Super Mondays: Lightning Talks

It was a lot of talks on offer for this month’s Super Mondays, ranging from being a design student to creating your own automated lighting system. What came through loud and clear though was the dedication that the speakers had to their crafts (be they day jobs or insane hobbies). The level of cross-fertilisation was also apparent as speakers noted that they had given the talks at different user groups or even locations (hi, Refresh Teeside!)

Rails Girls

Fiona McDonald

Not many in the audience had heard of Rails Girls, much to Fiona McDonald’s surprise, as she’d done a local talk at a local Rails User Group not that long ago! So apparently there’s not much overlap between audiences. She talked about the Rails Girls initiative, a series of events which started in 2010 in Finland as has now taken place across the world.

As much as she’s aware of the arguments as to whether there should be female-only tech events, McDonald was impressed at how the women/girls were able to go in knowing nothing about Rails and come out two days later (the events happen over a weekend) having coded an app, using such helper tools as Bento Box.

I’m not entirely sure if I should detail all the benefits of why it’s worth getting involved (OK, a couple of the male mentors started relationships with the girls involved—and are still together today), but McDonald pointed out that we should be doing all we can to get diversity in the rails and more general tech community (she was happy that this wasn’t one of the events where she was the only girl in the room. Oh how I know that feeling).

Code Club

Kamran Chohdry

In a perfect segue from a question to McDonald about getting to girls in schools about coding, Kamran Chohdry spoke about Code Club (yet another person talking about what they do in their spare time).

Code Club has exploded as of late. Its aim is simple: to teach coding to children in primary schools age 9-11—before IT is actually taught in schools—and “get them beyond Microsoft office”. They’re taught Scratch, Hard Scratch, HTML/CSS, and basic Python respectively over the course of a year.

The Club are looking for devs who can volunteer. This involves committing to an hour a week (in the computer lab), a CRB check (the school will usually help—and it was pointed out by an audience member that STEMNET can help you do it for free), and potentially help set up the labs with Scratch or Python. It’s also worth asking as a parent/guardian if there’s a school or Running Club nearby.

As it turned out, an audience member’s son has used a Code Club programme, won a Rasberry Pi and is now planning to become a games developer!

And apparently this is the start of a wider sea change—programming is going to be taught from age 5 up, but there isn’t necessarily the capability in schools in order to teach it.

Git, Bitcoin & Matroyoshka Dolls

Chris Price

“Who uses Git? That’s a change from a few years ago.” There weren’t quite so many that used Bitcoin, or even knew what matroyoshka dolls were (until someone else called them Russian Dolls) but never mind.

His analogy was brilliant: the concept of nesting dolls is how potentially catastrophic changes (changing values in Bitcoin, commit changes in Github) are protected in their systems. Doug Belshaw also pointed the audience to check out trybtc.com to mess around with bitcoins.

From Student to Work

David Ingledow

“Use Github”. More generally, the key theme of David Ingledow’s talk was about how students need to not only capture but share the ideas (and code) they generate. Not that Github or Git was taught at uni. Still, in his discussion of transitioning from being a interaction design student (at Northumbria, yay) to a working designer at a startup, he reflected on after all of the collaboration, preparation, and late nights, it was all too easy for graduates to let their work die post grad show. And that was a pity.

On another note, I was interested to hear what it was like for a designer to move from uni to a startup. Ingledow loves it, thanks to the ‘all hands on deck’ attitude that is needed. Given the growing startup community in the NE, it could well be that more and more grads end up in a similar role as him. Hopefully they learn Git first.

Switching to Jekyll

Dan Richardson

Going from a former student to one that is still one (but did a summer placement), Dan Richardson discussed moving to the static generator Jekyll. Most people have heard about it in dev world (and that it’s based in Markdown), if you’ve used Shopify you’d have used the liquid HTML system.

The lack of database can have issues e.g. you need to use third party plugins like Disqus or Salesforce for comments and forms, and it’s obviously not great for things like GUI text additions. Still, it has a lot of potential, particularly when you can host a small site for free on Github Pages or very cheaply on Amazon AWS.

Some other options are Octopress and Nanoc.

The related blog post is available on the Canddi website and an audience member mentioned the 2010 post by Paul Stamatiou on moving from WordPress to Jekyll.

So much to learn

Ben Cooper

How do you keep going in a world of continuous innovation and Smashing Magazine articles? Ben Cooper (who emphatically calls himself stupid but I suspect the audience would disagree) gave some of his comments from his years of experience. He asked the audience to focus and continually think of your core skills (that old ‘jack of all trades’ mantra) rather than running frantically to learn frameworks and libraries that you don’t need and don’t understand the core code.

I personally don’t entirely agree with discarding superfluous frameworks. However, I do think that it does require an understanding of what you’re doing: e.g. playing with new languages is more of a sense of awareness or seeing if something is a ‘gateway drug’ to a new type of coding. Still, his call to avoid heedlessly following trends is savvy even in other areas such as design trends (flat design anyone?).

When it comes to actually being part of the community, Cooper took the opposite track and regaled people to share (blog/speak) and be enthusiastic: “passion trumps being smart”. Oh, and to to not rise to the trolls. (“Stackoverflow, I’m looking at you.”) In this respect, he reminded me of Wil Wheaton’s mantra “don’t be a dick” and the concept of having “strong ideas held weakly” (a trait that has often been attributed to experience design luminary Don Norman). Again, his concept of having focus or doing things your own way came through: he uses twitter but just as an RSS. Which is fine. But I love using it to share and help.

Home Automation

Steve Jenkins

“Why did I do this? Because I can. Because it’s cool”. With no real logical justification to make a “smart” lighting system (it’s inefficient in all ways) but a burning desire to do it anyway, Steve Jenkins set about buying a Lightwave RF (“It was available from B&Q”) and attempting to make a system to make sense of it. Luckily, he applied for and got access to the API, but it’s still very much a work in progress… and then went down a rabbit hole of ideas and various platforms and roundtripping.

