On being content with technology
By Toh Hsien Min
Chances are, if you're a repeat visitor to QLRS, you're reading this with a sense that something's just that little bit different about the journal. You'd be right. This issue marks a bit of a milestone for us. It's not only because we've finished our third volume (something that I couldn't dream of when I put a beta issue together in August 2001). Rather, it's because we've upgraded the technology behind the site.
Technology isn't one of the first things to come to mind when one thinks of QLRS, even though in a simple manner of speaking it's been what the journal has been built on. It was a conscious decision to start the journal in electronic version. The rationale was simply that we didn't want to have to worry about such hardcopy problems as printing costs and distribution. As a web journal, our cash outflows struggle to break out of two digits every year (our time and effort outflows, on the other hand...), and once the material is up we can be read all over the world. Since the last issue, we've been contacted by publishing houses in Italy and the USA, and a college professor planning an anthology, among others. Our contributors for this issue include an Algerian, who had to translate his poetry from French, and a Norwegian. None of this would have been possible if we had been restricted to print.
However, one of the problems we soon encountered was exactly the technology we had used: the journal was built on flat HTML files, supplemented by dribs and drabs of CGI script (e.g. for the old Forum). It was relatively low-tech, which suited me fine at the start, but the content soon grew increasingly difficult to manage. I couldn't, for example, make any change to the template without either having to go back to hundreds of HTML files to make manual changes or learn enough Perl to write a script to make the change, which is itself not without hazard. As such, I had wanted to switch to some kind of a content management system, e.g. a PHP front end allied to a mySQL back end, as early as in the middle of Volume 2, but the editorial side of things ensured we weren't short of work.
Things came to a head right around the release of the April 2004 issue though. Our Forum had come under scripted spam attacks - automatic evil that posted a dozen advertisements for cheap pharmaceuticals every hour - and I had to temporarily shut the Forum down. Except that this time I couldn't get it back up. If that wasn't enough, right after the release of the issue in mid-April, our server died unexpectedly. The site was down for a week, and we had concerned emails coming in from all quarters. During that time, Alvin Pang stepped in and helped to migrate the site to the same server that the Literary Centre sites (chiefly Wordfeast) were sitting on. But he'd made a more generous offer still. Did I want to introduce a content management system run on ASP? Of course I said yes. So over the next two months, Alvin evolved a platform called L.E.M.M.I.N.G.S., which managed to recreate the QLRS site in manipulable bits of data. We had to subsequently spend quite a bit of time converting our mountain of old static files into the contents of this database. The effort has been worth it. L.E.M.M.I.N.G.S. is an unbelievably good piece of software, so far. You can browse articles by author, by issue number or by title. You can see individual contributor profiles together with a listing of all the work by the contributor on the site. You can search for all mentions of a particular writer or theme throughout the site. In other words, the software brings with it brand new ways of encountering the content. There may still be a handful of bugs, which we'll be glad to hear about as we go about ironing them out, but on the whole I think it's a good step forward.
Similarly, the Forum has shifted to a new platform, with a few more bells and whistles, and, as one reader put it, it's less painful to read. One key feature is the requirement to log in to post. Now, as anyone who has used the old Forum would know, I like to keep things open and not moderate anything, and I certainly have no interest in collecting personal information for my nefarious marketing schemes. But as other nefarious marketers appear to believe that literary websites are magnets for the sleepless, overweight, bald and impotent, we have to introduce some kind of control to keep them away (additionally, your email address can be shielded from email harvesters). Although I would personally prefer posters to identify themselves by name, there is nothing to stop anyone from posting under a nom de plume. So do come and post news of your events, start a discussion or showcase your writing for comments.
Finally, a word of thanks - to Alvin Pang, for being a technical wizard and contributing so much of his time and effort. It's really made a difference. Thank you!
Back to the content, we've had another interesting issue to edit. This time round, it seemed that we were more hands on than usual. For example, we gave active editorial suggestions on many of the articles. More than usually, it seemed as though we were cajoling this issue into shape. As with the shift in electronic residence, this editorial work has been worthwhile. Coincidentally, a good portion of the work has concerned itself with issues of place and residence. The first three poems, Daren Shiau's excellent short story, and Tan Wee Cheng's essay on Bintan all investigate what it is to be where we're at. However, as we've done the "home" theme recently, in Vol. 1 No. 4, so we've to content ourselves with simply noting this juncture of technology and topos.QLRS Vol. 3 No. 4 Jul 2004
Responses to the new site platform? Tell us in the Forum!