Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The story of my site

Photo: My brother's collection of computers in 2001, when he was studying computer science.

(Warning: long, and not cheerful, post; but still advise you to read it if you create or manage intellectual property and especially if you own a small site.)

When I first started my work as biology teacher, nearly 20 years ago, I was shocked by the poor quality of the textbook our students were forced to use and the absence of suitable teaching materials in Bulgarian. I decided to write a better textbook. Slowly, in the late afternoons and some evenings and weekends, I prepared a collection of biology texts.

At that time (the mid- and late 1990s), I had no idea how I would eventually publish my work. We were only beginning to use the Internet and had no opportunity to contribute to it. As for publishing on paper, it was reserved for people richer and more powerful than me. I was even inclined to recruit some more senior "co-author" one day to help publish the texts. It was another era, possibly escaping not only the experience but even the imagination of younger readers.

I gradually shared with some friends and colleagues the idea of the "textbook" and even some of its content. Among these friends was a young colleague working at another city. I'll call her by her nickname - Tanya. In late 1999, she had to prepare for an exam important for her career and complained that the official textbook was unusable. "Haven't you any more human source?" she asked. I said that some unpublished texts of mine might be what she needed. Then I downloaded my "textbook" on three floppy disks and sent them to Tanya by mail, together with the password needed to open the files.

A day before the exam, which was to take place in Sofia, Tanya called me by phone. She said she was glad that we would meet the next day. She thanked me for the files and said they had been very useful for her to prepare for the exam.

This was the last time I heard Tanya. We were awaiting her the next day but she never came. The car in which she was traveling had a fatal crash on the way to Sofia.

Tanya's death deeply saddened me. Because our last conversation was about my "textbook", I was unable to touch it for two or three months. Then, slowly, I resumed work.

At the beginning of 2003, two important things happened. First, I had a publication as a ghost author - not of parts of the "textbook" but of some other works written specifically for that purpose. And I discovered I had undergone a change of heart. My teaching texts had finally seen the light of day, but I was not at all satisfied. I no longer wanted just to publish my work to be read - at any rate and under anyone's name. At that time, I was pregnant with my first child and I thought that my texts were also my offspring and I didn't want them adopted by other people, no matter what those other people would give me in return or whether I would ever had another chance of publication.

Second, something very weird happened with a textbook written by some senior teachers. After they had given their draft chapters to the textbook editor, he showed me one of the manuscripts written by a lady I'll designate only as L. By chance, this editor was among the people who not only knew about my work but had even briefly seen the files. Imagine my surprise when I recognized, in abbreviated form, the early versions of some of my teaching texts.

It wasn't rocket science to reconstruct what had happened. Tanya had apparently either printed my files or stored them in her office computer as copies not protected by password. After her death, L., who worked at the same facility, discovered these files and naturally attributed them to Tanya. And when L. was invited to contribute to the new textbook, she decided to make use of what she had found and so to take the credit without doing too much hard work.

I explained the situation to the editor. L. soon came to Sofia, perhaps called by him. He left us two in a room to "clarify the situation". It was a very unpleasant conversation, both for me and for L., who thought she had robbed "just" a dead author and was nastily surprised to confront a living author. Though at one point she confessed to have used as sources texts found among Tanya's things, she fiercely denied any wrongdoing. She insisted only researchers who had made important discoveries could claim copyright, but not other people explaining their discoveries in educational texts. (An interesting concept, wasn't it? And in such a case, why on Earth would her name appear on the cover of the damned textbook?)

Finally, the editor told L. to somewhat change the chapters so that they would no longer be quite identical to my texts. She did this - of course, the changes were all distortions diminishing the quality of the original. Meanwhile, I decided I had had enough and I would take measures to prevent the same from happening on a larger scale.

The Internet was expanding and becoming more accessible for mere mortals like me. I wanted to publish my "textbook" online and I asked my brother George for advice how to do it best. He had emigrated to the USA five years earlier. At first, he had started work at a car repair shop, then taught himself computer science and later "officially" studied it at the Suffolk County Community College. His teachers liked him so much that when the IT department needed another programmer, they invited him. He was very happy with his new job; his American dream was coming true.

George told me that every employee of his college had the right and opportunity to upload his "personal" pages with whatever content he wished, provided it did not violate any law or rule. He said, "Just send to me your texts and figures by e-mail and I'll prepare the pages in no time." And he did. He then kept fulfilling every petty wish of mine of the type "Please put one Enter after this figure and make the font of that paragraph one point smaller". He just refused to be mentioned as Webmaster.

This way, for some time my educational pages were hosted on the Suffolk Country Community College's Web site. The URL was a mile long, but at least it ended with the suitable edu extension. I guess the faculty members are unaware to this day of the help provided by their College to a university in a little-known European country.

In late 2005, however, there were troubles with the College site. As my brother said, some absent-minded (to say the least) employee had by mistake uploaded to the Web personal data of other people. As a result, all employees' pages were closed down with the promise to be reloaded later after case-by-case examination. George said that what we needed was my own site with my own domain name. I suggested to use the opportunity for free pages given by some providers, but he said he would not allow stupid banners to flash across the top of my pages. "Just choose a domain name, and I'll register it and do the rest," he insisted. I chose my name,, to be the domain name.