Still, apparently Geofence works reasonably well (“though when my phone comes out of Airplane Mode every morning it gets confused”).

He’s keen to see what happens with SmartThings though. He looked at Lockitron “but I figured I’d wait and upgrade my house”. John McClaire did a similar project on Kickstarter.

The hours and time to date? About 2 days spread out over time (though “with very hacky code”) and about £400. And counting….

Has it made a difference? “Well, it’s made me more lazy”.

Of course, there are questions about proprietary software: there’s a horror story of a guy in IBM replicating his house in Second Life only for Japanese and American people to turn his lights off and on at 4am! He’s used his own server and the like so thinks he’s safe—and it’s only lights— though he dis ask people to “please don’t hack my house”.

If that doesn’t put people off doing it, they were directed to have a chat to Alistair and the local Maker Space….

The Trials and Tribulations of WYSIWYG Editors

Kerry Gallagher

“You’ve all used WYSIWYG editor. They’re mainly a joke right?” With that , Kerry Gallagher dissected a commonly hated aspect of CMS and HTML development. For those of use who have never actually rolled their own editor (me!), it was interesting to see what goes on behind it.

It turns out that editing comes down to one element: ‘contentiseditable’: which is surprisingly supported back to IE5.5!

Of course, it’s not that easy: there are some bugs between browsers, particularly with undo and redo (though there are changes to standardisation).

Mozilla’s Educational initiatives

Doug Belshaw (slides)

Wrapping up the night was Doug Belshaw of Mozilla. His first slide began with a werewolf picture from Mozfest. (Wait, is it a full moon out tonight?)

He spoke about three Mozilla Webmaker initiatives.

The Webmaker project is a fun project aiming to get people (particularly children) involved with making with the web rather than just consuming with it. The projects (X-Ray Goggles, Thimble, and Popcorn Maker) are fun and a subtle gateway drug into coding. I was involved with mentoring with these projects at the recent Maker Party here in Newcastle, see my notes of the day for more on the topic.

Belshaw’s pet project in Mozilla though is web digital literacy (which isn’t surprising, given he did a PhD thesis on the topic!). There are three competencies—exploring, building, and connecting—which Mozilla and the wider community are focusing on.

Finally, Mozilla are also pushing the concept of Open Badges (a means of showing learning and accreditation in a diffused way). The project is relatively mature with buy in from Disney amongst others.

And they’ll all be showcased at Mozfest (27-29 October in London).

Thoughts

There’s an argument that put enough of anything together and you’ll see a pattern (certainly Damian Hurst’s dotted pictures played on this conceit). Still, over the series of nine talks, I noticed an ongoing trend:

  • The need to evangelise, and the wider community support that this entails. There were no less than three talks about learning and teaching. Of these, McDonald’s struck me the most as she mentioned the struggle of pushing something forward such as teaching girls Ruby whilst holding down a full time job. (In fact, she wasn’t able to launch the event herself as she was moving to Barcelona). I wonder whether there does have to be organisational recognition for mentoring and furthering diversity. Should companies be enabling and even expecting their employees to further the tech community?
  • The importance of sharing. A few speakers touched on this, or demonstrated it: certainly Jenkins’ talk on home automation led to more than one glint in people’s eyes. It also reminds me of how people always know something or know about something more than someone else (again, a mentoring principle in that unless you’re an absolute beginner, there’s someone less experienced than you that you could help).
  • The cool stuff that’s going on. OK, that’s pretty obvious every month, but still.

One Year a Wikimedian

It’s been precisely one year since I did that most white and nerdy of things… I started editing Wikipedia. Or, to use the correct term, became a Wikimedian. (It is run by the Wikimedia Foundation, and you can contribute across various wiki projects beyond just Wikipedia, hence why you’re not called a Wikipedian).

Why did I do it? Luckily for me, I recorded it all in 750 Words at the time (22 September 2012). So, cut to 2012 Vicky:

To be honest, the reason it happened was because I was so angry about the lack of information relating to NZ music. How the hell was it that Loyal didn’t even have a wikipedia page relating to the single? So I’ve spent a lot of the last day and a half adding and editing pages. I’ll have to stop it soon but hope that I’ll at least have done a decent amount of it. On the one hand I wish that I had my Stranded in Paradise book here with me, but on the other hand am glad as it means I can’t get too obsessed about all of it. Anyway, it’s been interesting to learn stuff from that and the NZ On Screen docos: for example, that the Victoria of the Dance Exponents song Jordan Luck’s young landlady (though not named Victoria) who has an ‘arsehole’ of a boyfriend… I also found out that the Footrot Flats soundtrack was originally offered to Tim Finn but he turned it down.

So, what spurred me on was an obvious need: as many have pointed out, Wikipedia is far and above a US encyclopedia, which means that as soon as you get a little off the beaten track (such as a little set of Shaky Isles called New Zealand) the information there can drop off dramatically.

Some of the things that I’ve learnt since then are:

  • What it is to be notable. (I went and made a load of single entries for songs that didn’t break any top 40, which is a no-no).
  • How to understand tables and formatting with the dreaded Mediawiki markup (I’m quite proud of some of the ones I’ve done, and make an effort to convert all track lists I find to the appropriate template).
  • The concepts of fair use in relation to media footage and audio (and for that, how to convert tracks to ogg format)
  • How the Guild of Copy Editors is a wonderful way to kill some time, learn about random subjects, and brush up on your writing skills
  • It’s fun to be part of a drive to get more women of a particular subject onto Wikipedia.

More widely, I’ve found that being a Wikimedian changes your relationship to Wikipedia: see a badly worded article or broken link? Jump in and change it! I’ve got particular joy at getting articles that have disappeared or gone behind a paywall back from The Wayback Machine. It’s often interesting to capture the bits that get papered out of an artist’s history, say, for example the state of mind Dave Dobbyn was in (he’d basically been through hell) around the time of his first (well, second actually, but not many people know about that one) greatest hits.

