The trouble with Blogs, Wikis, and Forums

There are a lot of great tools out there for blogging, wikis, and forums. Some of them even look nice and are (somewhat) friendly to use. I like wordpress, I like blogger, I like phpBB (except for the appearance), punBB, and others forum tools. I like wikis quite a lot. I’ve tried a lot of them recently.

But they’re all standalone. I got a googlewhack when I typed in “embeddable wiki” (not really, but practically the same.) It was a forum where someone was asking if there was an embeddable wiki. My definitive answer is “I guess not.”

That’s shocking. Does anyone not see the value in being able to create areas of content that are easily editable but are not the whole application?

Similarly, blogs and forums have this same problem. The prevailing philosophy tends to be to make your blog, wiki, or forum your whole site (you can usually make a theme for it) or build your site using an overarching product.

I was actually shocked that CMS apps don’t seem to have the idea of wiki, blog, forum, (and article) at the core.

The one exception is TikiWiki, which is quite cool, except for the code, presentation, and admin interface. It seems to have the right idea of what users want, but I couldn’t get past their admin interface, and didn’t really want to learn yet another templating and component mechanism (which by the way, seems to be done through their admin interface.) And it stores everything in the database! The clincher was that it’s hard to do pretty URLs (their rewrite setup is better than nothing, but not actually pretty) and the wiki editor isn’t actually that nice.

I may still end up using it for One Shore, but I really want the best wiki available, because I spend a lot of time in it.

Pivot seems interesting, in that it has a framework for file based blogging. That’s wordpress’s weakness. I want versioned files, not DB BLOBs.

Pluggable authentication is sometimes doable, but it’s always on some forum where a guy cut and pasted some code to get wiki X to use the same password database as blog Y or forum Z.

Like I said, the good ones are themeable (to a degree) and they have some of their own components, but what about my MVC or CMS components. Or how do I reference a blog post in a CMS?

Theming a blog is usually nicer than theming a CMS, but that might be because it does less. Theming forums is usually pretty limited. And theming a wiki is often a hack.

Most blogs (and some wikis) have comments, but not as fancy as forums. Thats okay, I think comments should be fairly simple.

Blogs, wikis, and forums all have in common that they’re web-editable blocks of text (preferably with limited markup). That means they’re files in my book. That also means that they should be components.

I want to include this valuable content on my site (not as my site). Something as simple as:

blogcomponent.display_post(blog_id, post_id, display_comments=no);

or

blogcomponent.standard_blog_layout(blog_id) or blogcomponent.rss_layout(current_month);

And files that can cross reference each other like this blog post:

[@title = You should see my wiki]
[@date = 20080303 094700 EST]
[@revision = 1.0]

Today I added a bunch of details about [this great tool | wiki:SuperFramework] in the wiki.

[Comments | forum:myblog:200803003-1_comments]

[@display_comments=no]

Of course, display comments should be in a configuration somewhere, and the comments link should probably be auto-generated.

And this should appear inside my site, without having to theme my blog (other than basic layout) or having to specify which menus or other components are displayed. The request would be something like:

http://my-site/blog/you-should-see-my-wiki

To edit or create a blog entry:

http://my-site/blog/new-post
http://my-site/blog/edit?post=20080303-1

The code for the blog page should be something like:

response.layout = site.content_layout #this includes all the menus, components, etc. in a normal content page

if ( request.inActions (“display_blog_post”) )

response.layout.add_component(components.content_component = blog.display_post(id, etc))

Of course this is bad pseudocode and the request processing should be done outside.

Optionally, if permissions allow it, I should be able to go directly to the file, and something like a raw content viewer would do:

fw.getComponentFile(blog_post_id)

and

components = fw.searchComponents(categories={‘blog’, ‘wiki’, ‘forum’}, regex=’/superframework/i’)

Anyway, the point is that I want components to work via code, not an admin interface.  I want all my content to be file  based and versioned, and I want components to access my content, and I want to do it via a MVC framework.  I want (pluggable/interchangable) hooks for things like authentication and persistence and helpers for things like session handling and database connections.  I want themes and layouts to be separate, and again code (file) based, though there’s nothing wrong with having an admin interface for selecting themes and layouts and components, and managing users, and publishing articles and other such workflow, though it’d be nice to have a nice UI for that admin interface.

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The trouble with CMS frameworks

My last post was about the trouble with MVC frameworks, in my view, which briefly is:

Multiple action handling
Component/Template processing (related to the above)
Front controller/Back controller, helpers and the associated bloat or complexity and code duplication.

I noted that CMS frameworks attempt to handle some of this, most especially the component/template paradigm — usually by using the response wrapper paradigm.

