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am 29. Juni 2000
Usability is a valued function in print, not just on the web. Phil and Alex's way cool in-joke laden guide could be edited down by 30% without any loss in content, printed on non-gloss paper to save 30-=50% more in unneeded weight. Greenspun abuses print the way the web novices he critiques use the web--utterly superfluous production values that add no value to the user but only heap on costs and hence price; utterly gratuitous graphics which prove that force me, the book buyer, to subsidize Greenspun's embarrassingly mediocre talent as a photographer, and utter inability to generate creative or useful graphic illustrations to help communicate the rich and bountiful insights that pour forth from his fertile mind. Do not attempt to use this book if you suffer from any form of RSI... it's as though the author has intentionally created a 25 pound laptop and every programmer in the world is forced to fall over in adulation. Aparently, Mr. Greenspun did not have the opportunity to go through the 2-3 year stage of amateur dabbling in desktop graphics most of us went through with Photoshop 2.0 . What is ludicrous is that even our most eminent thinker about "information design" dares not to mention that this book is an insult to the art and craft of information design in print. Excess weight causes severe spine breakage, the absurdly wasteful use of high gloss paper means that the pages resist being underlined or marked for those who want to create notation, and the photos are as distracting and counterproductive as 100 one megabyte jpegs of baboons would be pushed into every page of my online edition of the New York Times. The varnished paper is, of course, non-recyclable. Philip, the design of your book violates every single rule you hammer away at for 570 pages. Keep the dog, hire an editor, drop the ego, practice in print what you preach on the web. Read Ed Tufte's books and make the next edition actually use graphic presentation to communicate. Respect print, it's older than you are.
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am 13. Juni 2000
I'm indebted to this book, because I badly needed one, single, book which covered this wide area of Websites, good design, usability, back-end technology, and a whole lot else. This is the only book I know that fits the bill.
The author's writing style is unusual. The book reads like a lecture rather than a book. It is conversational, and the prose therefore is a little less tightly structured and focused than most classic texts I've read. The author chooses to digress into his pet peeves every now and then, but his peeves make interesting reading.
If you are expecting a "great" book, with a style similar to the Unix classics, e.g. Kernighan and Ritchie's book on C, then you won't get it here. But Greenspun's style is perhaps more appropriate for the unstructured and extensive subject area he attempts to cover. He covers Websites to begin with, and what makes Websites usable. He then moves on to interactive Websites and the technologies behind them. Finally, he covers implementation details, including database systems, scripting languages, and all sorts of other hands-on areas.
One impression that I came away with is that Greenspun is a good engineer. His sense of good engineering elegance is extremely rare, and this sense is visible all through the book. I agree with his choices of technology, and in particular, his reasons for choosing them. An unusual choice is his preference for Tcl as a scripting language over Perl. I feel that his book would have allowed more readers to relate to his examples if he had used Perl, which I suspect is more popular than Tcl, at least in the Web scripting world. Similarly, his choice of AOLServer + Tcl leaves one wishing that he had covered Apache + mod_perl in as much depth.
His coverage of issues like rationale behind choosing one DBMS over another, is really rare. I wouldn't say his treatment is systematic or exhaustive, but no other book I have read even attempts to address these issues from the practitioner's viewpoint the way he does. And the descriptions of his experiences with Cybercash, server downtime, etc., are superb.
This book is in a class by itself. Having handled Web application development since 1995, I felt I had found a kindred soul.
I am using this book as required reading for a course on Web Technology for Information Management majors, which I teach, in a management institute in Bombay. I will also make it required reading in the software development firm which I manage... especially for the managers. :)
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am 16. Januar 2000
Was the book valuable for me/do I think I got my money's worth?
Absolutely. I was trying to get current perspective on hardware and software options, scope-of-resources required, etc., for construction and operation of a database-backed website. It took only a small fraction of the text to answer my questions; I view the remaining 550+ pages as exceptional bonus material, and consider myself fortunate for having obtained the book.
Who else might find this book useful?
Regardless of whether one's role is as a strategy planner, programmer, database administrator, etc., it seems that anyone learning and applying the "teachings" put forward in Greenspun's book should have greatly improved chances that his or her publishing, transactional commerce or other database-backed Web site/service will be 1) more valuable for anyone who uses it, and 2) less frustrating and costly to develop and implement. (And by avoiding some of the software and approaches the author "does not recommend," this book may help save some readers' Web businesses from potentially fatal fiascos.)
Is this a standard "how to" guide? What's the style/approach?