When you start doing this type of thing, you begin to feel like an internet archaeologist: most of the city is shiny and new, but every once in a while you stumble on some older bit that’s been overlooked—you see the Flash animations, the earnest use of lime or yellow Courier on Black—or even more cunningly, you track down an old piece through the Wayback Machine like a private detective.

Conversely, as you start looking through your contributions history, you can see what you were compelled to edit over time: oh yes, there was that show I loved that was woefully underwritten, and that event I added some stuff to as it was going on. It’s something of an interest trail.

That said, I have noticed one thing that does most definitely stop people from being involved: the difficulty in getting new articles online. I’ve been lucky in that many of the pieces I’ve done have been obvious gaps, so have been able to bypass the content creation process. However, when I did have to create one from scratch, it took several weeks to get looked at (denied due to not enough references, a fair enough call at the time based on the article) and then a similar lengthy period when it was resubmitted a while later.

So, one year on, here’s hoping to many more!

(If you’re interested in getting into being a Wikimedian yourself, I wrote more technically on the process a few months ago on my other blog).

 

Praxis and Poetics: Research Through Design Conference

This week, designers and researchers from as far flung as Sydney and Melbourne congregated in the desolate North East beautiful Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art for the Praxis and Poetics conferences.

The overall conference was in fact two under one umbrella: the 10th Designing Pleasurable Products and Interfaces and the inaugural Research Through Design Conference. I was student volunteer for the RtD (anyone else have other associations with those initials?) conference, so saw these talks as well as the combined keynotes. (For a more general discussion and more pictures, check out the Storify of the event made by closing plenary speakers Jon Rogers and Justin Marshall, or the #praxisandpoetics twitter stream—along with the #rtd13 one I accidentally used for day two).

The conference was highly design orientated, and this went right down to the related schwag. Including origami badges for the two conferences (DPPI were wise owls, RTD soaring butterflies. Take from that what you will).

A note on the Research through Design conference: though it’s not obvious from this post (due mainly to my only having shoddy iPhone pictures), there was a related exhibition with the conference, and in the cases where presented papers had physical objects (most of them), the objects were brought through to the conference room and often passed around the audience. This gave a level of designerly awareness arguably absent from a lot of similar conference. (In the case of Jacob Sebastian Bang’s work, he was literally giving them away at the end of the event!)

Day One

Keynote: Patrick Jordan

The conference kicked off on Tuesday night with Patrick Jordan on positive psychology and design (“an academic version of self-help”) with a calmly measured talk packed to the hilt with examples.

change behaviours, not attitudes

  1. Take Responsibility: it’s too easy to ascribe issues such as bad health choices to not having any any opportunity to change. This is most obvious when it comes to giving up smoking or health related lifestyle changes. However, this also applies in work situations where employees (be they bus drivers sacrificing picking up mobility challenged passengers to call centre workers attempting to collect community debts) have no licence to deviate from the script. Allowing means of discretion (e.g. changing the bus tracking system to note when mobility challenged are picked up, or just making rules not hard and fast) allows workers to be a lot happier and therefore less likely candidates for absenteeism.
  2. Set Goals: it’s hard to motivate yourself to just go to the gym… which is why people often have something of an epic journey (running from one end of the British Isles to the other end) with a similarly meaningful story. Good Gym capitalises on this need for
  3. Be Positive: been to Disneyland? You loved it right? Yet there were lots of lines, weren’t there… this is a careful implementation of the peak experience rule where you can have neutral to negative experiences but effectively forget about them as long as your final experience is really good.
  4. Persevere Intelligently: there are apps such as In Flow that help you track your happiness and see what your happiness or unhappiness triggers are. Of course, that doesn’t help you figure out exactly how to avoid that toxic friend….
  5. Connect with Others: apparently the so called creative rooms of Google don’t actually make people more creative… but they attract the best creative people. The Men’s Sheds initiative also attempts to reconnect older men feeling isolated with other men through the act of making things (while women are happy to meet up for the sake of meeting up, men need a goal).

There were a few other interesting facts worth taking note of:

  • The most trusted figure for advice is a young woman (perhaps because when we were babies our mothers were young?). Notice that all avatars at present are women?
  • Names, language and even colour matters (as anyone who’s read 1984 will know). Euphemisms can attempt to forgive brutality (waterboarding rather than torture?). If you’re named Jordan, you’re least likely in the UK to be trusted (perhaps both due to the Middle East and Katie Price). And in a wresting match, if you’re wearing red, you have a 2 in 3 chance of winning as opposed to blue.

Finally, if all that is too much to parse, there are sketchnotes available:

Day Two

Keynote: Rachel Wingfield

The keynote by Rachel Wingfield explored her (and her partner Mathias Gmachal’s) practice over the last decade through their research consultancy Loop.ph.

 

Their projects push the limits of both materials (they have done a number of works using the principles of lacing in more technological and architectural settings) and making connections (they worked with Nobel winning scientists who initially “thought we were going to do their curtains and ties” before finding a common interest through structures).

@loopph extolling the values of the 'handmade digital'  #praxisandpoetics

(Also do check out the blog summary by Richard Banks of the talk).

‘Viewing’: Ian Gwilt, Aysar Ghassan,Patrick Macklin, Mark Blythe/Jo Briggs/Jason Wilsher-Mills

The first session on Viewing investigated different ways of looking at design research or even the means of understanding art.


Ian Gwilt introduced the concept of “data-objects”: objects that make data more tangible and understandable. Databronze was made with the simple aim of allowing designers to understand the relationship between age and strength for gripping objects.

The point [with the data object] was to get users to be able to create their own metaphors

They were also interested in whether materiality played a role in how the data was perceived and used both plastic and bronze: as it turned out, bronze was more trusted due to its weight and colour but the (white) plastic seen as potentially more accurate.

