And We’re Back In The Room


If you’re having trouble seeing the blog try clearing your browser cache.

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That’s better. My apologies; following an entry titled ‘Last Post’ with the sudden and total disappearance of this blog may, just possibly, have created a misleading impression. Don’t worry. The blogging will continue until morale improves.

The fact is I’d decided that, as I am pretty much specialising in creating and hosting WordPress sites these days, it was kind of embarrassing that my own blog was still hosted by someone else. Up to now it’s been a free WordPress.com site. This is a fantastic service if you just want to blog, but if you install WordPress on your own server you can create a really capable website. Which is exactly what I’m doing for a lot of people these days – in fact I’m on the verge of officially launching it as a business. More of this… shortly.

Anyway I hit a snag while changing the domain name I.doubt.it to point to the new version, which meant that most readers could see neither. It was a simple problem, but I’d no time to fix it because it happened just before I left on a visit to the Netherlands to see the big Heironymus Bosch exhibition. Of this too I hope to speak in the near future.

But for now, a happy Paddy’s Day to all of you in places where it’s still Paddy’s Day. Here in Ireland it’s been over for some hours, and I’m off to bed.

A New Look

A redesign!

Well, more a redecoration. I happened on a nice-looking WordPress theme and tried it out. I like that it’s distinctly more modern in feel. I’m not totally gone on the current trend to areas of dead flat colour, but it’s healthy to experiment. Expect it to change again, as I try on themes like frocks.

And in the ripe plumpness of time I will give this place a theme of my own. The design itself is not the problem – I’m practically specialising in WordPress sites these days. But with these free hosted blogs they actually charge you to use your own code. I’m already paying them to use a custom URL, so it’s beginning to seem more sensible to host the thing myself. I’d learn more too, and have a lot more flexibility.

But first I have far more important websites to build. And as I am doing them for money now I will have to make a site about making sites – a pretty darn good one, needless to say. Plus my cartoon site is so technically outdated as to be an embarrassment – HTML 4.01. It doesn’t sound like it should be so different from the latest HTML 5, but between those two versions fifteen years elapsed! The practice of Web design has undergone a sea change – from static files to dynamic databases, crude table layouts to complex cascading style sheets. Using HTML 4.01 on my own site now is like being a cordon bleu chef while secretly living on pie and chips.

So I guess this is will stay a hosted WordPress blog for a while to come… But then there hasn’t exactly been a lot of posts in the last year, has there? Or for that matter, the year before. This is a good thing, in that it means I was doing something more useful than writing without being paid. As regular(!) readers will know, that thing was an MSc. That’s all done of course (bar, excruciatingly, my final grade), so perhaps I’ll be writing a bit more often now while I decide my next move.

System Of An Upload

cms-learning-curve

When considering what Content Management System to deploy today, one question needs to be answered first.

Why not just use WordPress?

WordPress was created to be the software behind the popular blogging service¹, and only a few years ago would have been dismissed as little more than that. It was never conceived as a general-purpose content management system, but designed with the singular goal of getting a person’s words and pictures onto the Internet simply and quickly. The thing is though, that is the core functionality of content management. Do it particularly well, and you’re onto something.

Combine that solid core with the ability to add functionality and you’re really onto something. Though invented for blogging, conversion into a different sort of content management system – say a gallery, a forum, or an e-commerce store – is available through third-party plugins. There is a staggering ecosystem of (the last I checked) nearly 29,000 of these. Consequently WordPress has become the most popular CMS in the world. And not by a margin – almost by an order of magnitude. Sixty percent of all content-managed sites use WordPress, one in five out of the ten million most popular sites on the Web. I’ll give that a second to sink in.

But by the same token, using something so well-accepted feels almost like copping out. We’re students of this technology, we’re assumed to be on the cutting edge. What’s the point in being just part of the crowd? There are innumerable content management systems out there. Many use the same attractive PHP + MySQL open source formula. Others again are based on ASP, Java, Perl. Some are even designed specifically to create online galleries, which is certainly closer to what our client needs than a blog is. But while these are worth looking into, the requirements go well beyond just the presentation of images. There is a great deal of text that needs to be easily and well presented, and a dedicated gallery system might not envisage that. The client also needs to manage membership, promote upcoming events, and automatically archive past ones. We will need something extremely flexible, and WordPress scores highly there.

But it’s not alone. Joomla¹ is also designed to be extended – it seems particularly rich in image galleries – and unlike WordPress it was a general-purpose CMS right from the start. It will have to be on our shortlist, especially as the team has had some experience with it in the past. Perhaps the biggest mark against it is that, with only around 6,000 available extensions – about a fifth of what WordPress offers – it just seems less likely that the functionality to meet our client’s needs will be readily available.

