Meet Felix

Doing a photo shoot can be tricky. Setting up the location, finding the props, getting the lighting right, etc, can be time consuming and sometimes expensive. If you want a specific picture of an object in a particular setting, you usually need to get that object, set it up, light it, and photograph it.

So I’m finding a new beta from Adobe quite interesting. Called Project Felix, it lets you assemble 3D objects and render them into a Photoshop file. I’ve been having a play with it and it’s pretty simple to use, and has lots of potential.  Just drag objects from the library into the canvas, use the move, zoom and rotate tools to assemble the scene just the way you like it, then render as a finished image. Export that image into Photoshop as a PSD file and keep working on it.  Lots of possibilities.

Check the minimum system requirements though… the rendering process can be pretty computationally intensive. Rendering even a relatively simple image on my MacBook Air with an i7 processor took quite a l-o-n-g time. Still, it got there in the end.

Check it out at http://www.adobe.com/au/products/project-felix.html

A Fascination with Migration Information

Warning! Geek talk ahead.  If you aren’t into the techie stuff, you may want to skip this post…

A few people asked me about what themes, widgets and plugins I decided to use on the new blog site, so I thought I’d just give a quick rundown of what I’m using, bearing in mind that it’s only been a few days and it’s almost inevitable I’m likely to continue changing my mind about a few more things. One the whole though, I think I’ve got the blog running mostly the way I want. For now anyway.

The site is running the latest version of WordPress (currently 2.9.1) and PHP5.  It’s hosted with GoDaddy using their Hosted WordPress plan running on a Linux server.  The domain name www.chrisbetcher.com is managing the actual DNS records for the site, but there are other domain names such as www.betchablog.com and www.betchablog.net that simply forward to it.  The benefit of that is that there are several paths to get to the real site.  These domain addresses used to point to the old Edublogs page, but I’ve just redirected them all to the new page.

The RSS feeds for both posts and comments have been created using Feedburner. The FD Feedburner Plugin was used to map all the hardcoded WordPress RSS feed links to the Google-hosted Feedburner feeds.  The beauty of this system is that I just need to go to Feedburner and change the real feed URL for the new site and Feedburner remaps all the feeds to their correct location. This means that anyone who subscribed to the old site using Feedburner (which should have been pretty much everyone, since I set it up quite a while ago) will get an uninterrupted flow of RSS feeds from the new site. That was important to me, and one of the things that I was very conscious of getting right in the move to a new server.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I’ve tried to make every decision about the new site in light of providing the best user experience for readers.  As well as trying to keep things simple and easy to navigate, I’ve also tried to choose plugin features that help improve functionality and make it easier to interact with the content.

Here’s a list of some the other plugins I’m using and a short rundown of what they do…

