Switching to WordPress - mjcpk web design and development

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Switching to WordPress

Friday, August 28th, 2009

As of today I have switched my blog to WordPress. I had writen my own blog engine that was working very well but I needed a few more featured and I really didn’t have the time to write them, test them and support them.

There are lots of SEO benefits to switching to WordPress and it is a lot easier to add to and maintain.

So now I have all the things that people expect these days from a blog like RSS, themes, plugins and lots more besides.

The change over process has been a bit of a rush and at the moment the older posts all have today’s date and have yet to be categorised but I hope to sort that out when I have a free moment.

3D – A gimmick in search of a killer app.

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

I got a new computer a year and a half ago and it came with a fast multi-core processor and a fancy 3D graphics card. I was excited by the prospect of some serious 3D goodness and I wasn’t disappointed. Compiz did all sorts of whizzy and imoressive things. However, after my excitement had died down and I settled in to do some real work I ended up turning off Compiz because it offered not real productivity gains and was chewing up resources just looking pretty.

3D Filesystem

Not being a gamer I have no real use for my fancy 3D card other than my occasional renderings using Blender. So for me, and many other users, 3D is a gimmick in search of a practical use. It needs a killer app or apps that make use of the 3D to do something other than make things look pretty.

What about a 3D file manager? With a conventional 2D file manager it is often difficult to get an good impression of file system usage and the layout of directories. Using a 3D representation it would be easy to get an overview of the file system whilst also being able to inspect things more closely.

My suggestion, and I’m sure there are other equally valid choices, would be to see the file system as a city (or even a country) where directories could be at first displayed as districts, then sub-districts, housing estates, blocks of flats and down to individual flats and houses. This would enable the user to fly around the file system and to see, at a glance, how space is distributed. Bigger directories would be relatively bigger houses, buildings or districts. It would also be possible to see sub-directories within a number of directories at the same time as you could be looking at a number of buildings within a sub-district and see the flats within them.

Using could coding it would be easy to see it a directory contains many small files or just a one or a few big ones, for example. There are also a number of ways that the view could be displayed depending on the depth of the file system. Deep file systems could start at a country or even world map and go down to individual rooms withing flats or houses if necessary. The trick is to use the 3D experience to make it intuitive for a user to navigate and to get information that he or she wouldn’t be able to easily get from a 2D representation.

There must be many ways where 3D can be used to make information more readily accessible in a way that works well fo0r our brains. We just need to think outside of the box and stop thinking of 3D as something to make things pretty. Afterall we live in a 3D world and interact with things daily based on their position within three dimensions so it can be that hard to think of ways of using that to display data meaningfully.

Banking in the stoneage

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

The worlds banks can send money round the globe faster than I can get to work in the morning, can track billions of pounds worth of deposits down to the penny and they do all of this with expensive computer systems maintained by highly paid technical staff.

With this in mind can anyone tell me why it should cost £39 whenever a direct debit isn’t paid due to lack of funds? The banks cannot, by law, levy punitive fees so the £39 (that I pay, other banks may be more or less) is what they claim is the actually cost of dealing with my unpaid bill. Given that all they do is not pay out some money and send me a letter to tell me this their claim seems a little over exaggerated. This has been quite a contentious issue here in the UK.

Leaving aside the debate on the fairness of bank fees I find it surprising that we can’t do something as simple as adding conditional transactions to our accounts. I can set up direct debits, standing orders and transfer money to other accounts, even setting the date on which all of these happen but I can’t tell them to only do it if there is enough money in the account.

What I would like to do is this:

If ( $balance > $amount )
Bank_transfer( $recipient, $amount )

Quite simple, if there is enough money in the account the bill gets paid and if not nothing happens. No nasty letters required and not need to charge me a fortune.

The computing overhead has got to be pretty minimal as they must already be running their own similar conditionals on automated transactions that would be replaced by user generated ones.

In this current world of financial uncertainty and daily stories of fraud and mismanagement of funds maybe a bank that focused on service and reliability for then regular account holders might be able to do quite well. Until that point I will just have to continue frantically cancelling direct debits and standing orders when I realise a client hasn’t paid me on time and there’s no money in my account ( this happens all too frequently).

