Monday, March 26, 2012

Webmaster and Commander (part 2)


As promised, installment two of my website adventure. To start the process of setting up my own website I first had to overcome the fear of screwing up. I knew I was going to make amateur mistakes and end up spending more money than necessary. It’s the same thing for any new hobby, so I decided to accept that fact and just do it.
First, I wanted a good domain name. I decided on some variant of Joel Parcouer (explained on the contact page of my website). I looked at GoDaddy.com then 123-reg.com. The latter was cheaper so I whipped out my credit card, spent about £10 and bought the domain joelparcouer.com for several years. Now that I had the address I now needed some place to put my website. I poked around with Google’s web hosting and the templates there, but they seemed to be proprietary and I really wanted complete control so I decided against Google. After searching around and reading reviews and such I decided to go with Bluehost. Here I suspect they saw me coming. I misinterpreted the fee structure (yearly for three years or for three years) and bought it with the extra security costing a whopping £160 for three years. Yikes! It is a learning process and this might be a good deal for all I know. I honestly have no idea how much it should cost.
The first thing I did on Bluehost was to assign my domain name to the account. It was so easy I have forgotten how I did it. I do remember that they led me through it by my nose. The next thing Bluehost wanted me to do was to manage 100 free email accounts as if that was some great perk. It may be for businesses, but not for me. The last thing I want to do is to manage spam filters for an email system I do not need, so I skipped setting that up and went onto the control panel. I might reconsider the email account if Google becomes genuinely evil someday. The Bluehost control panel contains many files and programs that I have never heard of. I have some experience playing around with HTML and was able to find the error files that are displayed when things go wrong.  I then deduced the folder where the website needs to go by trial and error with a dummy HTML index file (index.html is the first file a browser open).
 I obviously lack the experience to code a quality site from scratch so I Googled free webpage templates. The free part was important as I had already blown my budget of £100. WordPress kept coming up so I tried that only to discover blog templates and more proprietary structure and code. The one thing I hate are programs like Frontpage that try to lock you into their program forever by making the code so complicated that you can never tweak it with any other program. I have always suspected that software engineers deliberately make computer languages and code just complicated enough to prevent common people writing their own programs and websites, thus protecting programmer jobs.  So moving on down the Google search list I came across a website by Andreas Vicklund. This guy is a genius. His templates are so simple and clear that even I could look at the HTML code and see how the HTML pages work. I even figured out big pieces of the CSS style sheet that came with it. The best part is that he posts a set of completely free high quality templates that you can use for anything as long as you leave the “designed by line” at the bottom of the page with his link. I chose the winter variant. Compare that to my version and you will begin to see how you can take a basic template and make it your own. You just copy and paste substituting your own text and  images and then tweak parts to come up with your own site. I even replaced his stylised mountains with my own picture of the Alps that I took from my balcony while living in Switzerland. To do this I had to modify the CSS style sheet. This really is not as scary as it sounds once you realize that a CSS sheet is just a set of instructions for named elements shared between HTML files in your website.
I have mentioned HTML code a few times. For those who don’t know, HTML provides your web browser with instructions on what and how to present the stuff you see on a webpage. It is probably the simplest form of computer programming that anyone can do.  You can pretty much become a functional programmer with HTML by reading one of the “For Dummies” books. To see a websites code most browsers have a function called view source. To actually play with an HTML file you need to open it with a text editor. My favourites are Crimson Editor for Windows and TextWrangler for my Mac. I always save a version of any HTML file before messing with it so that I can go back when I screw it up. The editing procedure was to change the code, save the file, then open it (or refresh) with my browser to see what happened. I thus figured out how to do things by trial and error and Googling. I easily found HTML examples on the web by googling HTML and the tag name. The process was no more intellectually demanding than working a puzzle or computer game. I used the free program Seamonkey on both Windows and my Mac to get some of the fancier things in. This free web design program is about as simple and clean as they come. It’s a WYSYG editor. The only problem is that it sometimes puts in extra spacing and some odd redundant code; including stuff like <small></small> with nothing in between.  I ended up proof reading and editing out these redundant statements in the text editor.
After about a month of working on this in my spare and free time, I finally got enough together to post a new website. Loading it was trivial with one of the programs on the Bluehost control panel. Now the problem is that I see so much more that I want to do to improve it. All I need is the time.