  • Akismet is the industry standard for managing comment spam.  It matches blog comments against a massive database of known spammers and pretty accurately targets any comments that look spam-like. I used to moderate all comments, but I expect that Akismet will do a good enough job of looking after spam that I’ve removed comment moderation to provide a better experience for users.
  • Blubrry PowerPress is an advanced podcasting tool for WordPress.  It allows media files to be added to any post, either as standalone media inclusions or as part of a proper podcast feed.  It integrates directly with iTunes and other podcasting libraries, and does a great job of integrating media into a blog.  You’ll find the occasional Best of Betchablog post with an audio version delivered by this plugin.
  • Comment Ratings adds the ability of all blog users to rate any blog comment using simple like/dislike buttons.  At the end of every comment are little thumbs-up or thumbs-down icons where participants can have their say and vote for what constitutes a good (or bad) comment.
  • Creative Commons Configurator adds a text block containing the relevant CC information at the end of every post, as well as to the RSS feed.  It also adds the necessary machine readable code to the blog headers so that search engines can clearly identify the blog content as being licensed under Creative Commons.  I really like this one.
  • Flickr Widget adds a widget for including an RSS feed of my latest Flickr photos.  I’m in two minds about this one, and whether I should actually leave it there or not. It doesn’t look all that elegant, and really, does anyone other than me care whether I have my photos on the page or not.  I may take it off…  I haven’t decided yet.
  • Google XML Sitemap optimises the code for the blog by adding XML sitemap data to make it easier for search engines to find the site content and keep it regularly spidered.  Users will never see any obvious evidence of this one, but the site should get picked up in searches much more reliably.
  • PageLinksTo adds a blog feature I’ve wanted for a while. I was after a page menu tab on the blog which would take you to my wiki hosted at Wikispaces, but a standard WordPress blog can only have page tabs that point to internal pages. By adding this plugin, the page menu tabs can now point to any URL, including external ones.
  • Popularity Contest generates the list in the sidebar that ranks the popularity of content, creating a list of the top posts. It uses a definable scoring system to rank content and can take into account the number of page views, number of comments, number of permalinks and trackbacks, etc to determine overall popularity.  It also give a ton of useful statistics in the dashboard.
  • Search Everything modifies the code behind the standard WordPress search tool, making it more accurate and letting me decide what gets searched and what doesn’t.  It makes the search work much better.
  • Sociable adds a row of user-definable icons at the end of each post to provide one-click access to social services like Delicious, Digg, Diigo, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and so on, as well as some more standard functions like Print, Email and PDF.  It helps people share things they enjoyed reading.
  • Subscribe to Comments adds the ability for a visitor to subscribe to a particular comment feed so they can monitor the activity in any threads they take part in.
  • Ultimate Google Analytics adds Google Analytics to the site.  It tracks it all in the background, so that I can get all sorts of interesting usage statistics without inflicted it on readers.  I did include a few basic stats in the main sidebar using Clustmaps, Sitemeter and some basic subscription and Twitter stats, but these are well below the fold and much less intrusive than they were at the last site. I do like looking at the stats and find them quite fascinating. You can’t get much more detail than what Analytics offers!
  • WP Favicon is just a nice simple way to add a custom favicon to a WordPress blog.  You’ll notice it in front of the URL in the address bar.  It also get included in any tabs in the browser, making it easier to identify the site from amongst a series of inactive browser tabs.
  • WPTouch adds code to a WordPress site that helps it be identified by mobile devices. If a mobile browser is detected trying to access the site, this plugin will deliver a mobile-optimised version of the blog. The site now looks really functional, readable and usable on a mobile device… just try loading the blog in Safari on an iPhone.  It looks pretty good I think!
  • YARPP, or Yet Another Related Posts Plugin, adds a list of related blogposts to the end of each post.  It’s helpful if you’ve read something and want to see other stuff I’ve written that may be related to it. I’m still fine tuning how it arrives at its recommendations, but it’s a nice way to encourage people to discover older content that’s been buried over time.

Hopefully, this combination will work nicely together to help make it a better overall experience for readers.

Finally, the theme I’ve chosen is a nice simple one called Librio.  It’s got a bit of a Mac-ish look to it, and it adds a very obvious search bar and RSS link right at the top of the page.  It’s possibly a bit plain, but I think it has a very clean appearance.  Perhaps I’m just really fussy, but I looked at many, many themes for the new blog and although they all had some nice features, I found it incredibly difficult finding a theme that had everything I liked.  Some would have a wrong font (I really don’t like serif-based fonts online), or the text was too small, or the spacing of the text in the widgets was too big or too small, or the graphics were too garish, or not garish enough.  It was harder than you might expect trying to find a theme that had a relatively wide main text area – so many WP blog themes have a too-narrow column for the main text, making it hard to include graphics the way I like to include them. There were other considerations too, such as how comments were displayed, how colour was used in repeating elemants, and so on.

If I was better at CSS I could just take something close and hack it to suit but I really didn’t have the inclination for that at the moment.  Maybe something to play with later.  For now, this one will do.  It errs on the plain side, I know, but it makes it easy to see what’s what.

