Archive for the 'Development' Category

The Digital Barn

February 12th, 2012 by Ian

When I heard a couple of guys from my local WordPress user group were arranging a conference in their native land of Barnsley, I didn’t imagine that they’d rustle up such a great group of speakers. It’s great that people are willing to turn out and support these small, grassroots events either by speaking, arranging or simply attending. Matt and Kimb created a website for The Digital Barn and it’s such a pretty, clean and tidy responsive design that I hope they get to use it again for another event. Despite looking like a couple of rather pissed-off bouncers, Matt and Kimb are actually really friendly guys and the success of The Digital Barn is a tribute to them. Nice one fellas. So what did I actually learn yesterday?

Barnsley DMC

Barnsley Digital Media Centre

Doing something is better than doing nothing

Jonny Allbut gave us a load of advice on successful freelancing and most of it quite practical. I felt, that those of us who don’t work alone would do well to remember some of this though: The importance of unclear responsibilities in a project, keeping expectations at manageable levels and the need for constant communication between all involved.

Troll IE


The Microsoft Corporation supplied one of their minions to apologize to us about the abomination that is IE6. I’ve seen MS people talk before, often under the Ubelly flag, and typically Martin Beeby gave a very smooth presentation. He, like his colleagues, is under no dillusions about IE and compared working to promote IE like “running PR for Garry Glitter”. He made it clear that things have changed, in some ways. The complacency MS displayed between IE6 and IE7 (although I think in fairness, between IE6 and IE9 might be more accurate) is a thing of the past and IE10 (and 9) is chocka with standards-friendly features like the Appcache, SVG filters and the pointer API. Martin said the browser market is at its most exciting right now not just because of the the competition between the main 5 browsers but because of the collaboration companies have shown. Obviously, things aren’t perfect but they are better than they were.

One point that I think MS people sometimes miss is that it’s one thing having comparable features in browsers, but it’s another thing all-together ensuring that these features can be implemented consistently. I think a great example of this is implementing a linear gradient with opacity using CSS3. It’s great that you can now do this in CSS but if you look at the difference between doing this in Firefox and Webkit (with a nice tidy rgba value) and IE9 (with a confusing 8-digit hex code… thing) then it shows there is still one way for IE and one way for everyone else.

Craig Burgess had a simple message: build something. Nothing is pointless if you’re enjoying yourself and even if you’re creating a website full of pictures of cats in sinks, then there is the potential to learn something which you can take away and use commercially. He stressed the need for ‘devsigners‘ and ‘designopers‘, true cross-aisle skillsets. Titles are not important, nor is using the latest tech just because it’s the new hotness. What’s important is building stuff. Here, here. Incidentally, I think his website is pretty awesome so this experimenting, building silly toys and breaking stuff approach obviously works.

Some strong, relevant advice about building for the web

The command line isn’t a natural platform for a presentation, but Tom Hudson’s talk on writing Testable PHP seemed very comfortable there. His ascii sheep made a refreshing change from Powerpoint slides. In all honesty, he lost me after a few minutes. The world of unit tests and what have you is a little bit beyond my knowledge, so I won’t make myself sound more stupid that I already am.

Bruce Lawson gave the sort of presentation that could only be given by, well, Bruce Lawson. Bruce spoke at a Speak The Web event a couple of years ago, so he’s obviously a firm friend of the grassroots conference. Back then his talk on HTML5 video really grabbed me and I’ve used those techniques many times. His work on HTML5 Doctor, in my view, has helped make it one of the best developer resources on the web so if Bruce wants to make the talk all about him, then he’s earned that right. He expressed his initial doubts about the HTML5 spec because of Hickson, the “benevolent dictator” of the spec, and his personal attitude towards humanitarian eugenics. This was unknown to me and makes for some uncomfortable reading.

