Building a new Palimpsest

Palimpsest is a site I am really rather proud of. It was my first attempt at building a really social web community, launching in April 2003, and is still going strong. It’s a forum, pure and simple, where people talk about books, mainly, but also films and music and theatre and TV and art… basically anything. What keeps it together as a community is the culture of the place, it has managed to stay polite and coherent throughout.

This has largely been the result of a reasonably strict regime of facilitation – new members are generally given time to settle in, but if their posts continue to be witless, annoying or boring, then they tend to be asked to leave or banned after a while. Occasionally this causes ruptions – it certainly did recently – but then if you can’t act like an omnipotent dictator on your own forum, where can you? I am helped out on the site by three other admin people, one who helped me begin the site in the first place, and two who were members who clearly understood what the site was all about. Having people you can trust to keep things ticking over in invaluable – I owe these guys a lot.

As all good online communities do, we have also had some real life get togethers. These meets, dubbed the ‘Big Day Out’, started in May 2005 in London, and in that month every year since. We’ve also visited Oxford, York and Cambridge and in May 2009 it will be Edinburgh’s turn. People have travelled remarkable distances to attend these days out, and getting to meet folk really does elp foter the community spirit and to build up trust between members.

Tech wise, the site currently runs on a rather ancient version of VBulletin, which I have to pay an annual sub for, and which isn’t, sadly, open source. Originally phpBB was used for a couple of years but security was an issue, as was a bug which meant that search engine bots could very rapidly fill up the sessions table in the database, bringing the whole site down. There has since been a new version of phpBB released, which I am sure has fixed a lot of these problems, but VBulletin works and I am loathe to change for the sake of it.

Still, the time has come for some changes. Largely driven by three factors:

  • the web hosting plan Palimpsest is currently on isn’t terribly cost effective for how the site has developed (it gets quite a lot of traffic and has a huge database). I can get better service cheaper elsewhere
  • the version of VBulletin running is hideously out of date and needs upgrading, as mentioned above
  • Behind the scenes, various bits of organisation of the forum have become hopelessly muddled and need sorting out, such as permissions, user groups and the files the forum runs from

So, a change of hosts means I can clean various bits up. The bit I am most nervous about is moving the forum itself. The MySQL database that drives the site is over 225mb in size, which will need downloading from the current hosts and importing into the new ones. Before I do this though, I will need to upgrade the current Palimpsest site to the latest VBulletin to ensure the import works properly on the new one! Plenty of opportunities for disaster…

I tweeted about the issues of the database download because I didn’t really trust phpMyAdmin to do it without dropping a connection – what with the size of the database in question. Most of the advice was to use terminal access to the server with the sqldump command. Sadly, my hosting arrangements don’t provide me with this service, so I had to try something else. Simon at Stratford District Council recommended CocoaMySQL, a desktop client for MySQL for the Mac. I’m currently downloading the database for testing purposes – when it’s time to actually make the switch, I’ll shut the forum down in order that no posts get missed out. CocoaMySQL is very easy to use, and assuming the download works properly, I can heartily recommend it.

With the current site, visiting http://www.palimpsest.org.uk forwards people straight to http://www.palimpsest.org.uk/forum/ – there is no ‘home page’ other than the forum itself. Also, for various reasons, there are a couple of WordPress installs where I host blogs for some forum members. The obvious thing to do seems to me to install WordPressMU which can drive the site’s homepage as well as host the couple of blogs that are already established, and maybe some new ones too if people are up for it. The homeage would then be made up of four distinct sections: some kind of header, with a big logo and a link to the forums, a column of aggregated content from the hosted blogs and the Palimpsest Flickr group, a column of aggregated book news from various sources, and a column of the latest forum activity.

While I am it, I’ll switch all the email accounts to Google Apps, too. Much more storage, and much nicer to use that most webmail interfaces.

I’m rather looking forward to all this. Let’s hope it all works…

Bad blood river

William Shaw has a rant on Palimpsest about Tim Butcher’s Blood River:

Of course the real reason why the Congo is a hell hole has to do with the last 150 years of history, not with any darkness. The older part is documented in Hochschild’s brilliant history King Leopold’s Ghost. Back then it was about rubber. That was why Belgium slaughtered around 10 million Africans and brutalised milllions more. The last 15 years are more to do with the way we turn a blind eye to the way companies source the materials they need to make our laptops and mobile phones. Butcher acknowledges these arguments, but you sense he doesn’t really have much time for such liberal explanations. He sees Africa instead as eternally tribal and fractious. He has turned the wheel full circle to a kind of HM Stanley vision of Africa as something that only a strong hand could ever heal; the difference is that Butcher comes from an era which cannot condone such violence. As a result, he creates a picture of a country that nothing can redeem.

Entertaining and illuminating stuff.