A Chat with Stephen Paul Weber

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Barely a week goes by without Stephen Paul Weber (username singpolyma) popping up on our radar screens with yet another cool tool he’s hacked together using Ning, Javascript, XML, RSS, duct tape and string. Tools for bloggers? Folksonomy explorers? Javascript code stores?

Not only has he built it all, he’s usually done his coding over a low-bandwidth line from Africa. Stephen’s work demonstrates that Ning’s not just useful for cloning existing apps – it’s great for getting your own code projects up and running fast. He recently showed off his nifty feed-parsing library in a guest post on our Tech Blog – now it’s time to meet the man behind the code.

Who and where is Stephen Paul Weber?

I’m a 17-year-old Christian MK (Missionary Kid) now living in southern Ontario, Canada and starting college in the fall.

Since creating a Ning account you’ve been one of our most active developers, creating a fascinating mixture of projects and tools. Could you give us brief overviews of some of them?

I’ve been all over the place since I first started with Ning — a lot of experimenting goes on in what I do. My first-ever Ning project, Commentosphere, has been mostly outmoded by new and better services such as CoComment. Other projects of mine include:

… and some other smaller or newer projects.

What brought you to web development in general, and Ning in particular?

What first brought me to web development were my interests as a writer. I wanted to create a site that had the feel and credibility of a publishing house, without the severe restrictions, to allow new writers to get their work and their name before the world. The resulting project now resides at awriterz.org.

Ning in particular first attracted me simply because it was free. Free, open, PHP-enabled web app platform run by people who seem willing to take advice was a very big attraction to me.

Many web techies are determined to get their traditional web hosting accounts or dedicated servers to do their development. You’ve chosen Ning. Why is that?

Well, as I mentioned above, cost is a huge factor in that, but it is no longer the only factor. Oddly enough, because of the unpredictably mobile lifestyle I have been used to, I really like the almost-wiki feel of the Ning code editor. I also like the way all the non-private data going in to the Content Store is available publicly in so many ways and to other Ning developers.

Which Ning features have you found most useful in your projects?

Oddly enough, the code editor, which has really helped because it enables me to work on my code from any computer with an Internet connection. I also really enjoy many of the filtering features of the Content Store. While it took getting used to, and I still wish more power were there, you just can’t beat the ease of use that object-based data storage gives.

When looking over your work on Ning, there’s a particular theme that becomes apparent: you’re continually glueing disparate bits of the web together in interesting new ways. (You’re doing it with Ning, too – I love how the “Update/Discuss” Ningbar button in Littl’Uns uses Fabricio Zuardi’s Concer.ning) Does this come out of personal need to fix things for your own use, or do you go looking for fun opportunities to join stuff together?

I think this mostly comes out of problems I encounter in my everyday Internet experiance. When I find something that should work, or that I would like to be able to do, but can’t find anything that does that, I tend to want to get something going that works. I also hate duplication of labour. If someone else has written code to do something, why should I, or anyone, have to write that all over again?

Much of your work revolves around blogging, yet very little of it is to do with blog writing – it’s mostly about organising stuff in new and interesting ways. Why is that?

My introduction to ‘serious’ blogging was with the FreshBlog community. While there are now many Blogger hacks that enable us to add features that Google just hasn’t got to yet, by far the most popular are the ways of adding categories to the system. Being involved in that has really given me a mindset for organisation in blogging. People need to be able to find and use a blog’s writing for it to be of any use to them.

You do a lot of work in Javascript, and a lot in PHP – which do you prefer, and why? And are there other languages you’ve been playing with?

JavaScript can be messy to write with, but so can many languages. Ultimately JavaScript really has a monopoly on its market, so we just have to put up with it. PHP’s typelessness is both a strength and a weakness, for the same reasons. It can be easy to write messy code. One of the nicest things about PHP is that it is interpreted line-by-line, so you can see exactly where, visually, your error is. The huge store of documentation at php.net is really a lifesaver too.

I’ve played with Java, C++, and .NET stuff on a client-side level, and hope to teach myself Ruby sometime in the near future.

You recently returned from several months in Chad – what’s the story
behind that?

Actually I spent the last four and a half years of my life living in Chad, Africa. I’ve actually lived most of my life for the last eight years over there. My parents are Christian Missionaries who work in Chad helping the church, and so I’ve been over them living with them. We’re back in Canada right now so that we can encourage people here with what has been happening in Chad, and also so that I can start college. Because I will be full-time in college, I will not be returning to Africa with them.

It must have been tough, trying to find time and connectivity to code out there! How did you manage it?

During the last year and a half God has been gracious enough to provide us with the funds we needed to run a satellite Internet connection. This saved me much time in my schoolwork, and also provided the connectivity I needed to discover Ning and begin teaching myself PHP.

Outside of your various hacking projects, how are you spending your time?

I’m doing a lot of running around with my parents right now, visiting people. After we’ve been gone for over four years there are many people who want to see us! I’m also preparing for college in the fall.

Are there any technologies on the web or elsewhere that you’re itching to play with?

As I said, I’d like to teach myself Ruby, preferrably in the context of Ruby on Rails. I’m also looking to get into playing around with some Jabber/XMPP-related coding.

What advice would you give to someone who’s created an App on Ning and wants to tweak it, but doesn’t know anything about programming?

If you don’t know a thing about programming and don’t want to learn, then modifying settings on example apps on their setup pages is the best you can do. Of course, you could always give out your Ning password to someone who does know PHP. 😉 Or teach yourself. http://hudzilla.org/phpbook is a good resource, and is where I learned all my PHP originally.

Most of your projects have been fairly small – do you prefer working that way, or do you have something bigger on the horizon?

I think every programmer ultimately dreams of writing the next killer app. Ultimately, few killer apps are ever single-handedly written. Small apps work well to provide an exercise in code and logic while providing useful functionality. I’m working on one app right now that I hope will become more and more useful, but we’ll see where it goes.

Can you give us any hints about it?

It’s actually currently two apps, with the potential of maybe a third entering the family. The basic original idea was to build a Memeorandum-style site that focused on small blogs instead of just what the large blogs have to say, but with the feedback I have got it may end up doing a lot of other things.

Sounds intriguing – we’re looking forward to seeing it! Thanks very much for your time, Stephen, and good luck with your future projects!

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