This past week has been one of breakthroughs in my research, but it’s also been one of launching new websites. Some of them are quite preliminary, but it’s been interesting to see how the latest technologies can make things so much easier.
Warning: Parts of this post will be technical. Parental guidance … um … probably best avoided, I suspect.
First, and biggest: with the help of Wolfe’s graphic design skills, the Thornhill Associates website has finally gone properly live, over the last few weeks. It’s a project I’ve been working on for some years now, as the software running the system has become more powerful. It’s PHP on Apache, with PostgreSQL database backend. Anyone using this sort of system should really install eAccelerator, or equivalent — it’s dramatic trouble-free acceleration of any PHP code. And it really works. We generate PDF documents using pdflatex, with charts generated by Grace. It’s all free software, which allows one to write text instructions which get turned into sophisticated PDF reports — all automatically. LaTeX is great for handling (at least reasonably well) annoying situations where tables get just a little too long, and might overflow the page footer.
I’ve recently installed Komodo to assist in PHP coding. It’s an IDE (integrated development environment) for a number of languages, and very importantly runs on both Windows and Linux. It has a very helpful coding environment: syntax coding, code completion, pop-up function argument quick-reference, easy browsing of all defined objects, eye guides to help with indenting (which it does automatically anyway), support for JavaDoc-style code annotation, and tons more. But most amazing is that it allows you to do remote line-by-line debugging of PHP scripts. You install an extension on the webserver, and when you load a page, the webserver connects to your local machine, sends a copy of the source code for display in Komodo, and then waits for Komodo to tell it what to run. From Komodo one can then execute line-by-line, set breakpoints (including conditionally), set up watches on local or global variables, and so on — almost all the things a full-featured debugger would offer. The one annoyance is that although you can also edit files directly off the server in the IDE, it seems impossible to get Komodo to allow you to edit and debug the same file — instead, the debugging happens in a read-only copy of the file sent by the server. Nonetheless, I’ve been very impressed so far. It isn’t free software, but it is fairly cheap.
The next website up is my Caltech personal website, and attached Physics 2 website — the course page for the course I’m a teaching assistant for this year. Yes, in a moment of weakness I kind of, um, volunteered to run the site. The former is notable for two things: (1) the large amount of work still required to write content and also make it look a little less hideous; and (2) that everything is implement in CSS, including all the weird coloured boxes. Just designate a heading as H1 or H2, and it all appears. The ideal of content and presentation seperation comes that much closer!
I’ve been doing some of the editing of the Physics 2 page in Linux, using Quanta, since my usual choice (Macromedia Dreamweaver) doesn’t run on my Linux office machine. I’ve been pleasantly surprised with it’s power and ease of use — it does site management stuff relatively well. I have been able to crash it a few times though.
Lastly, I’ve been playing around with integrating Wordpress 1.5.2 and Menalto Gallery 2, using the WPG2 plugin. It essentially wraps the photo gallery power of Gallery 2, within your Wordpress header and footer templating. It’s taking a fair amount of tweaking to get the layout just right, but nonetheless within a few hours one can have an entire website set up: blog functions for news updates, Wordpress pages for static site content, Gallery 2 for a photo gallery (and little gimmicks like random photos on the sidebar), and tons of plugins available to do more. Even the graphic design can be done by simply chosing other people’s themes. I’ve been really impressed with the power and ease-of-use of the software, particularly Gallery 2 — it’s miles ahead of Gallery 1. Kudos to all involved!
Exercise for the reader: Websites aren’t useful if no-one visits them. You can help out: put a link to, in particular, the Thornhill website, somewhere on your own blog. Thanks a ton!