He also noted that the preferred objects were either experiential (acted on) or landscape (giving an overview).

One interesting aspect brought up by the audience was the notion of data as an ongoing changing medium: if data is constantly changing, do objects capture it in a way that might seem more fixed than it actually is?


Aysar Ghassan transplanted Bauhaus leader Walter Gropius into the modern day world of design thinking via design fiction or more specifically an open letter. “Dear Sir/Madam: Walter Gropius Petitions the League of Design Thinkers” was presented as a means of unpacking the difference between modernism and design thinking, with Ghassan suggesting that the former is about rules and formula while the latter is about holism.

 

Some of the audience questioned whether this was too neat a formula (though arguably there are ‘temples’ of modernism and design thinking that are commonly understood, even if they’re exaggerated). I wonder whether Gropius would in fact be welcomed with open arms by the big-data league of designers.


Patrick Macklin explored the concept of “HEIMA” (‘home’) in his case study on soundscapes and his native Glasgow.

In the tsunami of design imagery…we should be harnessing other stimuli such as sound

The city was radically changed in the mid-20th century to have a motorway run *through* rather than around it, and so the project attempts to use archival sounds to allow residents to engage in the area’s history. It was pointed out that there have been a number of similar projects—even in Glasgow—and that the key issue is finding appropriate means for residents to engage with it.


Mark Blythe, Jo Briggs and Jason Wilsher-Mills delved into the world of digital painting in “Blue Jay Weeble: Experiential Approaches to iPad Painting”. When David Hockney makes an image on an iPad, where is the original? How can s[editions] enforce their supposed digital-only art orders?

 

They note that the one interesting new art form brought in by digital painting is the notion of time and process, and presented the Repentir app, which allows you to scrub through the history of a digital work. (This also reminds me of the Hereafter mirror by United Visual Artists that showed further back in time the more you moved … to the set up which mischievously included a chicken!).

Their main point of interest was investigating flickr iPad brush groups “which are mostly pictures of Wolverine” but introduced them to the work of Jason Wilsher-Mills (aka Blue Jay Weeble). Wilsher-Mills’ story is fascinating in its own right, and his struggle with ongoing illness is combined with his immersion in Scottish art history to create a distinctive style. However, what is of particular interest here is how he experiments with the medium of iPad painting (which was also demoed the day before the keynote). He has noted the way it enables him to make dramatic changes to his work (including resizing and going beyond the canvas). Of course, the issues with such work is the one on every artist’s lips: how do you make money? To this end, the team are doing research into Kickstarter and how successful campaigns work so as to see how they can launch a fundraising project for him. (Someone pointed out that postcard printers and 3D print shops much love Kickstarter due to all the small scale objects used as funding incentives). I actually believe that this research could end up being far more visible than the existing work if it succeeds, given the amount of media attention on Kickstarter and its failures as well as successes.

‘Meaning’: Zoë Sadokierski, Debi Ashenden, Rachele Riley

Zoë Sadokierski from the University of Sydney presented “The Book Spotter’s Guide to Avian Titled Literature”. As a professional graphic designer (specialising in book covers), she’s had to struggle navigating the gap between design practice and research (a wider discussion pointed out that often the designed artefacts in regards to design research are pretty disappointing). A project beginning with temporary graphic treatments for an area being upgraded turned into a full taxonomy, namely types of birds. (As it turns out, Sadokierski is something of an animal fanatic, admitting that she’s done shows on giraffes as well). Later taxonomies included positive and negatively named birds (you know when you’re getting to works like Satan that you’ve hit gold) as well as erotically named birds as referenced against a particular reference book. (There was notable disappointment in the audience when Sadokierski rushed over this section!)

More broadly Zadokierski noted their use of data mining:

She suggested that the difference between the playing around in design and rigor of research comes down to the documenting. To this end, the research was shown in a two-way book: one way showing the process in a designer’s narrative, the other in a more critical research stance.

[EDIT: I came across a similar article relating to the power of taxonomies and the curated artifact on Design Observer]


Debi Ashenden presented “‘IT Fauna’ and ‘Crime Pays’: Using Critical Design to Envision Cyber Security Futures”. As the client in the research team, her being able to explain it was a good acid test of the work! As part of a wider initiative investigating how the cloud could be used in cyber security, they created ‘IT fauna representing various cyber security concepts as a means of counteracting how non-specialists are unable to participate in discussions due to the specialised language.


Rachele Riley went beyond whether the truth is out there to the history we forget in “The Evolution of Silence”. Her work is investigating the decades of nuclear testing that went on in the Nevada desert, and through it the changing opinions of nuclear testing (from people writing in asking to be volunteers for testing to the later reports of radiation related illness). As she isn’t allowed to make recordings on the actual site, she has to use a combination of human documentation (sketching) and collecting others (asking for freedom of information from the government and finding ephemera).

Right now it’s just her research but she’s hoping to get stories from others given that time may be running out for them.

‘Being’: Sarah Morehead, Eunjeong Jeon, Anne-Marie Kirkbride

This session (which I chaired, hope people enjoyed it!) questioned common understandings of the body and the ‘standard’ body.


Sarah Morehead talked about reinterpreting wool for evening wear in Poetics of Play; Touch and Movement in Garment Design with Sheepskin, Silk and Lace. She is interested in how materials can influence and engage the wearer. After investigating the role of material and posture in physiotherapy situations, she started exploring how she could use wool both for a sense of reassuring self-touch (sleeves etc) and to change posture (necklines and covering). I was interested in how she was also attempting to find ways to communicate what she does as a kinesthetic learner.


Eunjeong Jeon’s “Touch Me, Feel Me, Play with Me” similarly played with materiality and its bodily effect on the wearer. She investigated how a felt fabric could be manipulated into a form so as to give back support.


