20210902 Zip it, or don’t: the latest in my techy saga

I am sitting at home building things. The things I am building is websites. The past month has been a flurry of activity as I have built several interlocking sites that all serve a discrete purpose and one that, as a kind of Group site, also has an e-commerce back end.

That’s where, in the tone of a 19th Century maiden, I found myself undone.

The e-commerce thing has proved horribly complicated. I tried WooCommerce in WordPress (this is a WordPress site) but after a couple of weeks I really, really hated WordPress. So for the other sites, I have gone back to Drupal which I had left because I really, really, REALLY hated Version 8 of Drupal and all our sites were about to be orphaned when Drupal 7 reaches end of life in a few months.

Working with Drupal used to be simple: it was written in such a way that content managers could make it do a vast array of things without having to get involved with any coding, etc. In fact, it’s so long since I did any actual coding that I’ve realised that I’ve forgotten how. I used to write programs in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s why developers hate working with me: I know what I want, I know it can be done and I don’t accept “we don’t usually do it like that” which usually means “we’ve got a template that we’ll use but we’ll charge you as if we are doing custom coding.”

Working with Drupal 9 is an entirely different experience to “D7”. Everything from installing software and maintaining updates is a far less friendly approach. And so many things that we D7-ers are used to having are simply not there. The solution is to apply “a patch.” That used to be easy in D7: now I have trouble working out where to put the patch. And the code is weird: I’ve tried re-writing stuff and it doesn’t work but, as far as my understanding is concerned, it’s right.

Things just aren’t where I expect them to be and they are hard to find because everything has been renamed. Documentation shows screenshots – but I don’t have on my screen half-the stuff that the manuals say to click and have a helpful arrow over a screenshot to show me exactly what I’m missing, although that isn’t their intent. I would be very happy to help produce documentation – if only I could make the b******d thing do as I want so that I can make notes so others can follow in my footsteps without so many stumbles, like Good King Wenceslas.

I have spent two days trying to do the most simple thing possible: produce a product page, put a “buy now” button on it, collect payment via Stripe and then grant access to download, once, a file.

I have at last found that I can’t have a “buy now” button – the Drupal Commerce system only works via a “Cart.” That was one of the reasons WooCommerce got the boot. Also, if I want to put a “buy now” button on a product page, I have to edit the program’s code. Like so much of Drupal 9 and its modules, it’s designed for big complex tasks which is fine if you want to run a big e-commerce store but for the very specific requirements of small traders who may have, at most a couple of hundred products added sporadically over a period of months, it’s overkill. Even then, it might be OK if only it, and D9 in general, were built with end users in mind: it’s interesting that in conversations with the developers they refer to me as a developer. No, I’m not. Not in the sense they mean. And so, the support pages across Drupal are littered with people like me who have used Drupal for well over a decade but are now finding that what used to take minutes is taking hours.

Anyway, chatting to a mate this morning (mine – it was late night for him) about something entirely different, a light went on in the back of my head. Ten minutes later, I’d got a quick and dirty version of exactly what I want working – and I didn’t touch the Commerce modules at all.

The whole process, from visiting the product page via payment to downloading the file is five steps. Quick and dirty? Quick and smooth, too.

Excellent, I thought. Proof of concept works, testing works, now I’ll spend the next couple of hours making the file ready, create the product page, the payment link and the download service and we’re good to go with a product launch tomorrow, two days later than planned but it’s no big deal except tomorrow is Friday which is a bad day to launch anything. Perhaps I’ll get it ready this afternoon, I thought.

I think there’s a conspiracy and my work today has ground to a halt. And there was I feeling very pleased with myself. Briefly.

I needed a file. I have several terabytes of data on my PC but that file is nowhere to be found. No problem, I thought, I’m pretty sure it’s on a floppy disk somewhere.

Oh, my PC doesn’t have a floppy drive.

No problem, I’ll get a laptop out.

Two have died completely. The third has a very broken screen. I’ve not taken it out of its bag for more than three years because I rarely carry a ‘puter when I travel these days, so I guess it got broken on the last flight it but not I took. Too late to claim from the airline.