Printing with Firebug

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

I use firebug firefox plugin for a number of web design/development related tasks but there is also one general purpose use that I have found for it.

I read a lot of blogs to keep up with news, views and to learn new things about web design/ web development and computing in general. I, like many people, don’t like to read long documents on the screen so I often print them out to read in bed or on a train journey.

Some blogs are well prepared for this and have a printer friendly version which strips out the extraneous stuff and formats things nicely for the printer. This avoids the annoyance of having the ends of lines cut off. However, other blogs don’t offer this feature and the layout of the blog along with the excessive advertising everywhere makes printing them out problematic.

So my solution is to use the ‘Inspect’ feature in firebug to select elements on the page ( the body tag for example ) and I can then edit the CSS ( Cascading Style Sheet ) to lay things out how I want. Whilst this may sound complicated to those who don’t know CSS or anything about Web Design in fact there is only one bit of CSS you really need to know:

Width: 800px;

To use it I click ‘Inspect’ in firebug and then on the element I want on the page ( the blue outlines help me locate what I want ). Usually the only element I need to worry about is the one containing the body text of the article. By adding width: 800px; into the CSS side pane for this element I am ensuring that the lines aren’t cut off by the printer.

The only other modifications I use are to remove any navigation or advert columns. To do this I click on ‘Inspect’ again and select the column in question. Then I right click on the highlighted code on the right in Firebug and select delete element from the context menu and the column is removed instantly. You can do this for any element you like: large headers, unwanted images, google adwords blocks etc.

If you’re feeling adventurous you could even rewrite the CSS to produce a black and white text only ink friendly version.

The changes you make don’t persist and will be gone next time you reload the website. If there is a website that you visit often that you wish to print articles from then you could use greasemonkey and create a script to run every time you visit. Does anyone have any other user CSS solutions?

Let’s have a little restraint

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

The world of internet browsers has been getting a little crowded of late. Microsoft has updated Internet Explorer for the first time in six years and is now talking about building on that with another new version. Google has released their Chrome browser which adds another open source offering to the mix. Furthermore, as they are a brand well known and respected beyond the technical elite there is a good chance of a large uptake. Mozilla have set records with the number of downloads of Firefox 3 whilst Apple have spread onto the Windows platform with a version of Safari. Last, but not least we have a sprinkling of other offerings from the all rounder Opera to the more specialist Flock.

With all this activity the shouts of angry web designers and developers have grown louder as they ask: ‘why do we have to still support Internet Explorer 6?’. IE6 has been a pain in the rear for web professionals for some time. It doesn’t comply with standards, some of its functionality is fundamentally broken while it also relies on propriety methods for some features. From a users perspective is has also been beset with numerous security issues and vulnerabilities which require regular patching.

The response of many web designers/developers is to boycott IE6 entirely. Now that users have plenty of other options they feel justified in stating, quite openly on their websites, that they do not support IE6 and if the site doesn’t render correctly in that browser then that is Microsoft’s problem and users should either contact Microsoft or, ideally, download a different ( and therefore better ) browser. Some have even gone further and have added code to their sites that either redirects users to a separate page to download a new browser or even crashes IE6 whilst leaving other browsers untouched.

Whilst I sympathise with these sentiments, having struggled many times with the rendering in IE6 myself, I think that the approach taken has been a little too extreme. What I would advocate is a more measured solution. If we all decide that we would like to stop supporting IE6 after a certain date then we can inform the users that it is now deprecated and tell them exactly when support will end. This allows users a period of time to investigate alternatives and prepare for the change-over. It also raises awareness amongst the userbase without resorting to heavy handed tactics and insulting the users for their choice ( or lack thereof ) of browser. Tactics like that will really only alienate users which translate to our clients customers.

So, all in all, it makes good business sense whilst also being the friendly option to gradually phase out IE6 support and keep users happy yet informed throughout the process. So hopefully we’ll soon be free of creating hacky code just to work around the inadequacies of a defunct browser and our users will be all the more educated for the experience.