It is not a perfunctory "this is how it's done" guide. Rather, it's a series of engaging, fun and easy-to-read discussions of issues that one will likely encounter while attempting to develop and operate any of a range of websites, e.g., static, collaborative, ecommerce, publishing, not-for-profit, experimental, etc. sites. The author poses lots of questions, highlights many potential pitfalls "lurking out there," provides alternative solutions to these problems, and gives pretty convincing arguments about which are the best solutions among the alternatives. Examples are given to try to teach how to think and organize your efforts to afford maximum useful results. The book is based on the extensive experiences of the author and his collaborators while they were working on the abovementioned types of sites.
There are suggestions about how to build a better mousetrap: to put yourself into the Web site users' shoes, to anticipate users' questions, and to take advantage of the collaborative power of the Web. There's help identifying some of the nastiest potential pitfalls for Web-based systems, and what to do about them, e.g., what kind of lock management RDBMS architecture will work for Web sites (and what won't work); what to do about bouncing email, site backup, and software version control; and how to avoid the "design recapitulates bureaucracy" model of Web design. There's perspective on how to think about allocating resources: "...[certain inefficiencies are] insignificant compared to the value of the company they [a well known Web company] built by focusing on the application and not fighting bugs in some award-winning Web connectivity tool programmed by idiots and tested by no one." And there's coaching about the importance of site interaction design, data modeling, site speed, reliability, maintainability, and "modifiability."
What other valuable material is presented?
-Case histories of concepts and sites that work, their "process concept diagrams" and sample source code. -Specific recommendations for software products, hardware products, and ISP providers. -A nice simple introduction to RDBMSs and SQL. -Discussion of additional topics including: security, user personalization, privacy, and publicizing a site. -Numerous critically screened references for Web sites and printed publications, for further study.
Also woven into the book in an amusing style is some history of the evolution of software engineering and the Web, and about 270 of the author's photographs (of nice quality, but not necessarily directly related to the text) which make the book easy on the eyes.
Other favorite one-liners from the book?
" the end, it is much easier to hype twenty-first century [software] features than to actually sit down and implement features from two decades ago," and "Afraid or not, you will eventually have to think...."
Final comments?
The author's simultaneous excellent handle on an immense array of fine details AND understanding of the big picture is quite impressive (in fact, the author is part of the big picture). The book also leaves me with "lots of food for further thought."
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am 10. Dezember 1999
... because it is the first coffee table book that I've ever bought and then proceeded to mark up - underling passages, writing notes, questions etc.
It is a totally unique book on many different levels. A computer book with photographs? I am attracted to bizarre juxtapositions, loved the concept but was confident that the execution would be lacking. I was wrong.
I didn't understand everything (this book has a good deal of code (which I skimmed over)) but at the same time is both quite accessible and an incredible resource for non-programmers. An extraordinary accomplishment.
Greenspun makes a compelling case for what he believes a web site should be and at the same time manages to offer lots of specific, practical advice. His core advice - what to do and the technologies to use - has to be on target. It's what smart people pay lots of money to smart consultants for. Unlike any other book I've read, I got the feeling that I had hired a really smart consultant who was telling me exactly what to do and what not to do.
If all of this were not enough, the book highlights several free services his site offers to other web site owners interested in providing different kinds of collaboration and interactivity. The services run on his monster machine. Cost, zero.
In closing, I'd like to give some examples of his sense of humor.
"CORBA circa 1998 is a lot like an Arizona housing development circa 1950. The architect's model looks great. The model home is comfortable. You'll have water and sewage hookups real soon now".
"Johnny drives to the bookstore and spends $30 on an 'I stole the program and now I need a book on how to use it' book".
"Desktop apps promised to deliver the power of computers to the ordinary citizen; in fact, they delivered the pain of a corporate administration job right into the ordinary citizen's home or office".
One other thing - if you're really technically inclined - he basically gives you a blueprint for making a truckload of money. With that, I'll conclude with one more quote. Just bear in mind that this is from a guy who gives away CPU cycles, gives free seminars, and will let you download this book from his web site.
"Not being a materialist in the U.S. is kind of like not appreciating opera if you live in Milan or art if you live in Paris".