Anyway, that, it for now.  I’m sure I haven’t finished with it, but it’s functional, reasonably sharp looking and it does what I want.  The goal was to make it a better user experience, both at the actual website, via the RSS feeds and on mobile, and I think it does that,

OK, geekfest over.  We will now resume normal programming…

Image: ‘Stereotyping
http://www.flickr.com/photos/23701579@N00/1347052621

PS: Technorati, this is for you. 7PDMG5YASHWK

Less is More

Sometimes it’s good to stop and take stock. To think about getting rid of some of the clutter that we allow to build up.

You may recall that I was thinking about shifting my blog to a new server and running a self hosted WordPress blog. Well, I had intended to think about it a little before I did anything drastic (I think that’s called procrastination), but once you get started on these things it all begins to snowball so you may as well just get on with it.  So here we are… the new online home for Betchablog.

If you’re reading this in an RSS reader then you probably won’t even notice a change (at least I hope not! Moving the old RSS feeds across to a new server was something that always put me off making the move, but I think I worked it out). I used Google Forms to ask for some feedback about the old blog and 41 people took the time to respond with some really useful comments. (That Google Forms is just so darn useful!)  It’s good to occasionally stop and take stock of some of the things we do – and although I’ve never really been one for focus groups or being led by the popular vote, it was good to get some feedback from others and see things from their perspective.

The results of the survey were interesting and essentially confirmed some of what I had been thinking myself… the previous site was ok, but it was a bit bland, the sidebars were a bit cluttered and it was confusing to find stuff. Regarding the look of the last site, survey respondents used words like “ugly”, “unneccesary”, “visual clutter”, “text-book-look”, “convoluted”, “a bit loud” and so on, but the best one of all was “the sidebars represent Web 2.0 gone crazy!”

Somewhat more encouraging were the number of people who remarked that they enjoyed the quality of the writing and the content and confirmed this as the real reason they were interested in the blog in the first place.  One commenter said “I come for the content, not all the bells and whistles”, and I thought to myself “Good point! I should be blogging for the content and not all the bells and whistles!”

It’s funny how we can often do things, not because we particularly need them, but just because we can.  Most of the widgets and visual clutter on the old blog was there because… well, because they could be!  The great architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe probably said it best with his famous phrase “Less is More”. In the same way that music needs rests and pages need whitespace, sometimes the things we do can be more effective by what we don’t include. From my own web browsing experience, I know how annoying it can be when you arrive on a site and it takes several minutes just to work out were the actual content is. So that was the first goal for the new site; to simplify it a bit and get rid of some of the stuff that really didn’t need to be there.

The second thing that mattered to me was improving the site functionality.  The last site had just grown organically, and although it helped me learn a lot about blogs and feeds and user interface issues and writing and layout and so on, I wanted to take some of those lessons and use them in the new blog.  I wanted the new blog to provide better functionality for anyone who came to it, with a simple navigation and easy access to features like better search tools, improved RSS feeds, a mobile version of the site, and clearer ways to actually find what’s worth reading here.

And thirdly, there is a whole lot of interesting stuff that can be done with WordPress when you have control over the server. Actually, it becomes an exercise in restraint… there are thousands of plugins and widgets and themes and things that can be added to WordPress, but I think the trick is to find those things that focus on improving the user experience and to resist the temptation to add them simply “because I can”.  I can definitely do more cool stuff on the new server than I could on the old server, but ironically, I’ve tried to exercise more restraint about what gets included. When I was thinking about moving to my own site I had all these ideas about what I might include, addition features, funky graphics and so on… but really, I think it’s better if it’s kept simple. It’s just so easy to get carried away!

And although it’s just a blog, it’s actually been a bit of a life lesson.

Anyway, I hope you like the new site.  If you have any thoughts on it just drop them in the comments. If you’re more of an RSS type and rarely ever visit the actual site, I’d love to know that the feeds are working for you. I plan to write another post soon with a bit of technical info about the sorts of plugins and options I have used, just in case you’re interested in that sort of thing.

Image: ‘stones
http://www.flickr.com/photos/24532907@N06/3251916229

The WordPress Tango

For a few years now, this blog has been an important place for me to do my “thinking out loud”, and in the process it’s been extremely rewarding to have been able to share some of that public pondering with others.  I’ve learned a great deal from the whole blogging experience and although the frequency of posting has sometimes varied with life’s little circumstances, on the whole it’s been wonderful to evolve this blog as my own little place in cyberspace.