I have two main issues with CMS frameworks:

  1. Working with them sucks and requires too much relearning and enforces a too rigid development process (see my post about leveraging existing knowledge and techniques.
  2. They usually have a very poor implementation philosophy, and don’t allow much reusability.

While I love looking at new MVC frameworks and learning their philosophy and coding styles, even if I don’t particularly like the framework, I usually walk away learning something (maybe that has to do with their code-centricness), I dread and hate the idea of looking at CMS frameworks.

That’s because it usually involves learning a truly awful administration interface, yet another template language, and possibly even a one off scripting language, and puzzling my way through an obscure (and often undocumented) series of conventions including file naming, manifests, api, and hacks for module building and using.  And they don’t make it easy to learn, because hey- they’ve got this cool, counter-intuitive, complex admin tool (website) that is their pride and joy that you should use instead.  Which works fine, if all you want to do is click “approve” on articles, add a menu or a weather widget on the right (or left!) side of the page, and have comments like slashdot (and a custom logo!)

So almost all CMS based sites end up looking almost exactly the same (depending on the CMS) but hey, you’ve got a lot of widgets you can include.  If your content is your main attraction, that’s probably okay.  You can find a whiz at making templates for your CMS to customize it if you really want.

But I truly do hate all the CMS admin interfaces in the world.  You spend as much time learning them as you do learning to code for an MVC framework.  Someone  said Django has a nice admin interface, but I’m skeptical.  Yes I’m going to look at it (someday.)

So you’ve got a lot of widgets, and you can even learn how to write them yourself, but because most of them were developed without OOP in mind, they’ve got weird, arbitrary rules and conventions that you need to learn to code them and load them.  The registering and loading of CMS components reminds me of the work set up EJBs (but hey, you’ve got a nice admin interface!)   But outside of self-contained widgets, there isn’t much flexibility.  Getting components to talk to one another is usually not worth the effort.

The other problem is the horrible implementation ideas.  I’ve already mentioned the non -OOP design.  You do not want to take a look inside most CMSes.  One of my favorites, TYPO3, is pretty scary.  A CMS is not meant to be tweaked (except through their handy admin interface!)

But my main source of frustration is that they almost universally cram all your content into a database.  That’s bad bad bad.  I do not want to author my site via a textarea (even if it’s TinyMCE) and I don’t want to lay it out via the amazing admin interface!

And I don’t want my templates to be one off monstrosities.  (Using one-off markup and scripting, no doubt.) And chances are that cool widget you want to include does:

printf(“<td border=2><font color=”red”><b>widget content</font></b></td>”);

instead of actually working with your theme.  Which you probably don’t want to touch to customize anyway.

This screams MVC separation.  I want widget content to be the widget.  And I want my controller to specifiy the parameters for the widget.

But how do you do that in the URL when you’ve got multiple widgets?  That harks back to my problem with MVC frameworks.  And you know what?  An admin interface(!) for an MVC framework would be nice.  I shudder to think of it, but the best idea (if not user interface) for that admin interface I saw was ATG Dynamo.

I’d like to leverage the content-centricness (and components) of CMS framworks, but I don’t want to deal with authoring all my content in a textarea and saving it to a database BLOB (and deploying it via their cool admin interface!)   I want to use components, but I want them to be simple STDIN, STDOUT type components.

This is where frameworks like CakePHP fall down I think.  The component development process for Cake is (I admit mostly ignorance) is as convoluted as it is for Drupal.  I think Zend does a better job, but I haven’t really seen a component market for Rails (again, I’m fairly ignorant), apart from things like the AJAX HTML component wrappers.  I think I actually prefer the CMS way of building a template via (bastardized) HTML than the HTML::Template / Struts style that Rails has adopted.

What I really want is a front controller that does a good job of setting up my resources (such as sessions, db handlers, etc.) as plain objects(!) and provides wrappers for things like authentication and action mapping, and then passing it off to my response handler after running my action chain (which uses simple MVC components) which then builds the page accessing the views, selecting the template, theme, passes in pure data to components (which pass back pure data) and uses my content objects — which are versioned files, not database BLOBs, and lays them out according to my specified layout and theme (separate objects) which are probably handled through my nifty admin interface!

It’s okay to generate content via a textarea – like for a wiki or blog  (or even a form) but it should be just as easy to upload manually.  As a matter of fact, that leads me to my next one:

The trouble with Blogs, Wikis, and Forums.

The trouble with MVC frameworks

Here’s the problem I have with so-called Model-View-Controller frameworks like Rails.

They seem geared towards a single application per implementation.

What do you do with a request that wants to work with multiple components? Or perform multiple actions.