Things went smoothly and happily until 2010, when my brother died.

He had managed the site and paid for it all by himself and had not bothered me with the practical aspects of this work. After all, he had planned to continue doing it for me for a long time - why not, he was in good health and nobody expected anything to happen to him. Now, I remembered I had once received an e-mail from the host-registrar company. I looked at the print, just to find out which company it was (I didn't yet know that this could be easily done by the so-called Whois search.) It was Hostgool Hosting, Inc.

I e-mailed Hostgool, telling them to contact me for everything about the site. They asked me to login. When I explained what had happened and why I did not even know the username and password, they told me to send them a scan of my brother's credit card.

I was initially unwilling to disturb my sister in-law with such a request, but how could I allow my site created by my brother - our common deed - perish? So I asked her for help. She was very kind and sent me the scan the next day. I forwarded it to Hostgool and they gave me a username and a password.

However, I wanted to transfer the site to a Bulgarian provider. I contacted a guy at one such company and he said they would manage the transfer with Hostgool. Soon after that, however, he called me and said, "Please e-mail Hostgool yourself, because they don't answer my e-mails. To transfer the domain name, Hostgool must give us a code called EPP authorization key."

After days of bombarding Hostgool with messages using every contact route available, I finally received the following message:

"Hello Maya,
Regarding transfers, you must contact from the registration e-mail (the sam e-mail used in the first registration) and by the person who's register the domain so we can give the transfer steps reqired to do the transfers.
Have a nice day
Warm Regards, Support"

I reminded them that doing what they suggested was impossible, and asked whether this was really what they meant. The answer was:

"...You can not transfere a domain not registered by yourself and nobody can transfer a domain registerd by you there is no way makes somebody to transfer a domain registerd by another one
Thank you for understanding
Warm Regards, Support"

(Original spelling and grammar is preserved.)
I complained to my new Web guru about this and he said what I actually already knew from my Web searches - that registrars (i.e. companies that register domain names) are obliged to give the EPP authorization key if their customer wishes to transfer to another registrar, but they are unwilling to do it because they lose money when you leave them, and there is very little you can do to them in case they refuse. So he bought for me another, similar domain -, and uploaded my site there. I tried to look at the things in the most positive way possible and offered candy to some friends to celebrate my brand new domain. However, I am still very angry at Hostgool (may they go bankrupt) and still miss my first domain, the one my brother registered for me (it has been sold to some gamblers and now redirects to their page).

I wished to continue my work on teaching materials, but I have not been very creative at recent time. I have added to the site a page in memory of my brother in English and in Bulgarian, but little more. Of course I am very busy, but this is hardly the sole reason. It seems that the loss not only devastated me emotionally but also had a lasting impact on my productivity. I cannot even memorize the steps in creating or editing a Web page. Every time, I have to start from A and B all over again, painfully remembering why I am doing this in the first place. Though there is also a bittersweet feeling that I am coming closer to my brother by entering his world and making awkward steps in what used to be his realm.

What lessons could be drawn from my site's story? First (as my uncle pointed out back in 2003), avoid showing unpublished work to other people. If the manuscript is not yet ready for publication, keep it in a safe place; and if it is ready, publish it for everyone to see. An unpublished text shown to selected people is in a limbo of which an unscrupulous person can take advantage.

Second, if you are publishing online, think well how to manage it. If your work can be arranged as a blog, think of the big providers such as Google (Blogger) and Wordpress. They host blogs for free and have never (so far) betrayed me. Everybody knows the warning against the "free lunch" but, in my experience, the free lunch (unlike the cheap lunch) has been quite OK. See e.g. this site for kids' songs arranged as a Wordpress blog.

If, however, you prefer (or have to) set up your own site and buy a domain, be careful whom you choose as host and registrar. Do not opt for a company bragging mainly about the low prices it offers. Sometimes these low prices can cost you too much. You may be forced either to submit to your registrar's blackmail and stay chained to it forever, or leave your domain name behind as I did. If I were using my site for business, I would lose much money from the domain name change; and even owners of non-commercial sites suffer when they are disconnected from their readers. So try to find a respectable company. See what other people have said about its services; after I got into trouble with Hostgool, I found - too late! - that other customers had complained from it (e.g. here and here). Check whether the company gives a valid street address, phone number and names of contact people. Did you mention that the above cited e-mails were signed " support team"? I think that, despite today's magic of doing business online, a company with an office in your city is to be preferred. If you feel discontent, you can at least appear there in person and make a nice offline scandal.

Last, we all who contribute to the Web must think about the future. What's the use of noble incentives like Project Gutenberg aiming to make our heritage available online, if nobody cares for works created today? Why are those who publish online, and those who read online, so careless? We entrust the fruits of our minds to small sites dependent on yearly payments, and as soon as the subscription expires (e.g. because of the author's death), the site is doomed to disappear. We need a new type of charities - digital heritage foundations, to take over and host pages of contemporary authors who cannot care for their work themselves anymore. In the meantime, it will be wise if every individual author makes some provisions about his own personal site.

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