Assistant technology hates ambiguity

However, his opinion that HTML5 is bad news for accessibility (a11y) has since changed. HTML5 not only ‘paves the cowpaths’ but also provides so many features for the developer to work with. The example Bruce gave of autoplay in the video tag is a good one: Of course having a video play automatically is a bad for a11y (it will shout over any screenreader), but the fact that developers can all use one technique to autoplay a video is actually good news for a11y. This is because developers of screen readers now know how to consistently disable autoplay, rather than guess one of several thousand combinations of javascript-based autoplay mechanisms a web developer may have used previously. Also, nudity.

Matt Brailsford didn’t talk about Umbraco (the CMS which he is a great proponent for) but instead Knockout.js – a javascript library to help with building applications. This was a very practical presentation and it’s probably best represented on his blog, where he gives a step-by-step guide through a number of simple examples.

Everything you know is wrong

A conference without some controversy can sometimes just be a big old congratulatory backslapping exercise, so it was left to a couple of the speakers to bring us all crashing down to earth.

What these two said struck a particular chord with me so I think I’ll write about them later in the week as what they said probably requires a bit more thought in order to do them justice. Thanks again to the Digital Barn lads (and Barnsley DMC) for giving us all such an opportunity.

SYWP June Roundup: Web Matrix and Post Formats

June 19th, 2011 by Ian

The South Yorkshire WordPress User Group (SYWP) has been going for a few months now: another group under the banner of the GIST Hub. For me it’s been very useful. Not just from a WordPress point of view (in which I have some professional interest) but it’s also a great place to share general web knowledge. A couple of our members suggested that I take notes, so I post these here and on the SYWP blog. Before I start, I’d just like to say thanks to everyone who contributed. Both talks provided some good food for thought.

Kimb’s adventures in MS WebMatrix

You read that right: Microsoft are all up in OpenSource now. Kimb (@mkjones) had tried it previously but after a great talk by @androidrobb last month, he decided to try it again. His objectives were as follows:

  • Install WordPress on a classic ASP server.
  • Do it without using XAMP etc.

MS WebMatrix logoThe WebMatrix installer seemed very ‘Microsoft’: i.e. It offered to install lots of confusing things with very ‘branding’ sounding names. He ended up installing a lot of things that he didn’t actually know what they were. Kym works in a MS-heavy environment (the NHS), so to someone who’s not played in MS-land for years, it’s a little confusing. The good news is that unlike his previous experiences, installing the web platform did not seem to meddle with existing IIS settings.

One benefit of this whole process is that for IT bods who do not trust OpenSource stuff, they’re more likely to let it through if it’s actually being installed by legit MS software.

(Around this time Jag brought up a reference to the film ‘Magnolia’. I don’t think anyone understood.)

Installing WordPress however is simple. When you choose to install WordPress it automatically prompts you to install MySQL. It will even prompt you to choose a root password, all in within the nice (well, functional) GUI. The process is smart enough that, when you come to install a second WordPress website, it knows if you’ve already got MySQL installed. You choose where on the HDD to install it and there you go. Well, not quite. You’re dumped in the browser at the first of the famous 5 minute install™ but your config.php is populated with all the right stuff. In many ways, this is a lot like the infamous scourge of the cheap web-hosts: Fantastico. Kimb suggested that you do this process twice: once on the web host and once on your local machine. As he showed us a screenshot of his environment, complete with IE7, there was a burst of excitement and jealousy from fellow NHS workers. They’re all still on IE6. What a hellish existence (Chrome 11, represent).

As I said during @AndroidRobb‘s talk, the WebMatrix database editor interface looks pretty good. No need to dip into PHPMyAdmin. With some playing about with permissions he got the db editor to talk to his external server with a similar Web Matrix setup. That said, I use the very pretty Sequel Pro, so that’s not so much of an issue for me but I think it’s pretty nice to have everything together and I guess that’s exactly what MS are going for (and what Adobe would probably go for with DW if they didn’t have the Photoshop empire to rely on).

During his talk he used the word ‘synergised’ once. He did not make coffee this time though. 7/10.

Chris Hart on Post formats

The septagon was one shape that Chris sadly did not utilise

The septagon was one shape that Chris sadly did not utilise

As Chris (@ch8rt) brought up his first slide it was clear that he’s forged a career as a designer. It featured 3 shapes: a circle, a square and a triangle. His presentation was about the new WordPress post formats, but his attitude was that of a Factory Records era Mancunian artwork revisit. Or something.