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am 5. August 1999
I first learned of this book through Danny Yee's glowing review of the first edition: _Database Backed Websites_. Greenspun put the entire book (plus an enormous amount of additional material)online at, so I devoured the online material in a weekend. I've since purchased both the first and second editions of the book. I loved Greenspun's wit, which makes the book enjoyable to read even if you care little about building web sites: "Money is nice. Bandwidth is nice. Graphic design is occasionally nice. But if you treat your Web site as a pimple on the butt of something much larger, then it will probably be ripe for"(pg. 19) I also loved Greenspun's philosophy: "Our first principle is that we do not lie to customers. If a service goes down because of something we did wrong and should have known not to do, we tell the customer exactly what we did wrong in as clear language as possible." Although this quote comes not from the book, but from the mission statement of Ars Digita, Greenspun's company, this attitude permeates the entire book. Tell the truth. Treat the customer the way they wish to be treated. Don't make surfers struggle through Shockwave portal tunnels. Create a Yahoo-style site map. Why purchase the book if it's available online? 1) The book brims with beautiful pictures (though, damn him, my favorite, that of a naked blond woman reaching for a book in a well-stocked library, did not make it into the book). 2) It lays flat on the desk while you work on the screen. 3) You don't have to worry about batteries or cables. Greenspun does lob a few obligatory ad hominems at Bill Gates ("...Bill Gates gave bloated monopoly a name, a face, and a smell...."), though Greenspun appears to have no problem touting the products of the second largest bloated software monopoly, Oracle Corporation. However, I laughed at even this bit of peevishness, and it pales in comparison to the value of the rest of the book. Greenspun's book is the best technical book I've ever read.
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am 4. August 1999
There's something for everyone in Philip Greenspun's (and Alex's) book about web publishing. The book has a fantastic balance of great stories from the software community and firm absolutes about what works and what doesn't, all stemming from Mr. Greenspun's many years of real world experiences building database backed Web sites
Programmers can find advice about products and vendors. The focus is on what works, not what's cool. There is also a wealth of code ranging from clean HTML to powerful scripts and programs for manipulting Oracle DB's.
Marketing types can learn about the many new ways of generating interest and exposure afforded by the Web. (Many things impossible with traditional media, like this book review I'm writing right now, for example.)
Information Architects and Graphic Designers can find barrels of info about how to avoid confusing users and how to let the users bring something of themselves to a site. They can also be exposed to Programmers' bias for information over visuals, valuable to any Graphic Designer working with programmers on any regular basis. (Note for Graphic Designer's: don't be discouraged by the dorky cover. Inside, it's well laid out.)
Is Mr. Greenspun opinionated? Ohhh, yeah. He blasts almost everything and everyone somewhere in the book. This had two effects for me: (1) I got a much more intense and memorable reading experience with a lot of great stories from the software industry, and (2) it reminds me to take everything I read with a grain of salt. All books have a point of view, but most writers hide it to appear "definitive" and "authoratative". This book wears Mr. Greenspun's point of view like a red flag, which makes it a lot like walking into his office and getting 600 pages of advice.
I got a lot out of this book because I'm an Art Director (RISD grad, 8 years Design experience, 4 years Web) and a "Programmer" (I wrote my own video games in BASIC back in the 80's, and have 3 years experience building my own web designs with HTML, JavaScript, and Perl). This duality means that any web book usually only appeals to either my Programmer side, or my Art Director side. This book, with it's wealth of cross-discipline information, informed me both as an Art Director and a "Programmer".
Even if you only read 2 or 3 chapters, this book is worth the cover price. Just take what you want, and leave the rest, like a salad bar.
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am 12. Juli 1999
After spending some time reading a few chapters the author's web site, I bought Philip Greenspun book, read every single page of it, and that's the best thing I ever did to improve the quality of my own work. Anyone having anything to do with web publishing (no only the techies) should read this excellent book before even starting to build a web site.
When someone writes a book to tell you all about web publishing and database-backed web sites, it's one thing. But when that 'someone' has 100+ sites under his belt, each one of them handling thousands of hit a day, I tend to trust what he has to say. If, on top of that, he can manage to make it more enjoyable by putting it in an humorous way, that doesn't hurt. This is in a nutshell what 'Philip and Alex guide to web publishing' is all about: Philip talks the talk, but he can also walk the walk and that gives more weight to every opinion that he formulates.
The book covers the different phases of creating a site: planning, choice of hardware and software, implementation, maintenance, and shows how a little thinking before hand can save a lot of time later on. Don't we all like that? Philip Greenspun shows that you can actually own a Ph.D. and still have a strong common sense. Many of the ideas he presents are not rocket science: anyone with decent computer knowledge can implement them. It is just amazing that one person came up with all of them and was able to conceptualize them in 600 pages.
Finally, getting a copy of this book will make you the lucky owner of the first coffee-table book about web publishing. You will get for free hundreds of wonderful pictures taken all around the world. it).
My final word of advive: Don't try to fool yourselves; until you read this book, you don't know what web publishing is all about.
I gave him 5 stars for the lack of more.
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am 29. Juni 1999
Without a doubt, Philip's greatest asset is his writing style (which mirrors his teaching style, if you've ever had the privilege). His wit makes the pages go by quickly, all the while entertaining the reader and making the material easy to digest. It is my dream that all technical computer publications could be this easy and enjoyable to read. His beautiful photography, though not directly related to the material, is an added bonus, for which I declare his attempt to write the first "coffee-table computer book" (not to mention one of the heaviest computer books I've ever held) a definite success.