Ann Marie Kirkbride investigated fashion illustration beyond the catwalk in “Illustrating Fashion’s Invisible Woman”.

Cognisant both of the spoken and unspoken standards in fashion (her students are more shocked by a picture of Julia Roberts’ armpit hair than Japanese footbinding practices) and the gap between the ideals and actual buyers of fashion, she sought to investigate how depicting an older female (the fashion buyer with more discretional income, but all but ignored by the fashion world) would differ in terms of being depicted from the standard teen woman. In her search for an older female muse, she found that she was more successful with a fashion confident female muse than an ‘elegant’ one. While she did have to be aware of some age-related considerations (the model’s stamina for standing and not making them look tired) her muses weren’t concerned about looking young or wrinkled (as one stated “I’ve worked hard for these wrinkles”).

Day Three

Intermission: as this day went straight into talks, I think this is good point to make a note of the food. Newcastle is renowned for the bacon buttie (the pasty franchise Greggs originated here!) and the Baltic served up a sophisticated version of this “traditional” dish.

‘Doing’: Sofie Beier, Jacob Sebastian Bang, David O’Leary

While the work in this section ranged from typography to architecture to industrial design, they all investigated notions of creativity through mastery and slowness.

Sofie Beier’s “Legibility Investigation: Towards Controlling Typeface Variables” pointed at how psychologists investigating typefaces often miss the nuances of type design and make comparisons without understanding underlying context (e.g. there’s no point in saying Georgia is more legible than Helvetica without being able to say why).

Inspired by Frutiger’s letterform matrix, she combined together a number of typefaces for a ‘generic’ shape, then used her professional judgement to make this typeface work as a proper letter set.


Jacob Sebastian Bang’s “Work in Progress” is about exercises in repetition and replication. He and his students make hundreds and even thousands of prototypes in plaster and then transform them either physically (cutting up and reconfiguring) or through representations (drawing on x-rays).


David O’Leary’s “The Tao of SolidWorks” is a work in progress which he described during the talk as an investigating of how mastery of Solidworks can make designers more creative, but was challenged by the audience as potentially being part of a wider narrative about digital craftsmanship.

‘Being’: Hazel White, Matt Coombes, Winnie Ha

Hazel White’s “Fabric Fobs and Family Ties” looked at how craft could be used in ways to engage communities that are disadvantaged in some way regarding technology. They created boxes of ‘smart cushions’ that loaded images, meaning that people in a care home could engage with content from their families without needing to understand how to use a PC.

Similarly, they found techniques to allow children with autism to communicate their feelings.


Matt Coombes‘ “Empathy and the Individual” discussed his “non therapeutic tools of grieving” (he admits that with hindsight they could be called ‘therapeutic’ tools as it doesn’t necessarily mean ‘therapy’, which was what he was trying to avoid). He based the tools on his own experience—such as crying a single tear at a funeral and from that concept creating the Tear Catcher—and crazy examples from the users (“people I know and who trust me”) using (having an emotional phone call and crying), misusing (choosing the most difficult tear catcher bottle) and then questioning (attempting to get the tears in the jar with a pin and then realising how bizarre the entire setup was) the entire concept.

More generally, Coombes is exploring empathy: “when you view people as individuals it’s easier to have empathy with them”. He’s aware of the fine line between empathy and sympathy (it’s easy but not good to lapse into the latter), and is investigating how concepts of improv may help with such things. (He even got the audience to—gasp!—touch each other in a live human demo of co-experience through mirroring.)

Of course, these stories weren’t in the paper. This was picked up on in the discussion: how should we as designers capture these insights and stories (particularly for PhD research) even if they don’t seem valid for papers? Zoë Sadokierski suggested that perhaps blogs are a way to document and make visible these seemingly superficial or anecdotal bits of evidence.


Winnie Ha’s “Writing Practice as Contemporary Practice: Experience, Imagination, Knowledge” work is attempting to bring performativity into fashion, particularly what writing happens when there is no clothes involved. In terms of performativity and clothing, Margaret Attwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” was brought up as a useful analogy. The discussion evolved to a wider one on writing in doctoral research, and how designers sometimes bring naïvity/bravery to their writing through writing various voices, with useful examples brought up by the audience including N. Katherine Hayles’ ‘Writing Machines’ and Queneau’s ‘Exercises in Style”

I also liked the comment from designer (and accomplished playwright!) Louise Taylor in response to Ha’s comment that “I don’t describe myself as a writer as I’m not very good at it and it’s not natural to me!”:

‘Doing’: Hugo Glober, Kerry Walton, Phil Luscombe

The final session of the day I saw questioned various forms of the status quo. Tim Ingold was referenced a lot throughout the presentations!

Hugo Glover’s “The 4th Wall Project: A Creative Exploration of 3D-Stereoscopic Viewing and Animation” was similar to the discussion that he did last year for the Interaction Tyneside meetup which I covered at the time. He’s investigating how to bring the concepts of stereoscoping viewing (i.e. those old Victorian penny machines showing a 3D image) into the world of computers.


In “Exploring the Relationship between Textiles and Drawing”, Kerry Walton attempted to learn how to sketch through weaving. In short: it’s hard! Most of the work is hidden (like drawing on a roll) and sometimes the back is more interesting. Still, taking references from Farthing and Marshall et al, she’s found that sketching in textiles does force creativity and new ideas in a way that she’s keen to fold back into her practice.


Phil Luscombe’s “Moving Target: The Modification of Intent when Making a Pair of Scissors” questions whether Pye’s separation of design (proposes) and workmanship (desposes) and the related 1 to 1 translation of idea to construction. Along with Ingold, Keller and Keller, and Preston, he is attempting to find an account of ‘good workmanship’ that acknowledges the improvisation that happens.

Good workmanship is the skillful navigation of resistance thoughout the creation of a thing.