Initially, my instinct was to use Drupal. Also designed from the start to be a universal content management system, this one has put even more emphasis on flexibility. So while with WordPress you can have a usable blog virtually the moment it’s installed, Drupal is at first confusing – all you have is a framework, with few features except basic database and user management. Useful functionality is added by downloading and installing “modules”, over 25,000 of which have been contributed by the community, very comparable to WordPress’s 29,000 plugins.

But while plugins and modules might sound like two ways of describing the same thing, there is an important conceptual difference. WordPress extensions are very much goal-orientated. If you wish for example to add gallery functionality to your site, you compare the galleries available and plug in the one that best suits your needs. Drupal modules are function-oriented. To add a gallery, you consider what additional functions it would actually require – image management, display, cataloguing and captioning for example, possibly also resizing and retouching – and add modules for those functions. You’ve got a huge smorgasbord of features to avail of, what you mix is up to you. Such a level of flexibility is both challenging and exciting. A much more precisely customised result should be possible with Drupal, and this is why it is considered by some to be the best CMS of all. But the learning curve is also infamously steep (see illustration). I have to admit that this is part of the attraction. I’ve built several sites based on WordPress and it presented little challenge; the Drupal one I started over two years ago is still far from finished. It definitely represents the greater learning exercise. But that is not the objective today. Even if the team could become sufficiently skilled with Drupal within the timescale, it seems likely that that time could be better spent.

Plus, with Drupal skills being relatively hard to come by, future site maintenance would inevitably be more difficult. Perhaps a clinching argument in favour of WordPress is that, as by far the most popular CMS in use today, future maintenance and improvement should not be a problem. Indeed as an open source tool with both a strong community and the backing of a commercial interest, WordPress would seem to combine the best of both worlds in terms of support.

I wish we could use all three just to see which came out best, but the postgrad workload is too heavy for that. We should be making our decision shortly. For now though, my money’s on WordPress as the one most likely to deliver the client’s requirements without excessive drama.

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¹WordPress the open source blogging software, sometimes also referred to as WordPress.org, should not be confused with WordPress.com, whose business model is the hosting of WordPress-driven websites. Both the software and the hosting service are managed by the Automattic company. An aside: Though basic WordPress.com blogging is free – this site uses it – the feature set would be too limited for our client.
²Actually they style themselves “Joomla!”, but I have a strict policy on companies that expect you to shout their names. This policy being: Shush. 

Galaxy Note With Ice Cream Sandwich 2

Some Screenshots:

Multitasking, something of an afterthought until now, becomes integral in Android 4 (Ice Cream Sandwich). Hold the home button and every app you’ve used recently is there waiting to take up from where you left off. Well I say recently; presumably it’s limited by available memory, but it seems able to hold dozens.

That “Deck of Cards” view in Google Chrome Beta for mobile, allowing you to flick through your open tabs. This is a really good idea.

Another feature of the new Chrome browser – preview of search results. Touch a small magnifying glass icon in the results and screenshots are spread out for you. It’s remarkably fast too.


In short, I love this browser! It’s not perfect yet; it crashed once, and it took me a while to coax it into allowing me to upload those screenshots. (Tip: Zoom out. When screen is magnified, WordPress can get confused about which link you’re pressing.) But I created this post using it exclusively, a real-world challenge involving complex JavaScript-heavy pages and devilish floating input panels. The only mobile browser to even barely pass before this was Nokia’s MicroB, which is essentially desktop Firefox for Linux in a mobile guise. To finally surpass this is high praise indeed – and an indictment of other mobile browsers when you consider that they’re still behind a standard Nokia set three years ago.

Anyway, the take-home here is that mobile browsing finally works right. Well done, Google.

Galaxy Note With Ice Cream Sandwich

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The latest version of Android is at last available for Samsung’s Galaxy Note!

Well, kind of. If you live in certain parts of Germany, and perhaps downwind. No one is sure when carriers will actually make it available in their location.

Tired of waiting I cracked, and installed Ice Cream Sandwich myself. A caveat then: As far as I know the version I am using is precisely the one that Samsung released to carriers in Ireland¹, but there may be more to be done with it before the networks roll it out. Particularly, while it appears to be the latest version of Android (4.0.3) complete with Samsung’s “TouchWiz” top layer, not all of the much-publicised Premium Suite seems to be present.

(The only obvious inclusion in fact is S Note, which seems to be a more capable replacement for the – already very useful – S Memo note-taking and sketching app.)

Anyway, that’s all beside the point. What’s it like!?! The initial impression might be a little disappointing – it hardly seems to have changed at all. But that’s because the front end is still Samsung’s TouchWiz customisation. Look closer and you begin to see quite the opposite – everything has changed. There hardly seems to be a single element of Android that hasn’t been either subtly or radically improved. This really is a new OS. It shows best perhaps in an improved tightness, in a great many more options and details, more fancy transitions. All in all, just a nicer overall experience.