The book should not be treated as a manifesto for finding the best technology to suit your needs. You will probably find more diverse coverage of web servers and databases, for example, from PC Week Labs, InfoWorld, or your favorite overpriced analyst firm (e.g.: IDC). Philip's contributions are from a much more long-term, hands-on series of case studies, sometimes *very* deep in the trenches. Where magazine and analysts' reviews leave off, Philip begins. He amply opens up to share the lessons he has learned - and technology he has used - while wrestling with the biggest problems in web design. Any lack of industry-wide coverage is quickly made up for by the details of these efforts. Such advice - if applicable to you - will be invaluable.
Businesses looking to emerge onto the web will find many useful guidelines here, and some very good advice that is well worth following before their virtual pens hit the paper for the very first time. These readers should take caution, however, as the book is not as strong in addressing the commercial aspects with which a business must be concerned when entering the world of electronic commerce as it is with the technological issues. For example, Philip confuses the issue of "privacy" with "viewer anonymity". "Privacy", to a corporate site, means writing (and adhering to) an effective privacy policy to ensure that personal data submitted by your users does not get distributed without their knowledge. The crackdown on this type of behavior is becoming too large and too costly to ignore (first IBM, now Microsoft, are banning advertising on all sites without a well-published policy). I feel the book would have benefited from broader (and less biased) coverage of this topic.
All in all, if you are planning on building a medium-sized web site, this is a very good book. If you want to experiment with web sites that are built "on-the-fly" using a database, this book is a necessary addition to your library. (It will help a lot if you make use of the open source software Philip's company is offering.) Wanna-be designers of simple home pages built for the sole purpose of posting that photo of your new puppy for Mom & Dad to see, will find their money better spent on "FrontPage For Dummies". But bookmark this page before you go, and run, don't walk, back to this book when you're ready to take it up a notch.
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am 31. Mai 1999
Back in 1997 I found Greenspun's first book "Database Backed Web Sites" by accident. It has been the most refreshing computer book ever. Now the "new book" is available, and I am sorry to say that it is not as good as expected.
What is wrong with this book, then?
First, it contains tons of pictures, some well scanned, some so badly scanned that any publisher would turn bright red immediately. There are no captions, which leads many readers to the assumption, that the images are not connected to the text. (Funnily, this is wrong. The images do illustrate the text, just not in an obvious way.) This shows that Greenspun knows everything about Web-Publishing and nothing about print.
Second, the book still does not contain a CD-ROM. So you will have to trust his promise that his site will always be available and free for all. I have yet to find a Web site that could stick to such promises. Okay, maybe I am overly sceptical here.
Third, this book is rather an "update" to the old book than a completely new one. If you know the old book, you will have many "deja vues" while reading it. This makes reading uneffective as you still have to read the whole text in order to get to the new content.
It should not be dismissed that the new book is still better than average, hence the 4 star rating. Many concepts are put into the clearest possible words. This helps managers as well as engineers to understand why their sites do not work. He throws stones at Microsoft and many Middleware manufacturers, and rightly does so. This is where he delivers best.
After reading this book, you will carefully watch your steps when implementing new Web services. You will avoid many mistakes others have done previously. This alone is reason enough to buy this book.
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am 26. Mai 1999
Most web development books focus on a particular implementation strategy (Java, C++, Oracle WebServer, InterDev, what have you) and spend 600 pages explaining how to use it without really spending any time talking about what you should use those tools for in the first place. By the end of the book the reader may know how to use the tools, but isn't really any closer to building an interesting, dynamic site (not to mention a well architected, maintainable and scaleable one) than they were when they started.
This book does talk about tools, and gives some very good advice (warts and all). But Greenspun also talks about what you can build with those tools--community sites, sensible electronic commerce platforms, and usable, content-rich general interest sites. The fact that the author spends most of his time building web sites (rather than researching tools for his next 600 page opus) sets this book apart. The free data models alone are worth the cover price. The anecdotes about the trials and tribulations of running a popular web site are just the type of information that an aspiring webmaster needs.
I've been building dynamic web sites for several years, and I imagine I know the ropes. But when I have to bring someone else up to speed, not just on tools but on design fundamentals, it's a lot easier to steer them to Philip's web page or hand them a copy of the book than to spend a week training them. I made everyone who worked with me read Philip's first book, and I plan to continue that policy with this new edition.
Of course, it's also a fun read. What other computer book opens a chapter with a photograph of pigeons mobbing a man in Trafalgar square? Even when I don't agree with what's on the page, I'd rather read an author who has the capacity to get me angry than one who manages to bore me out of my mind.
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