Yay, I thought, I know: there’s a copy on my Zip drive. I last used my Zip drive, which I used to love, in about 2002. But I could still remember what I’d stored on the pile of disks – and which box they were all in.

And yes, the very file I wanted is on the first Zip Disk I picked up.

But.. the drive needs a power supply and I don’t have one for it (well, it’s been a while) and it connects to the computer via a parallel port.

I’ve not had a PC with a parallel port for at least five years.

No problem, I have three laptops with parallel ports.

Oh, wait, that idea failed when I wanted to look through a stack of floppies and ended up not bothering.

Also, apparently, the one with the broken screen (which I can work around by plugging a monitor in) is a 64 bit Windows 7 machine (another reason it stays in its sack) and there are no drivers for the Zip drive for that specification.

It’s beginning to look as if I’m going to have to go out, buy a ten or 15 year old 32 bit machine and install Win2000 or, horror show, XP and then it should (once I’ve got the power supply) work.

The biggest irony? About a year ago, I gave away half a dozen machines of exactly the specification I now need because, you know, who needs a 15 year old PC?

Grrrrrr.

And yet, I’m not disappointed or angry. Actually, because I am frustrated every way I turn, now I think it’s funny.

The solution (maybe): about 500 metres from my back door is the biggest IT shopping centre in the city. I’m going to take my ZipDrive there and see if they can hook it up, perhaps via a USB-parallel cable and, if it spins, then maybe, just maybe, it will run on my Linux desktops.

We wait with bated breath.

There will be news on the new websites when the last hurdle (it’s not the platform, this time) to the service that’s being launched, in a few days, I hope. But in the meantime, if the single file I need can be recovered, there’ll be a newsletter.

Now I’ve finished my cup of tea, I’m going to the shop 🙂

[pause]

I’m back. The very helpful people at Sri Computer in Low Yat Plaza where I’ve been buying almost all my computer stuff for most of the past 20 years supplied a power brick that fires up the zip drive and a clever cable that has a 25 pin parallel connector at one end and a USB plug at the other. And the drive gets flashing lights. But the disk won’t stay in. So I’m prodding around inside it with a pointed chopstick because the disk slot is too small for long-nosed pliers or my electronics screwdrivers and I’ve found a bit of not-entirely-loose plastic stuck deep inside.

While I was walking around Low Yat, dodging the mobile phone touts that flood the narrow corridors, I had had a brainwave. The ZIP is still a favourite amongst musicians who didn’t take to MiniDisk (I tried that and I wasn’t overly impressed, either). I wonder if anyone has one for sale or for rent or, even, if I could visit, wop my data onto a couple of sticks and then I can play with mine at my leisure.

Then I forgot about it, came home, plugged everything in, ran the apt Linux instructions and … bother. The PC doesn’t recognise the drive. This, I wonder, might be the 64-bit problem – the Win10 machine in the shop could see the hardware but not the contents of a disk.

Right, I thought. Let’s start with a search to see if anyone has one for sale. The first entry in the search results referred to a hotel which, it turns out was for sale. Was, not is. The hotel, not the Zip drive. The advert said that the business centre was very well equipped with a zip drive. Yay, I thought. That’s ideal: I can just go, pay for use and get my files.

Then I read some more.

It says “Business Centre is equipped with a fast Pentium personal computer, colour printer, high speed photocopier and fax machine. But we also have a scanner, zip drive and internet access which allows us to design and print small batch business cards, stationery and other documents for our business travellers at great margins.”

Hang on…. the hotel is described as “new” and it has Pentium computers? I looked it up. It’s still there but there is no business centre and, therefore, unlikely to be a zip drive.

Come here, drawing board. I need you.

Be happy, safe and well. Get vaccinated for your own sake and for the sake of those who have to deal with the consequences if you become seriously ill or die having rejected vaccination – and remember to wash, sanitise, mask up and stay an anti-social distance from each other for what we all hope will only be a few more weeks in many countries.