I have absolutely no intention of changing the role of this blog as a place to think about, share and discuss ideas that interest me.  Despite the rise of Twitter and other microblogging services, there’s a lot I can’t say in 140 characters so I plan to be writing here for quite a while yet.

The theme for this blog has been pretty much the same since I started it here on Edublogs.  Almost from day one, I chose the Andreas theme, a WordPress theme designed by the incredible Andreas Viklund because it has a number of design features that are important to me – two sidebars and an “elastic” resizing that stretches the main column to fit any size browser window. It has the usual ability to embed various widgets and feeds, but most blog themes can manage that.  And while it has a few customisation options for changing colours and so on, visually it’s a pretty basic sort of theme.  Some might even say it’s a bit boring. I’ve often thought about changing it, but I’m wary of just swapping themes at random and besides, although Edublogs may offer 100 different themes there’s only handful that I actually like.

Although I’ve said many times that I blog mainly for myself, it’s still nice to think that there are readers out there who actually spend time reading this stuff. While it might be fun to just swap themes whenever the mood strikes me, I’m sure it would be a little off-putting for visitors if the site looked different every time they dropped by. For me, providing some visual consistency with the aim of building readership has been more important than simply swapping blog themes for my own amusement when I’m bored, even though I am often tempted to.

Lately though, I am really getting itchy feet to do a site overhaul.  There are some really interesting WordPress themes and plugins around at the moment, and I’m feeling the need to take advantage of them.  Of course, this may necessitate a move from the legendary Edublogs service to a self hosted WordPress server.  That makes it quite an emotional decision, because both James and Sue have been awesome in what they’ve offered to the global blogging community over the last few years.  They have both been personally very helpful to me when I’ve had requests, needed assistance or I’ve just been able to hang out with them.  The thought of not having my blog running on the Edublogs servers is hard to imagine.

But in the last few months I’ve had to get a bit of WordPress backend experience.  We installed our own WPMU server at school after Edublogs placed restrictions on non-supporter blogs, and to be honest, managing the server has been really quite straightforward.  It took a bit of fiddling to get some of the RSS running just the way I wanted, but once it’s done it works just fine.  I also helped my partner Linda set up her new self hosted blog and was quite stunned at the additional power and options she got from it.

The other thing I did which helped me understand how this stuff works was to install WordPress locally on my MacBook Pro.  It’s quite straightforward and takes advantage of the super-useful MAMP stack, a neat little bundle of tools that, with one easy click, runs Apache, MySQL and PHP on the machine, effectively turning it from a regular old laptop into a powerful web server capable of delivering server-side applications like WordPress and Moodle.  By running MAMP and installing the WordPress code, I now have a fully functioning WordPress server on my laptop that lets me experiment and play with all sorts of themes and plugins from WordPress.org.  If you’re even only slightly technical, you should find it very easy to do, and extremely worthwhile.

If I do make the move to a self-hosted WordPress installation, the other thing I haven’t really worked out is how to handle the subscribers feeds.  The blogs currently has nearly 1200 subscribers and I’d rather not just lose them and start again.  I do redirect my subscription feeds through Feedburner, so it may be as simple as just telling Feedburner what the new site URL is.  Then again, it might not be that simple either.  I need to take a closer look at how that stuff works.

Either way, moving from Edublogs to a new server, moving from the current blog design to a new one, are all decisions that I’m still wrangling with. It’s easier to just leave things as they are, but perhaps it’s time for a change.

So I’d really appreciate your thoughts… assuming I can look after all the technical backend stuff to get the same or more functionality from the blog, but with a nice fresh clean theme, what do you think? Should I make the change?  Do you even care?  If you could take a moment to do this quick survey I’d really appreciate it.

And thanks for being a reader!

Image: ‘Do you Tango? [snag]
http://www.flickr.com/photos/36613169@N00/378823