had to do with the Christ Anchored Tabernacle church website that among other content problems, posted rather personal prayer requests. The commenter wrote:

Another issue I’d have is less of a design nature – the prayer requests section. Not only can people post requests publicly (apparently unmoderated), their e-mail addresses are also publicly available. Add to that the legal issues of someone posting another person’s health condition (with HIPPA that could be grounds for a lawsuit), and you’ve got potential trouble.

What the astute commenter (Joel A. Tyson of the New Life Singers) is referring to is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, otherwise known by its acronym HIPAA – and often typo’d as it is pronounced: HIPPA.

In short, this law was established to insure a number of privacy-related provisions as it pertains one’s medical health and records. And while I was clearly engaged in exaggerated hyperbole when I suggested one could land in jail – the part about getting yourself, your church and/or your congregation sued should be taken seriously.

I mean imagine this not-so-hard-to-imagine scenario: You set up a phpBB application to take prayer requests. One night while you’re not watching, well-intending member A broadcasts to the world that not-so-well-feeling member B has contracted the AIDS virus and requires our prayers. I dunno about you, but an image of sharks circling a pair of floundering baby seals immediatly comes to my mind … only the sharks are lawyers and member A and his/her church are the main course.

Not being a lawyer, and being frightened by sharks, I decided to assuage my fears by looking for a reasonable explanation. I found one in the form of a blockquote on Jefffrey Veen’s blog, which came courtesy of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod’s legal councel

HIPAA is not violated when a church publishes the names and medical conditions of church members who are either hospitalized or ill in church publications, such as a church bulletin, newsletter, prayer list or on the congregation’s website. However, it is possible that a congregation’s disclosure of a member’s medical condition or even non-medical information, without the consent of the member, would constitute an ‘invasion of privacy’ under state law. Such ‘invasion of privacy’ laws often give an individual the right to sue when a person publicly discloses information that is private in nature.

In other words, if you’re not sure, don’t post it. In fact, I’m of the mind that such prayer lists should remain hard-copy, available to only those who are attending the church. Moreover, names and conditions shouldn’t be published w/out the permission of the ailing party. Then again, one of my ambitions in life is not to get my pants sued off.

Of course with every storm, there is a silver lining:

Look. Sally needs our prayers. Sally’s oozing wound does NOT need our prayers. I kid you not when I tell you I’ve heard people go on for fifteen or twenty minutes with every minute detail of what some poor soul has experienced at the hands of modern medicine. I don’t need the details! HIPAA’s solitary contribution to the betterment of society may come from having shortened prayer meeting at the Baptist church on Wednesday night. – Rodent Regatta: Hipaa At The Baptist Church

Well-timed comic relief aside, if you are or about to publish a prayer request on your church’s website, you may want to first seek the advice of professional, competent and licensed legal counsel.

Oh yeah, one other point – I am not a lawyer, I do not play one on TV, I do not pretend to be an expert issues legal. Nothing in this post or on this website should be construed as legal advice. You’ve been warned.

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