Initially post types seemed pretty cool. We’ve all been mucking around with categories for ages now, to try and theme posts depending on the type of post, ala Tumblr. Unfortunately WordPress only gives you a limited number of available post-type formats (aside, gallery, link, image, quote etc…) and this is not expandable. That’s not a very WordPress way to go about things imho. These are activated by ‘add_theme_support’ which is in our friend the functions file and at least we can choose which of these to use (so the whole load are not forced on you). Theming is simple with has_post_format(‘video’) or you can drop the post_class() in for your stylesheets to utilise.

The chosen posts formats are displayed in the ‘Posts’ admin menu, which is one nice advantage.

This direction is a little lacking and feels like a somewhat undeveloped and immature solution. People didn’t seem that keen, but it must be remembered that we’re all hardcore WordPress devs here (ha!) at #sywp but we could build systems for our clients using post formats that would be a lot easier than the whole categories nonsense we often subject people to.

He’s made his talk, shapes and all, available here.

Next month…

People were obviously very keen to talk about gallery plug-ins, which conflicts with my fear of plug-ins and love of complete control over your markup. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong. Once again, events plug-ins were mentioned. People just want to find an events plug-in that works, but other more cynical people (well, me) say sod it. Just use Eventbrite.

We also talked about the 3.2 Release Client and decided the most interesting thing was the distraction-free writer which might be aimed at iPad owning, iA Writer using Stephen Fry fans. Possibly.

People want me to give a talk, but I’m so left-field, I’d probably do it on Expression Engine. Forgive me, SYWP.

Expose in Chrome

April 17th, 2011 by Ian
Expose in Google Chrome

No more ctrl-tabbing

To enable, type about:flags into url bar and then enable Tab Overview (it’s probably the top option in Chrome 10.0.648). Alternatively, if you have less than 3 fingers or no trackpad, then try Ctrl – Cmd – T.

Via advice on Reddit

Analyticator WordPress plug-in gets some dashboard-based awesome

July 16th, 2009 by Ian

My WordPress installs have benefitted from the Google Analyticator plug-in for ages now. Partially through the lazyness of keeping my calls to the GA (Google Analytics) javascript up to date. But now there is a much better reason to use it.  They’ve built in an interface that can be embeded on your WordPress dashboard. Now I don’t have to clunk my way into the GA interface to see my stats.

Google Analyticator gets your stats in your WordPress dashboard

Google Analyticator puts stats on your WordPress dashboard

Yes, embaressing stats. But I do get the odd spike every now and again. Honest! The Google Analyticator plug-in for WordPress requires authentication with Google. This is the 2nd piece of software I’ve used which has taken advantage of the GA API in such a way; the first one being the very pretty Ego for the iPhone, which allows you to keep track of some basic stats across your sites on one convenient page.

Grab Google Analyticator for you blog now. It works with most themes.

Google SearchWiki makes me nervous

November 26th, 2008 by Ian

New Google wiki results screenshotTime for some more Google, but a bit less sarcasm. Google recently announced (and put live) their ‘SearchWiki’ feature. Tagline: “Make search your own”. This makes me uncomfortable for three reasons:

Everything Google does makes me nervous.

They are basically the search engine. What else is there? Cuil? Get outta here! Yahoo!? What! About! The! Shouting!? MSN Live search, the search engine of ‘soccer moms’ everywhere? Nah, Google are it. Even on a little site like this where I pimp myself out to the odd social network and I have readers coming in from RSS; Google brings in the bulk of traffic. Anything they change effects all webmasters. If it doesn’t, then I don’t think they’re very good webmasters. This is something that could potentially alter current SEO thinking.

Visual clutter.

Now this is being fussy, perhaps the designer in me speaking, but I think a large part of the reason why people use Google over other services is that it just does the job well without much visual clutter. Try looking at the initial Google search page compared with the Yahoo one. It’s a lot tidier. These new buttons next to every search result makes the whole thing a lot busier.

