Simple Machines Forum

I remember when I was a Jr. Geek and could focus on one programming task at a time. Today, besides having all too many Linux-related tasks, I have an assortment of other things to deal with. This last week, one of my distractions turned into a new programming project.

Those of you who have been following my posts know my current goal is to create the Geek Ranch. What I have been writing about has been how Linux fits into that project. Well, a peripheral need of the project created a new Linux project for me last week.

When you move to a new place, one of the things you need to do is figure out where to get things. That starts with food but then expands as you get settled. In my four years in Estelí, Nicaragua I have figured out where to get most anything you would need to live here. That includes car parts, appliances, building materials, clothing, computer supplies and pretty much everything else a person would need.

Enter the Geek Ranch project. All of a sudden I am looking for well pumps, electrical contractors, big electric generators, civil engineers, bulk plant nurseries, and a lot more. To make it a bit more interesting, Estelí is a smaller city (about 100,000) in a primarily agrarian region of Nicaragua so lots of things need to come from Managua, the capital and only particularly large city in the country.

Gixia (my business partner) and I have been spending a lot of time looking for sources for various things, figuring out how to deal with importing goods, trying to get our bank to understand what a real business needs and such. I have used as a place to get help searching for things but I realized it doesn't do that job really well. It is designed so people can find answers about living in Nicaragua but, because it is not focused on finding things and services, you end up with a major search task.

After talking to a few people, I realized that having a "where do I get X" site would be very useful. I had tried to establish such a site with a business directory but Nicaragua (as well as Costa Rica) is not ready for a vendor-driven site. That is, businesses don't yet understand that marketing is important. So, I realized I needed something that would allow consumers to ask for what they needed and get focused answers.

Let me confess that I consider this idea an experiment so I didn't want to put a lot of time into development. If it seems to be headed in the right direction, I am willing to invest more time. (Right now, I just want some answers and to get to work on the Geek Ranch.) Thus, my criteria was to find something that seemed to do the basics with little configuration or programming.

One choice was Simple Machines Forum. It was one of two choices I had on an auto-install menu (Fantastico) where NicaPlaza is hosted. The other is phpBB. I can't say I did an extensive comparison. I guess the word Simple had a lot of appeal.

The install was uneventful meaning it just worked. The default theme was far from what I wanted but there are lots of options. I found one that I liked and loaded it. It was advertised as multi-color but it was orange and I wanted blue. It wasn't clear how to change it.

Well, it turns out there is a relatively funky interface in SMF where you edit the various template files in a GUI that is smart enough to separate different PHP functions into different blocks. It works and I got blue. Also changed the header to be something closer to what I wanted.

Next comes ads. NicaPlaza and NicaLiving are paid for using Google Adsense. Let me clarify that—Adsense pays for real expenses, my time is free. SMF has an ads module so I loaded it. I never saw the admin interface for it. Reading the forums, I found that it only automatically works with the default theme. Groan. So, I switched back to the default theme and still didn't see anything.

Looking in the error log, it seems that the database table didn't get created. The good news is that while looking through the forums I found someone that was trying to get Adsense running. The suggested solution was to toss the ads module and just insert the Adsense code into the template.

Made sense to me. I tossed it, added the Adsense code and all worked with no problems. That gave me the site that you can see here. Note that this will soon be a "production site" but it hasn't been announced to anyone or linked to yet.

With a working site, the fun starts. It is useless without content. I decided on a top-level structure with three categories. They are:

  • Information—A place to put site information and general information about Nicaragua.
  • Products—Posts from people looking for products.
  • Services—Posts from people looking for services.

These categories will then be divided into various areas such as legal for services and vehicles for products. Users can then start a thread for a particular request or requirement. Hopefully, followups in a thread will address the request.

Now, the biggest problem with sites such as this is maintenance. That is, threads get created in the wrong place or quickly get off topic. SMF has permissions allowing you to create moderators. You can then give them the ability to move posts between threads. While I haven't done this yet, if the site takes off, this ability will be needed so it is important that it is included.

That's it for this week. Now I just need to put a bunch of posts out there, point NicaLiving members at the site and get back to designing the water system for the Geek Ranch.

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