Tech: December 2008 Archives

I spent a quiet Thanksgiving with family in Pennsylvania. While I was there, I reconnected with my cousin, who's helping organize a conference next spring at Penn State on the figure of the animal as seen in the context of various humanities subjects. Planning was well underway, speakers had been invited, and the tentative program was being filled in with names like Peter Singer and Donna Haraway. And yet--there was no website. Business was being conducted over the phone and by email, without any central online resource for people to find and look at.

I boggled. In the year 2008, how does anyone organize a public event with a potentially national audience without a web presence? Turns out her department at Penn State didn't necessarily have spare IT capacity, nor did anyone involved have the know-how to spend $10 to buy a domain and spend 5 minutes hosting it for free on Weebly. (Or even easier, a free quickie wiki on WetPaint or PBWiki or one of those providers.) I'm not a fan of ad hoc solutions, but some website is infinitely better than none.

The organizers seem to have been doing a perfectly fine job; it may be only me that's agitated. But I can't help but think how nice it would be if web publishing were as simple, boring, and reliable as email -- the net protocol that conference organizers did use.

Though I'm still nursing a mild grudge against Google Sites for being a third-rate replacement for the JotSpot wiki platform, I realize how important it is to have accessible self-publishing tools. The promise of the net includes publishing for everyone; we haven't gotten there if it's not incredibly simple and obvious to do.

I'm on an old Win98 SE computer, trying to get data off an unbranded 4GB USB thumb drive.

Every time I plugged in the drive, the OS would start asking me for drivers. Good grief. I'm a Mac person--how should I know where to find drivers for an antiquated Windows box? I looked around online; most sources recommended that I try to find the original manufacturer's website for drivers, but I have no idea who the manufacturer is. Back to Google.

I finally found a piece of software called Maximus Decim Native USB. I installed it, rebooted, plugged in my drive, followed the prompts, and it magically started working. Thank you Maximus Decim! I hope I never have to deal with this problem again, but if anyone else has this issue, give this tool a try. It worked for me.

JotSpotGoogle Sites.jpg

I'm missing JotSpot. JotSpot was an enterprise wiki platform, with all the usual features (WYSIWYG editing, versioning and diff, fine-grained permissions), but with a server-side JavaScript-based application platform built-in, letting users script and develop applications based on the platform. It was surprisingly elegant and powerful. Jot was acquired by Google in 2006, at which point in time active development shut down, and engineering efforts got redirected into building Google Sites, Google's hosted wiki system. JotSpot is being shut down on January 15, leaving users scrambling to migrate content to other platforms.

Unfortunately, Google Sites is as feature-free as JotSpot was featureful. It has no export capacity, no ability to rename or clone wikis, no RSS support, zero scriptability, and no API. The lack of an API is particularly disappointing; given even a simple API, a motivated coder can build up the rest of the functionality.

I've been trying out a transfer of JotSpot content into Google Sites, and it's been like pulling teeth, painful at every step. That is, until I discovered that you can embed Google Gadgets within Sites content.

Google Sites has no ability to manage structured information, but there's always Google Spreadsheets, the pearl of the Google Docs platform. Spreadsheets works like the web. It has a flexible API with which you can get data in or out--including a JavaScript API that works with Gadgets. Gadgets are used mostly for publishing (invariably useless) content snippets on personalized Google home pages, but they're flexible little bundles of HTML and JavaScript that can be stretched to do the right thing. Unfortunately, the official IDE is Windows-only (I'm a Mac and Linux guy), and Google's web-based "IDE" is incredibly primitive.

So I took my structured data out of JotSpot, stuck it into a a spreadsheet, and proceeded to blunder my way through building a Gadget that could access spreadsheet data, and display it flexibly, in ways that I could embed throughout a Sites wiki. It took some doing, first to learn spreadsheet access, then to bundle the entire thing together. The process was slowed down throughout by the lack of debugging tools. It may have been just me, but the Gadget source was being cached between edits and error messages weren't being thrown, so I ended up going through a complicated process of creating a new gadget source file at every step, to make sure the system was seeing the latest version of my code.

23 saved versions and a few hours later, I had my Gadget built, set up to take arguments, so it can pull in appropriate structured spreadsheet data on different parts of a Google Site. I wouldn't actively recommend the process, but JotSpot developers downgrading to Google Sites could do worse, if only to maintain some basic level of automation after JotSpot goes dark on January 15.


Anirvan Chatterjee is a San Francisco Bay Area tech geek and bibliophile.


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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Tech category from December 2008.

Tech: August 2008 is the previous archive.

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