They’ll kill what I love.

Currently you only see the changes that you make using the search wiki but things can change. I find most of the best stuff on the web through services like reddit, Stumbleupon and digg (well, less so digg these days). If google decide they want the user-generated rankings to effect the global search rankings than this could effectively kill off the other guys.

Obviously it’s early days for this feature and I’ll be honest; I personally feel uncomfortable using it. If a search result isn’t in the top #10 then it’s for a reason. I don’t want to change anything. Lets see if in a few months if I’m any less reactionary about it.

The Official Google blog offers a announcement here, with an explanatory video featuring their chirpy as usual engineers.

Google Chrome: time to cut the crap

September 8th, 2008 by Ian

I know it’s early days. The new Google browser is on Version 0.2 and I’m sure more features will come, more options and less bugs. It’s a browser with potential. It’s pretty fast, it does everything you want (tabs, good javascript support, privacy modes, W3C compliant rendering through webkit) but it’s just a bloody browser. In some JS tests, it’s not even as fast as Firefox.

Unfortunately, it seems like it’s only El Reg who have noticed this.

People are calling Chrome a cloud operating system because it is a “platform for running web apps”. It renders HTML and interprets Javascript, you know, like every fucking browser made since 1995. It’s also got Google Gears built in. Great. I’ll alert Tim Berners-Lee.

They are completely right. The gushing over Chrome by otherwise insightful blogs like Techcrunch about it being a challenger to WIndows is ridiculous. I wish it was, but it’s simply not. Get a grip people!

Secrets in websites

January 13th, 2008 by Ian

This collection of web-site nosey-ness is evidence that web devs do have a sense of humour! Well, almost. Nice to see the geeks at top sites like facebook are as frustrated as I am when it comes to hacking the crappy IE box-model into working properly. Makes me feel… like a proper front-end web developer.

I wonder if I can get away with sneaking stuff like this into my clients work, as an aid to my occasional frustration.

Safari for Windows

June 11th, 2007 by Ian

This site in Safari 3 beta for windowsThere have been rumours about this floating around for a while but it just happened! As soon as Jobs ended today’s WWDC keynote (yes I did follow it live, yes I do need to get out more) a beta release of version 3 was made available, for Windows as well as OS X. I’ve tried it and to be honest, I don’t particularly like it. The interface is too clunky. However; that’s pretty irrelevant. As a developer this is great news. I can test my sites double quick to make sure they work in Safari. It even uses Mac-like font smoothing. The prospect of more developers being able to test their work thoroughly has got to be great news for Mac users. Way to go Apple.

The other good news is that OSX will support ZFS (presumably this will lead to better interaction with linux machines) and they finally got rid of that horrible brushed metal effect. It always reminded me of my primary school serving counters at lunchtime. Ugh. I used to shudder as cheap cutlery slid across the surface. Regardless, I’m thinking of doing that unspeakable, bighting the bullet and buying a Macbook so although I feel a little dirty, all this Mac progression is all good. I just got to make sure I don’t turn into one of those Mac rumour-mill fan-boy types.

Firebug. A lifesaver.

February 6th, 2007 by Ian

Firebug screenshotA colleague pretty much ordered me to install the new(-ish) Firefox plug-in Firebug onto my machine at work. Now it’s on my machine at home. Why? Because it makes my job at least twice as easy as it was before. I won’t bore you with details; I’ll just say that even alongside other helpful tools such as the Web Developer plug-in, it’s super-handy if you’re building pages, regardless of whether you’re an amateur, a pro, or someone who fools himself into thinking he’s both. The drill is basically as follows: Hit F12. Press ‘Inspect’. Hover over any element on your page and click on it to see what css values that element is using (or not using). You can even change values ‘on the fly’ and the page will update in front of your very eyes (locally at least). It’s the perfect bug-fixing tool.

I’m now going to go do a little bit of fixing elsewhere. Previously, I wouldn’t have been arsed to bother with it had Firebug not made re-understanding previously forgotten old tag soup so easy.

Get Firebug here. If not for me, then for your own sanity!