He identified 8 types of resistance (“as well as the big ones of time and cost”):

  1. communication,
  2. information availability
  3. material availability
  4. technological availability
  5. manual dexterity
  6. material recalcitrance
  7. dumb machines
  8. function

Keynote: Justin Marshall and Jon Rogers

The final keynote by, according to organiser Jayne Wallace “the short messy hairiness of Justin Marshall and Jon Rogers” (I’ll leave you to look on twitter to find the context for that!) brought together themes from the conference. Again, they’re noted in the storify so to avoid a strange sense of online recursion it’s better to see the original. More generally, they discussed the future of technology beyond the happy-clappy news of 3D prototyping.

 

750 Days of 750 Words

I’ve been writing on 750 Words for a few years now (and have blogged about my love of it in the past). Still, I noticed today that I’d hit a fun milestone.

750 Days of 750 Words

(I should point out that I have been on the site far longer than 750 days, in fact, it’s something closer to 1250. Still, 750 is a number that’s not to be sneezed at!)

For people like me who haven’t journaled in the past, it’s a strange phenomenon to have an insight in to your past-life subconscious. (I use this phrase from a conversation I had with a long-time journaller friend when I started the site. She described journalling as “writing to your future self”.) While there is a big push for quantifying your life, seeing your journal is about qualifying it, noticing how much you’ve changed.

When I look back at my first entry—on my 25th birthday, in April 2010—I see how much more unsure I was. I was living and working in Auckland and had just been offered a studentship at Northumbria University—a country I’d never even visited—and was grappling with an unknown I couldn’t even comprehend. I see this unsureness and reserve in the early writing attempts. Admittedly, back in those days I was far better at knocking out the words in one go: these days I tend to get distracted and then forget what I was writing about. Still, through the practice of them I can see myself sorting through my concerns and insecurities.

Of course, there are cheats. I have to admit to a few days where I’ve got to 375 words and copy-pasted the rest in order to keep a streak going. Still, these days are few and far between now.

I like having a repository of thoughts, even if it is often ephemera that I won’t care about in the future. The nice thing about it being a website is the reassurance that it doesn’t matter if it’s utter rubbish: it’s not soiling beautiful paper or clogging up public space where it would annoy people.

Finally, I was having a discussion with some colleagues this morning about writing, and whether it really makes any difference to write and reflect on one’s life and happiness. One idea is that journalling allows us to overcome mirror-neuron deficit by doing it on our own, namely by enabling us to dig into how we feel as much as what we think. It’s an interesting concept, and one I’ll consider as I head into my next 750 days.

Design Fiction Workshop: Getting the Story Out

This afternoon I had the opportunity to take part in a Design Fictions workshop organised by Nottingham University’s Horizons workgroup. There was a strong Newcastle connection, not only through Newcastle Uni organiser Abigail Durrant but also through Northumbria University researcher Malcolm Jones and his storienteering tools.

For those that aren’t aware, “design fiction” is a term coined by Julian Bleeker and

…is making things that tell stories. It’s like science-fiction in that the stories bring into focus certain matters-of-concern, such as how life is lived, questioning how technology is used and its implications, speculating bout the course of events; all of the unique abilities of science-fiction to incite imagination-filling conversations about alternative futures. (2009)

(One participant suggested that design fiction doesn’t necessarily have to mean science fiction as even historical fiction and other genres may investigate technologies in just as interesting ways, albeit looking backward or sideways rather than ahead).

Horizon is “charting the digital lifespan”, and the workshop focused on creating design fictions around the idea of bereavement. In order to create said design fiction, we used a number of Malcolm’s tools to orient the group towards the story and then make it. His set of resources to do so included a scenario to kick it off, a resource table, and a mapping exercise. (However, he has a lot more of them available on his site).

What is interesting about events such as this is just how much work it takes to get a story out, but also how the people in the room can make a big difference. The skillset of the people taking part ranged from usability to fashion communication and literary theory, and yet somehow the personalities worked together in a very improv-like way to easily build on or circle back on others’ ideas. While it can feel as if you’re going around in circles at first with very obvious ideas or just not getting around to the actual story, somehow it seems to come right in the last few minutes (let’s just say it all got a bit of a weird twist at the last minute … not quite Sixth Sense but somewhere in that region).

That said, one thing that wasn’t got to in the timeframe of the workshop was how the story would be presented (which was a shame). Similarly, there’s nothing like mapping out a story with a strong tech/service base to make you realise all the opportunities for technological things to go wrong  (what would happen if you got the wrong company?). Still, design fictions appear to be by their nature exploratory, so in that respect the exercise was still (I assume) a resounding success).

 

 

Newcastle Mozilla Maker Party

This afternoon I mentored a group of young people as part of the Newcastle Mozilla Maker Party at the Centre for Life.

These events are happening around the world, and are a means for people (in this case young people) to have a jump start at making the web (or being ‘web makers’ as the slogan goes) using Mozilla tools.

I was part of a group of several adults (Steve Boneham, Tristan Watson, David EastonChris Wilde as well as Mozilla organiser Doug Belshaw) helping out on the day.

I’d messed around with the Mozilla web tools a bit before, but was reminded as to how easy they are to use.

  • Hackasaurus is a saveable Firebug or Chrome dev tools in that you can edit any page on the web and make your own link of it. Fun if you want to mess around a bit with news pages!
  • Popcorn maker is basically iMovie meets tumblr as you can pretty much mash up anything available on the web.
  • Thimble is a very nice online web editor (no JS, but very good HTML and CSS including error reporting). However, the power of it (as well as popcorn maker) is that you can remix existing sites, like a very user friendly github fork.

The dozen or so young people at the event ranged from 6 years old (OK, that was Doug’s son Ben) to their teens. I was happy that there were a few girls in the group!

