Antarctica.uab.edu or why cobbler’s kids go barefoot

One of my more recent projects was the Antarctica.uab.edu Web site. Basically, it hosts online journals of a close-knit group of scientists at University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), who are currently pursuing biological research in Antarctica. Twice a week (or more often, if time permits), they connect to the Internet and update their journals, read comments, and answer questions. You can ask them anything from penguin vs. leopard seal questions to some really hardcore microbiology and even behavioral psychology stuff — they will be happy to give you their polar perspective. Pretty cool, eh?

But where it gets really exciting is the technical side. This is the first time we’ve implemented a blog engine using Estrada Extensions. I have to say, it came out pretty nice. Here are the highlights:

  • Moderation — after a comment is added to the post (or article, following the naming convention of a journal), an email notification is issued to the moderator of the journal, who can then click on the link in the email and approve or reject the comment. If the comment is approved, it immediately appears in the article comments section.
  • Comment posting delay — a visitor may only comment once every 5 minutes on the same article.
  • Sorting — for some reason, a very important capability of sorting is a rarity in the blogging world. On this site, you can sort comments and articles by date, poster’s name, title, etc.
  • Comment “folding“ — only 30 comments at a time will appear in the comments section. The rest is be accessible via pagination links (Next page, previous page, first page, second page, etc.)
  • There is also hide/show fields functionality (for example, hide comment body for all comments to create an abbreviated view of the comments), as well as “show all comments“ rather than 30 at a time, but it is not enabled at the moment — still tweaking the UI.
  • Journal avatars — each journal has a graphic associated with it (a la LiveJournal)
  • Per-article gallery and link sidebar — each article may have a picture gallery and/or a link sidebar, so that all of the magnificent pictures of the barren ice and all the links to relevant Web resources are grouped together nicely.
  • Last but not least is the RSS support — either aggregated main feed of all journals or per-journal feed.

One of the things to mention is that this site was put together fairly quickly — about 10 days of the actual implementation. With planning, architecture, and requirements development included, it was a 2-month project from start to finish.

Now here’s a logical question — if you think you have such a cool blog engine, how come you are still using .Text? Well, I am planning to convert, honest. I just don’t have the time.

The Cruelty of Unattainable Perfection

First, there was pristine perfection: a vision of a mark up language that was simple, intuitive, and made your online documents look reasonably pretty. Then… well, then everything went to hell in a hand basket. In a little over a decade, HTML became the clumsy, disfigured, and repulsive Frankenstein of a language that it is right now. Not only the language itself is full of atavistic lexical protrusions and semantic dead-ends, its implementation, until very recently, has been a tale of creative standard interpretation and compliance infidelity.

Those of you, who spent countless hours trying to make a fairly simplistic layout work correctly in multiple browsers, would readily agree with me. In fact, the process of coding a HTML and making it cross-browser-compliant has become something of an encryption: once you got the thing done, it is easier re-code it from scratch than to make edits to the code (unless, of course you don't care and are willing to "dreamweaver" it together – ah, the familiar "duct tape" solution).

Not all is lost though. With the help of enthusiasts and browser developers, W3C is slowly but surely trying to bring the ship about and put an end to the madness. "Let content to be content", they said. So the cascading style sheets (CSS) were crowned the new king of layout.

Since then, we've gone a long way. CSS2 is now a reality. CSS3 is taking shape as we speak. Just a bunch of lone madmen on a street corner a short while ago, the proponents of standards-based HTML development are gaining popularity and support.

I, too have succumbed to the beautiful idea of content-context separation, and made a good effort in adopting standards in HTML code development.

And you know what I've found out? It's still about hacking. Although not as terrible as before, programming with CSS is still an imperfect process. Go to any of the Web sites that talk about CSS. What will you find? Lots and lots of hacking around the uneven browser support and just plain limitations of the specification itself. Let me give you an example: suppose you have a div element that contains a ul element with an arbitrary number of li elements:

<div>
<ul>
<li>line item 1</li>
<li>line item 2</li>
<li>line item 3</li>
...
<li>line item N</li>
</ul>
</div>


Just content, right? Now, here's a pop quiz: make this render as a neatly centered horizontal navigation bar, like so:

 

Done? Now, was it worth that much work? Why does it have to be this hard?

Yes, this is still better than the "nested-table encryption", yes, we are getting closer to perfection. But the cruelty of the situation is that we need this to work now, without resorting to building tables upon tables to control the layout…

First, Inaugural

Greetings!

My name is Dimitri Glazkov. I work for Gandalf Development, Inc., in Estrada Web Technology division. Estrada is a content management system, which originated (with my help) at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and was later exclusively licensed by my company. My job is to define (and refine) the direction of the product and keep us in the competitive fold. I am also working on a couple of Web site projects, primarily in higher education and government. In addition, I occasionally get invited to talk about Web technology, content management, and life in general (Ok, I am not actually invited to talk about the last one, but they get it anyway). Being a software architect, developer, tester, implementer, troubleshooter, instructor, project manager, and a public speaker all in one is not only fun, but it also makes for some good stories and bits of knowledge all of which you, my reader, may find amusing or perhaps even useful.

But enough about me, let’s get this thing started!