Gospelcon recap

Photos: Gospelcon Flickr pool

Well, I am now safely back home and Gospelcon is in the books. Overall, it was a very good conference with many knowledgeable presenters and enthusiastic attendees. I was not able to attend any of the first day's sessions, since I only took one day off work to give my presentation. When I arrived at the hotel, I immediately made a bee-line to the conference rooms, postponing the whole check-in process. I had just got off the phone with my hotel room-mate Larry Tomlinson to see where he was at, so I met up with him there. By the way, Larry is raising missionary support as the media guy for Bible Centered Ministries, so if you feel like sponsoring him, please do.

Day number 2

Advanced PHP:

The first session I attended was with Joel Boonstra from Agathon Group, on the topic of Advanced PHP. One of the serendipitous things I took from the session was naming template files (.tpl) with a .html extension so that text editors will still properly highlight the code. This has been a problem for me in the past, because when Photoshop is installed, it assumes ownership of files with .tpl extensions. Also, it helps to keep track of which template file does what (HTML containing markup, PHP containing logic). For instance, template.tpl.html. He also had some good tips for using Smarty.


After that session, it was time for lunch. Say what you want about conferences that attempt to provide everything on-site (more expensive, limits your options), but the fully catered thing was definitely nice. Being called "sir" felt a bit awkward, but aside from that the food was great, and it was nice to meet and greet others in attendance without having to decide where to eat, which is usually the most time consuming part of attending any conference.

Advanced Flash:

After lunch, I sat in on the Advanced Flash session taught by Paul Yuen. Paul is the visual designer for Gospel Communications, and was the guy who did the 2005 and 2006 sites for Gospelcon. When I say this guy is a hard-core Flash guru, that is a bit of an understatement. All of his presentation slides had been done in Flash, as opposed to PowerPoint or Keynote. He even did all the printed materials for this year's conference using Flash: t-shirts, name-tags etc. Plus, he is a certified with Macromedia, which means he really knows his Flash stuff.

Session Prep:

I took a break after that, and did not attend any sessions for this time slot, because I needed to get some things together for my presentation. I had anticipated being able to use the Internet to show some of my examples, but the wireless network at the hotel was a bit skittish. I went back to my room and plugged into the ethernet jack to download my demos via FTP. I was pretty frustrated with DreamHost at this point, because the server was down when I really needed it most. It eventually came back up though, and I was able to retrieve my files just in the nick of time. I am currently looking for other hosting options, so if you have any suggestions I am all ears.

The Gospel + Web Accessibility:

My presentation went well (slides here), though there was pretty sparse attendance. I believe this was for two reasons. Firstly, how do you compete for attendance when there's another session called Pyro Web Marketing? With a title like that, even I wanted to be at the other session instead! Secondly, in my opinion the Church as a whole is always a little bit late to catch the clue-train, so accessibility has not yet become a priority.

There is just not that sense of immediacy like in the business world, as a result of Target.com being sued. The chances of someone suing a church are significantly less. Nevertheless, I made some pretty strong points, revolving around how accessibility is mandated in our calling to live as Christians, and how our code needs to reflect that. Since my session was during the last time-slot of the day, most attendees stuck around afterward for an impromptu crash-course in CSS snafus.

Dinner, etc:

The dinner was exceptionally well catered, with a buffet style serving of pork tenderloin, steak, shrimp, chicken and vegetables. It was in a restaurant part of the hotel decked out in an island theme, complete with tiki torches and bamboo gazebos with thatched roofing. Over dinner, I was able to talk with James Finley about his studies as a Christian student at a secular liberal arts college. We also got to kick it with the close-knit group of PHP programmers from Gospel Communications and Agathon Group. It was nice to hear that they appreciate and agree with the vision of Godbit and read our RSS.

After dinner we all just sort of hung out in the commons area. I was able to pick Joel's brain about some PHP / content management questions. I also asked him his opinion of Ruby on Rails (the jury is still out). For some reason, whenever I meet a programmer who really loves a particular language, I always want to see what they think of the current framework fads. Joel also pointed out to me the author / artist of Reverend Fun, as well as the guy who was the main programmer of Bible Gateway. It was neat to be able to meet the guys behind sites I visit and use on a weekly basis.

I also saw a printed map sampling from Mark Furaus of WorldMap.org, showing Evangelical Christianity represented by city and population around the globe. Believe me when I say that their website does not really do justice to their physical product. I was very impressed by their map (approx. 5x3 feet), and intend on buying one when I get home. I was offered one for free, but unfortunately have no way to transport it on a plane without it getting damaged. If you have an organization related to international missions, be sure to buy one of these, because it makes very apparent those areas which have heard the good news, and those for which much effort is still required.

Day number 3

MySQL Zero to Sixty:

The first session I attended was MySQL Zero to Sixty with Paul Kulp. The crux of his presentation was addressing scalability. He showed some instances in which mini-queries could be done in several milliseconds, but if those were scaled to thousands of separate queries for a page with a massive grid of tabular data, it would crush the database. In such instances you would of course want to make a single request for multiple data entries, and then return it to the browser. He gave a worst case scenario in which scaling had not been addressed, resulting in a potential result set totaling several terabytes. It was cool to see how these server-side guys handle all the traffic that Bible Gateway deals with on a daily basis.