Then a REST-style request such as

http://my-site/component/actionX?params=123

falls flat on it’s face, because you’ve either got a bunch of complex logic, or actions loaded as parameters:

http://my-site/component/actionX?X_params=123&doY=true&Y_params=456

You could get it from the session, configuration, or whatever, but then you end up coding in XML or whatever.

if (session.Y=true)
{…}

Or

<component name=X>

<action=”doX”>

<result condition=”success” action=”doY”>

And then you’ve got to worry about templating, localization, etc.

And you still need a front controller to handle things like user authentication, session management, request routing, etc.

You could have a page (request) controller extend a base controller, but it’d be nice to take things like authentication a la cart, and not need to load it on every request. Appservers handle this by loading everything and holding onto it, but this is resource intensive. You think a mod_perl app can get ugly, but pushing everything to tomcat, websphere, or mongrel gets just as ugly, though the separation is sometimes cleaner. FCGI forces you to separate your ruby out, but the temptation with mod_perl to put it all in the front end is dangerous. Or you end up on the other end, like so many java apps, duplicating stuff over and over in multiple layers of abstraction on multiple servers. You could just as easily mod_proxy to your mod_perl appserver just as easily as you mod_jk to tomcat or FCGI to mongrel though.

But back to MVC frameworks. How do you handle multiple action requests without getting ugly? And how do you provide helpers and components and templating without forcing one way to do things?

One answer is CMS frameworks: CMS being short for “admin user interface, layout template, and component library”. And that leads to my next post:

The problem with CMS frameworks.

SeaClear raster navigational charts

One of the coolest applications I’ve been meaning to play with for the past couple years is in a category near and dear to my heart, meaning it has to do with sailing.

Seaclear is a chart plotting tool (like the very expensive C-Maps) but uses only raster (bitmapped) as opposed to vector charts.

If you’re staying in US coastal waters, you can get just about every inch of charted water for free:

http://nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/mcd/Raster/download.htm

You can plug in a GPS to Seaclear and it will use the charts (images with datum information that allows it to plot latitude and longitude. It’s not recommended that you steer your ship by it, but it’s a very nice tool.

You could potentially scan your own paper charts and with calculated datum, use them as well. I’m surprised there’s not more of a market around this (at least I can’t find it) with things like admiralty charts.

I think it can take Maptech charts as well. It can read BSBs, because that’s what the NOAA charts are, but I’ve heard there may be DRM on newer Maptech charts.

I downloaded Seaclear yesterday and got practically all the NOAA charts for the Pacific Northwest, since that’s where I hope to be sailing this summer (but hopefully not next year.) I have my eye on a boat too (please don’t steal it.)

Seaclear looks nice, but could use some updates. It crashed once on me (on Vista) when I opened a new chart.

If Seaclear were open source, I’d start hacking on it right away. I wonder if the owner still maintains it, and if he’d like any help.

Other intersting chart tools:

Fugawi is relatively cheap and takes ENC (vector) charts as well as raster charts — so it sounds like a middle of the road compromise. It also google earth support so you can place your tracks in Google Maps. Very cool.

Also see:

http://free-navigation.blogspot.com/

http://destinsharks.com/category/google-earth-maps/

EarthNC.com

http://www.panbo.com/yae/archives/001475.html

Bugzilla and the Summer of Code

I learned from the Bugzilla-dev email list that the Google Summer of Code is taking applications starting tomorrow.

Of course, Mozilla is a sponsor, and Bugzilla is a Mozilla project, and we’d like be involved. Some of the top Bugzilla developers are interested in mentoring (and I would be too, if I were any kind of a mentor — I could be a cheerleader.) The Bugzilla summer of code page is here if you’d like to apply.

I know I would if I were a student. I’m going to be working on some Bugzilla integration with QA Site, really soon now.

Which reminds me, I’m supposed to be working on Bugzilla QA for the 3.0.4 release, but I’m swamped right now with the new One Shore design which, of course, uses Bugzilla.

By the way, an interesting project that I might check out when I have the time is Tikal, which has a new UI for Bugzilla that I like the look of, as well as support for tasks, etc..

Anyway, here’s my ideas for Summer of Code projects for Bugzilla:

Here’s some ideas for projects:

  1. More charts and graphs (the kids love the graphics)
  2. Outlook (or Evolution) plugin
  3. Firefox extension (I saw a request for this on Guru.com recently)
  4. Automatic bug submissions from build, test tools (e.g, Ant, Selenium)
  5. Bugzilla based social network (Assignees == Friends/?)
  6. Template UI loader/switcher (like in a CMS)

Any other ideas? Let me know or go to the Bugzilla Summer of Code 2008 Community page.