…or, in this case, the want of a closing curly bracket!
Two hours previously…
The last couple of weeks I’ve been configuring a new forum for a discussion list for which I am one of the moderators: B-Hebrew: the Biblical Hebrew Forum. (Don’t try to join yet; the Grand Opening won’t be for a month yet.) The software we’re using is phpBB, a very powerful and feature-full forum software package based upon the PHP programming language. The “look and feel” is controlled by Cascading Style Sheets, html template files, and a set of image files.
Yesterday, I was happily working on setting things up so that users can write posts with Hebrew characters and fonts. It required that I edit and re-edit the same post. In order to do that I needed to set the permission for editing posts. I had done that already. And then this morning I returned to the task of editing my posts. But I couldn’t! All the buttons for posting new topics, replies and editing were mysteriously missing.
In cases like this, the diagnostic question is, “What changed?” Heh. I’d been changing all kinds of things, including editing those style sheets, changing and customizing permissions. There were all sorts of possibilities for something to have gone wrong. So where do I look?
Google is my BFF. I read dozens of articles and forum threads about the causes of missing edit buttons and the inability to edit one’s posts. I reviewed every single one of several hundred permission settings. I learned about the permissions mask feature of phpBB administration that allows one to quickly see where conflicting permissions might occur. (My permissions were correct.) I discovered that a major cause of missing button is choosing a language other than British English. (One must supply a separate set of images for the chosen language and create a specially named folder/directory to hold them.) I had stayed with the default language, so that wasn’t it. I had run out of ideas and was preparing to post my problem on the phpBB forum, where I had already received excellent and quick support.
But then I read a passing remark on a phpBB forum thread, where the writer said that typos in the style sheet files could also cause the buttons to go away. Any typo could do it, not just with those sections having to do with the buttons. I suddenly realized that this might be my problem. I had done a lot editing of files. An inadvertent quiver of a finger on the keyboard could do it. So I used a program — Meld — that compares directories and files in a visual way where one can quickly and easily see where the files might differ. I then began comparing the 15 or so stylesheet files with the original files that come with phpBB. One by one. There were many changes, for I had completely changed the color scheme and the banner graphic image. Most of the red-colored changes were the hexadecimal numbers of colors that are used in web pages. But something caught my eye: one of the macros lacked a closing curly bracket, ”}”, where there was one in the original file. I added the bracket in the proper place, saved the file, refreshed the server cache, cleared my browser cache, reloaded the webpage. Voilà! My buttons were back! I could edit again!
Why tell this story? To brag about my technical prowess? To rant and rave about the complexity of modern software, especially in web software? No. But I do have a rant. We live in a age of social media. Not all software will do what we want. We make mistakes in using it. Some software is so complicated that learning to use it requires a fiercely steep learning curve. Information technology — like Shrek — is like an onion. There are layers wrapped around layers. This means learning information technology is comulative: when solving problems, learn as much as you can along the way. It will be useful in the future. You’ll be able to generalize to new situations. This was not the first time I had hacked cascading stylesheet files. I often use Meld for file/directory comparison. For most problems, some else has likely encountered it — and solved it. Knowing how to use Google or other search engines is foundational to everything else we do online. Finally, we must be persistent in the face of our ignorance and failure.
Those of us in the humanities must embrace the digital age. Otherwise we are at the mercy of the machine and those who do know how to use it. And information technology will not serve our needs; we will jump to its demands.