For me of course, what matters most is the pen functions. And the good news is, my hopes are realised. That little dot appears on the screen to show it tracking the pen tip, so you know exactly where your line is going to appear when you draw. As odd as that might sound to those who haven’t tried it, this makes drawing far more spontaneous and intuitive. And the pen seems to have become even more responsive too. As you can see above, it gives you a natural, ink-like line. I can say unequivocally now that this must be the best pocket-sized electronic sketchpad you can acquire.

The wider public I think will be more impressed by something that doesn’t actually come with Ice Cream Sandwich, but requires it: The beta version of the new mobile Chrome browser. On a big screen like the Note’s you can set it to act like a desktop browser, and it can deal with complex, JavaScript-laden sites such as editing WordPress.  Clever pop-up magnifications help you choose small menu items, and it employs a metaphor that stretches back to PalmOS, the lost rival mobile system, and even all the way to the original WAP mobile browser – that of a “deck of cards”. Open tabs can be viewed almost as if they were a poker hand, and unwanted ones can be flicked away. It’s all very cute and fluidly animated, basically making other mobile browsers – even Apple’s – look crude and unfinished. And it’s still in beta.

This alone makes the upgrade something to look forward to. Hang on, it can’t be much longer now! And if you are thinking of buying a Samsung Galaxy Note, be assured that the bits that seemed rough on release are now smooth. The fabulous tablet-phone just got more fabulous.

As well as Vodafone, The Samsung Galaxy Note is now available in Ireland from 3 and O2.

 

  1. For the more technically inclined reader: The ROM I installed came from here; to flash it I used Odin, a simple process that doesn’t even require you to root.  Note that I am NOT recommending you try this yourself. It almost certainly voids your warranty, and there is a non-zero chance that it will irretrievably destroy your phone. 

A Walk In The Bog

Nesting swans

Web design with Drupal is weirdly impressionistic. Even after turning off all the parts of it I’m sure I don’t need – well, almost sure – there are still so many options and switches that I really can’t hold them all in my head. Maybe one day, but not yet.

And it’s difficult to know what consequences changing any one of them will have. It may achieve the goal of fixing an annoying behaviour, while elsewhere making half the site drop off. So progress has been a slow mix of careful testing, frantic searching to find a setting I know I saw earlier, installing several new modules in a vain attempt to gain one missing function, and just pressing buttons randomly to see what’ll happen.

All four strategies work about equally well.

So I went for a walk. Partly to take a break from this madness, but more because I’m still in mild but constant pain. To the point where I’m just annoyed with myself now. Even if I’d done nothing more than occasionally walk around a bit I wouldn’t be so prone to back injury.

My excuse all winter was that it’s just too wet outside to walk. But is it really? It doesn’t rain every day, even here. And there’s no shortage of roads worth walking, even a canal that goes right past the village. Our own canal! Built in the 19th century to drain the bog. I don’t think it works, but it teems with wildlife, and it is full of sky.

So some Desolate-West-of-Ireland pics:

One of my favourite trees
If I had a rowing boat, I wouldn’t leave it face up in the rain
Sky. For you. In the sky.

My Web Design Hell

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You know when you’ve got some news or an idea you’re dying to tell someone, but can find no one who has the faintest idea what you’re on about?

Good.

I’m trying to learn some advanced Web design. Briefly, websites were originally done pretty much like you might lay out a document or design a magazine spread. You put things in their place, they stayed there. The more modern way is to use a ‘content management system’ (CMS). With this you just design the template of your page, then upload your content. The user enters search terms, and a page containing what they want is created for them.

This is obviously a lot more complex, as your website is now essentially a computer program. But there are plenty pre-existing systems you can use. WordPress, the one behind the blog you’re reading, is a fine example.

I’m using the CMS called Drupal because it’s widely said to be the most flexible and capable of all, and if I’m going to the trouble of learning any it might as well be one I can use for other things. But lord, I bit off something chewy. It has that vast sprawling-ness so typical of popular Open Source Software projects, and the learning curve is vertiginous. It’s made out of modules; a core with all the basics built in, then countless others you can add for greater functionality (and complication). I parachute into this jungle with little idea of how to tell a tree from a tiger.

But sometimes things are hard for wholly wrong reasons. I was stuck there for weeks – well, hours spread over weeks – because something really basic didn’t work. You see I want a site I can upload cartoons to, so that people can search through them. But Drupal 7 flatly refuses to display images in search results. Imagine how annoying that would be on eBay. Of course I thought that this was my fault, that I’d just got one of its (many, many) settings wrong. But I discover eventually that it’s a bug. The only solution – or at least the only one simple enough for me to implement – was to add a whole other module that did it right.

So I have solved my first real CMS problem, and went to bed tonight with the basics of my new site actually working. Whereon I find I’m too excited about the damn thing to actually get to sleep.

Thanks for listening.