It’s all about usability

Monday, July 7th, 2008

I was recently sorting something out on a clients computer that was running Vista. I know Windows and I knew what I wanted to do but I didn’t know where it was hidden on Vista. I got the job done in the end but it took far longer than it should have done even though I knew what I was doing.

This got me thinking about computers in general and the problems people have. No matter what level of experience they have, the user (usually) knows what they want to achieve but what they often lack is the ability to communicate that to the computer.

For my mind the next big step in computing is all about usability. It is about how we interface with the computer and get it to do what we want. Pointing and clicking on little tabs and buttons is so last century. While we’re not quite at the Star Trek talk to your computer stage we have the technology to do so much more with user interfaces than we actually do. As a result the average user is utilising a tiny percentage of their computers power and are unable to use some of its most useful features.

It is at this point that people usually start pointing towards education and say that we must teach users more about their computers and what they can do. However, I think that is the wrong approach. As I stated before users, more often than not, know what they would like to do but they just don’t know how to get the computer to actually do it. Before teaching users all about the fancy things their computer can do we need to be providing applications that can understand what the user wants. Computers are a tool, you don’t need a degree or to read a help page to use a hammer and computers shouldn’t be any different.

Concept Design

Monday, May 5th, 2008

I have always been more of an ideas man than a practical one. I create web pages, I write code, I play music and a number of other things but I also have ideas outside of my core areas of expertise that I will never have a chance to work on let alone implement.

It is to this end that I decided that another use for this blog will be for me to expound my latest ideas and theories and leave it to the rest of the world to do with it as they please.

There is very little that I can genuinely be considered an expert of so all of my opinions are merely that. What I would like to do is open a dialogue with other interested parties and especially those with the relevant expert knowledge and to see what we can make of these ideas, if anything.

If I was feeling generous I might call myself a concept designer or a trouble shooter and that really describes what I would like to offer here: a generalist view of a problem from a different angle with the solutions that suggest themselves to me.

For the most part I will be talking about technology and computing in particular because those are the areas I find myself looking at mostly these days and are, therefore, more likely to provide inspiration to me. So hopefully I will get to hear your opinions on one of my ideas soon!

Coming out of the shadows

Saturday, April 26th, 2008

I have always had what I called a healthy paranoia when it comes to the web. I was never really very happy putting personal details about myself online despite everyone else around me being more than content to put their names, ages, photos, life stories and whatever else on any number of social networking sites, forums and blogs.

I decided that lurking in the shadows of the internet was the best thing to preserve my privacy and safety but it also prevented me from becoming involved in a lot of exciting things. That’s why I’m writing this now. I have struck a compromise with myself. I will become involved, I will post things online but not under my own. That is why you wont find any references to my real name, location or any other personal details on this site.

The reason I have had to make this change in approach was simply that I need a platform to shamelessly promote myself in order to get work. So I have created this site to be a home to not only my portfolio but also any and all strange and exciting side projects that I come up with.

So, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry for being semi-anonymous and impersonal but I think we can all have a meaningful exchange of ideas without the need for each others life story.

The obligatory first post

Friday, April 25th, 2008

To make a start let me introduce myself. I go by the name mjcpk. The reasons for this are long and tedious but in these privacy conscious days it seems like a good idea to have a handle that doesn’t give too much away.

I am a web designer and developer and this site was designed to be not only a means to display my portfolio but also a platform for me to showcase other projects I’m involved in and to communicate with the wider world in a manageable fashion.

The Blog seems to have become the de-facto standard for these kinds of communications. From corporate CEOs to teenage girls, everyone is using them so I see no particular reason to buck the trend.

I could have used any number of ‘off the shelf’ pre-built blog solutions that are tried, tested and well thought of. The only reason I built my own was that my needs are modest and it’s a good way to demonstrate to potential clients what I can do.

So here it is! I have ironed out the obvious bugs but you can never tell exactly how things will work until you put it online and watch what happens. As it is mainly for demonstration purposes I’m not expecting it to see heavy use but with the Internet there is always a possibility that something I say will be picked up by one of the bookmarking sites and go critical. We’ll have to wait and see!