While a couple had done coding at school (Jamie, who I helped, told me that it involved road-tripping from Word … which to be honest terrified me a bit) most hadn’t, which made the ease with which they picked up coding more impressive. I also showed a few of them some tricks with Google Fonts (though it was a bit buggy at times) and CSS3 effects.

The full list of hacks and general course of the day is available over at the Mozilla Etherpad.

One curious thing that I noticed was that a lot of them weren’t that comfortable with using laptop trackpads, particularly right click … which made selecting image URLs difficult. (While a lot of us dev people get around that with keyboard shortcuts, they didn’t use them and to be honest most designers I know don’t either). Certainly what I took from that is that events like these need lots of mice as well as laptops available. I suspect that laptops are starting to be edged out these days between big desktops and tablets.

All in all, I think that the Web Maker project looks to be a particularly powerful way to get people up and running with making the web rather than confusing it. I’d be the first to say that my taking up the web was due to being able to sit next to people who were good at it and learn from them. The ability to remix sites hopefully allows more people to be able to do the same.

(P.S: special mention has to go to Sheela Joy and the team at Centre for Life. After too many years of developer events with terrible pizza, my heart sank when I heard we were to get that as afternoon break food. I was wrong. BEST. PIZZA. EVAR.)

Speedy Mondays (Super Mondays July 2013)

To be honest, the mood at the Beehive at Newcastle University was anything but speedy, as the region basked in the ongoing heatwave. Regardless, the July Supermondays had a need for speed, from optimisation to psychology. There was also mention of a new usergroup (JSNortheast, meeting the first Monday of every month).

Richard Powell: Speed and Front End Development

Richard Powell gave a three-prong attack for considering speed in development: load time, perception of speed, and back end development. Of these, load time is the most important: apparently 80-90% of website load time is on the front end. (Even tumblr doesn’t get this right).

Much like Stephen Jones at a recent WP meetup, he recommended optimising and minifying files (for CSS using sprites/icon fonts/base 64 encoding, and concatenating JS and CSS files), obfuscating (JS variables), gzip txt files (70% file reduction). He also discussed being defensive about plugins (e.g. rather than using a tap navigation plugin, it could be done in 3-4 lines of code) loading JS last (even with Async, it doesn’t always work), and using lazy loading. And think about coding efficiently!

In regards to runtime, his analogy for DOM Interaction was memorable: “think of it like taking the dog for a walk and it making a mess: you have to touch it, but you don’t really want to.”

He pointed out that CSS positioning can be expensive: opacity, transforms, and surprisingly static positioning (browser has to recalculate on each load). One nice way to stop something being slow is to give it a rotate position of 0 (it gives it its own engine).

He gave a plea for API devs to think about how they serve up the content, and also not send people off on a wild goose chase to other files for more info.

He made notes in relation to perception (a theme carried on in the following talk): a site with progressive loading feels faster than one without, and to not block the API.

Out of the three, he emphasised the need for load time most (which requires collaboration).

Not sure if loading or…

Slide of the night.

Finally, he points out that it’s worth thinking about the tools we can use for testing: Chrome Dev Tools are good, and sites such as JSLint that let you compare code.

Graham Morely: the Psychology of Speed

Being in a car can be fast, but nothing feels quite so fast as being in a go-kart careening down a hill. Morely focused on how web designers and developers can make a site feel faster.

As it turns out, the speed of a site can have serious business impact. Examples Morely cited included Amazon tests that 100ms of extra load time=1% drop of sales, a page on Yahoo being 400ms slower causing 3-9% increase ‘black clicks’, and Mozilla getting 60m more downloads by increasing speed of download on their page for IE (and conversely the cost of 1s delay: 7% conversions, 11% page views , 16% decrease satisfaction).

Interestingly, speed isn’t always important: ATMs that dispensed money too quickly weren’t trusted.

He quoted Souders’ rule that  satisfaction = perception – expectations and used it as a guideline for work: people are happier with a site that feels faster than they’d expect it to. That said this can be done with information tricks e.g. if you’re in a search sites: going beyond “search hotels” to “search 52,420 hotels” with a loader looks faster.

He cited Neilsen’s studies on page times (though noting they’re perhaps 10 years old):

  • 0.1-0.2s =  instantaneous
  • 0.5-1s = immediate
  • 2-5s = flow, as it takes about 2s for a person to turn a page and find their position.
  • 7-10s (has to be) captivating

You should only spend 10s or more if it’s a natural break in user flow (you may wish to have alternate solutions such as let the user leave the page and email them when the task is done).

He helpfully gave a number of resources to investigate:

Mobile design guru Luke Wobrewski has also just written about perception of speed on mobile.

Oli Wood: Optimising Canddi

Oli Wood spoke from a recent project (Canddi) and his trials and tribulations attempting to optimise it. Above all, his key messages were to measure for what’s important (for them is how many inbound customer requests can be processed) and to just attach it (“Back of a fag packet calculations can be good enough”).

There are no silver bullets (they got expensive machines, hosting, PHP-FDM, all sorts of things, none really worked)

… aim for a silver shotgun cartridge (lots of little small things that can be nailed).

There are no silver bullets… aim for a silver shotgun cartridge.

More practically, he pointed out the importance of testing somewhere not live (as the team use AWS, they can clone and get a ‘good enough’ results) and to use realistic data (get enough on the test site to be good enough, no more) with defined test scenarios.

Build a pipeline view (find where the bottlenecks are).

Identify symptoms (what you can see) but solve problems (your 100% CPU usage could be that you need more machines, or just that you write crappy code).

Do less big things less often (doing big commands only when you have to).