The User is Always Right:

Steve Mulder is with a company called Molecular, located in Boston. They do consulting for a variety of businesses, involving user research and marketing strategies. His presentation covered how to use personas in making decisions about how to build a site. A persona is just that - a personification of a set of user demographics. He gave the example of "Francis the first-time home buyer." They had created a mock profile complete with her photo, credit rating, favorite TV shows, level of experience in home buying, and the fact she uses an iMac.

He also gave a hilarious example of a site selling women's makeup, geared towards a guy making a purchase for his wife. The categories had been changed from brand names to: "face paint, nail paint, spackle, etc." I would highly encourage anyone interested in user profiling for marketing to check out his book entitled The User is Always Right, over at the website Practical Personas. It is published by New Riders, who have also done a few of Eric Meyer's CSS books.


I stayed after at the User is Always Right session and re-capped my accessibility presentation to a gentleman who had worked with blind and deaf children at one of his previous jobs. He was interested in my topic, but had not been able to attend because he went to part two of the Pyro Web Marketing session, since he had already attended part one.

In the dining area, Paul Yuen and I discussed how accessibility relates to search engine optimization. While Flash 8 now has screen reader compatibility built-in, provided the designer makes use of it, he was curious how to get search engines to index content contained in Flash. I suggested first building out a fully functioning, branded HTML site. Then, the index page could essentially be contained within a noscript tag, and the Flash site written to the DOM dynamically via JavaScript. This way, if JS and Flash are both enabled / installed, the user never leaves the Flash-based index page which contains all the content. Google, which is essentially a blind user, will still index the site through valid links, and will link directly to relevant pages in search results.

Pay Per Click:

In this session, Mark Stedman of Latin America Mission covered some ways to optimize your use of pay per click Google ads. He made the point that the more specific you can be, while still being relevant to what your site actually entails, the better the ratio is between ad impressions vs. click-through visitors. For instance, instead of using a broad keyword, you can save money by having a more specific modifier with it. He gave the example of using the term "missions," when there are also missions in outer space. In that case, adding a modifier would increase relevancy, such as "international missions," which would be more likely to pertain to missionary work. Overall, it was very informative since I have never looked into any types of pay-based advertisement. Unfortunately his session was cut a bit short, due to Google taking their pay per click service offline for maintenance, when Mark was attempting to show how to use it.

Impromptu Textpattern:

Again, I skipped out on the day's third session time-slot, to do an unplanned demonstration of how Textpattern works for Jonathan Swift. Initially, we were talking about choosing funny domain names because of squatters sitting on normal sounding ones. His site is called Pyrophone, which refers to a type of organ that was powered by compressed air from a furnace. He liked the name because it reflects being an "instrument of fire," or an agent of the Holy Spirit. His specific vision is to help missionaries, by providing them with sites to keep in touch with their home congregations.

Then we got to talking about various CMS options that would be affordable for missionaries to use, and he mentioned having recently installed Textpattern. This was an interesting coincidence, considering I am currently co-authoring a book about it. So, we just grabbed a spot in the commons area and I showed him how the TXP syntax work, and how it is basically just XML that can be used for conditional logic. After an hour of demonstrating the flexibility of the system, he said that I had made a convert out of him, as opposed to the usual suspects of Movable Type or WordPress.

Visual Design Cookbook:

This session was put on by Warren Kramer and Paul Yuen, who both work for Gospel Communications. They covered the basic uses of lines, whether those be horizontal rules in HTML, graphical lines in print, zig-zags / waves, or even just a line of text. They also showed basic uses of shapes, like triangles as arrows, circles as bullet points, etc. They touched briefly on the uses of typography. They laid out some good ground rules, such as never use all upper-case script fonts, because nobody writes like that (script being one that looks like calligraphy handwriting).

They also covered texture and balance, using effects sparingly, but also knowing when to break with convention to add more visual emphasis to your message. For instance, you could use larger text for a pull-quote. Then they covered value, the relative lightness or darkness of objects. They mentioned wise use of color to accentuate things instead of ruining the design with over saturation, also considering temperatures of varying warmth or coolness.

The last part of the session was Paul designing a layout live in Photoshop, with Warren commenting on it as he saw it happening, according to the principles they had covered in the initial phase. At my request, they also plugged Godbit, so in return I am going to mention their service, which they have dubbed Church Websites Suck. They will do free church website design, provided that you agree to host with them for a minimum of one year.

Dinner, etc:

Dinner was exceptional, per the usual. We generally just cut loose and sighed a breath of relief now that all of our respective sessions were over. We also heard some stand-up from Nick Arnette, a Christian comedian who had come from Los Angeles. He had some pretty funny material, while keeping it clean. It was quite entertaining, especially his bit on working the word "dude" into various international contexts, fielding requests for countries from the crowd.

After the conference officially concluded, I went to Giordano's for authentic Chicago pizza with Larry Tomlinson, Mark Stedman and Scott Johnson. As mentioned previously, Larry was my roommate at the conference. Mark had given the presentation on purchasing Google ad-words, and works for Latin America Mission in Florida. Scott was Mark's coworker at Latin American Mission, but now lives in Utah and works for Living Hope Ministries as a video producer.


Even having not attended the full duration of the conference, I can say with confidence that it was well worth it. I hope to go again in 2007, and possibly do some sort of CSS workshop, in the same vein as the Advanced MySQL and PHP sessions this year. Now that they have opened it up to more than just "alliance ministries," hopefully we'll see more people attend in the future. Also, be sure to keep an eye on the Gospelcon site for the session podcasts.