Do frequent things much faster, avoid waiting, pull less data (“who writes MySQL? Who writes SELECT *?”). Hunt for collisions

Cache the painful thing: in memory (can be very effective, even in PHP), with tools such as redis (“almost one-click install, insanely quick”)/memcache (may be slightly better as it spreads across machine), url/browser cache

Use the tools:

  • Ab (“install with one command on Apache, and does a quick and dirty hit”. It’s useful for testing in background) +  Seige (far more detailed in regards to flags which can help to pinpoint where breakpoints are) and EC2 instances. “Install 2 or 3 ubuntu boxes, add EC2 on them and then test”
  • Use iostat (will tell you pretty much everything) or sar (-p is also very useful as it can tell you how busy multiple machines are), strace (“terrifies the life out of me” as it tells you what happens inside the processor “run it, get the text file, google the crap out of it”), iftop (for networks), xdebug + webgrind (don’t run on a live server!) as well as mongo tools such as mongosniff (‘terrifying, powerful, but go to google groups for it’. nginx is faster than apache (sadly)
  • They were on PHP, then moved to nodejs and with regis (if you can get it)

Your aim is to create a loosely coupled components which are horizontally scalable to make the business work (much like the 80/20 rule, beyond a certain point, “it just turns into geekery”). They managed to get the site 10x faster.

Elixr: Paul Callaghan

Paul Callaghan discussed Elixr, a new programming language that runs off Erlang. It’s still in its early stages but has been adopted by Soundcloud amongst other companies, and looks to be to ruby programmers what Coffeescript is for python devs. He pointed out a few useful concepts from the language such as creating a pipeline (a series of actions that can then be tracked in various places).

 Stefan Dantchev: Birthday Attack when randomisation probably helps

The night finished with high stakes of cryptography breaking. Well not quite. Dantchev’s examples were more theory than practical, but an interesting exploration of what we need to be aware of when it comes to code breaking and hashes. He used The Birthday Attack scenario—given a room of people, who many need to be there before it’s likely two share a birthday?—as a means of showing how this works, namely that you use a recursive (factorial) function of the likelihood of it not happening to figure it out. (For birthdays, that number therefore comes up as 23 people, at which point it’s just under 50%).

 

iOS Newcastle: Optimising Objective-C and North East App Showcase

The rare UK heatwave meant that most people were outside enjoying the sun. However, a dedicated few chose air-conditioned entertainment at Clavering House for iOS Newcastle for talks about Objective C and a showcase of locally-made apps.

Objective-C Best Practices

Alan Morris

With a long background in programming (he started at age 7!), Morris worked for Orange and Accenture (he admits he stayed at both “far too long”) before co-founding(?) Little Red Door. While over the years he’s learnt a number of languages, he admits that Objective-C “is the first I’ve learnt in depth”. He gave the following tips:

  • Know how to use #include, #import (stops recursion), and @class (e.g. don’t use #include in headers, instead use it to look for functions rather than constantly calling header files at compile time)
  • Beware premature optimisation. The developments in Objective-C mean that there are various ways to optimise your code (e.g. a numerical iterator loop is slow, a for in object loop is faster but doesn’t give an index, the scary looking but fastest and index giving enumerateobjectsinblock function). However, he used the great phrase “premature optimisation” for the scenario where you believe that one function will be faster whereas in real life the difference is minimal. He advises just to write how you know, test, and check if there are bottlenecks.
  • Coding standards: while these are needed for big teams, they’re just as useful for smaller or even single person teams. Set up practices so you know whether you use YES or TRUE for booleans.
  • Style guides: Little Red Door are now pretty strict on getting well structured style guide PSDs from their designers right down to properly named layers. While it does have an initial time outlay, Moore believes that it pays off in terms of less back-and-forth for missing or ambiguous elements when it comes to implementation (There’s actually been a big push for good style guides recently, such as the Style Guide Boilerplate).
  • Code comments: think about time spent vs time saved, and add comments as per why the code is doing something rather than what to do. (A recent article on comments for commits emphasises the same thing.
  • Reduce asset sizes with 9 slice images and related techniques. In a recent project, his team managed to reduce UI assets from 40Mb to 10 using this technique (which is akin to the akin to the sliding doors/CSS clips methods in HTML), and then to 6 with ImageOptim (though a tip from Morris: turn off the XCode caching!) .

For me as a PHP (and occasional Python) developer, Objective C has always been a bit of a mystery to me. However, the new number and array literals as of XCode 4.4 means that it’s a lot closer to other languages (no need to end arrays with ‘nil’ anymore). Similarly, Dict now has a key:value format far more similar to python.

His tips on carious shortcuts reminded me of David Pogue’s suggestion that everyone knows 80% of various computer actions, but a different 80%.

Local App Showcase

There was also a showcase of local apps:

  • Balance Guide (£0.69) is a guide for personal money management by Mindwarp Consultancies (represented by Julian Moorehouse).
  • Scouting for Boys (free) is a repository for UK Boy Scout archives (in soft launch) by Matt Glover. Matt used UIPageView Controller, CocoaPods (a technlogy that created strong debate!), iCarousel, and LBYouView (a scraper for Youtube) for it.
  • Slumber (normally £1.29, £0.69 for this week) an app by Little Red Door that plays white noise, maternal and fetal heartbeats etc). It was based on a toy sheep that did a similar thing. (It also uses iCarousel). Bizarrely, it has a good following in Tel Aviv and Iran!
  • Booths (free) is a shopping/groceries network by Hedgehog Lab that allows for shopping lists etc. It’s based on standard core data (though he admits the dev admits now use magical ones),  Mapping stack, and Pixate (a stylesheet for apps using CSS, thus getting around having to roll out iOS updates for style changes). He also mentioned the data is piped from WordPress, which wasn’t their choice (normally they’d use Python and Django).
  • The Tyneside Speakers Club app (free) represents a group that has been meeting twice a week in Whitley Bay for 42 years. The app is a way to get younger people interested in the meetup through videos. “There have been loads of downloads, but unfortunately the people in Turkmenistan haven’t shown up.”

There are a number of apps in review stage as well, such as one on the art of the Metro.

In terms of older but still interesting apps, one attendee released an app that shows you how sudoku can be solved as well as an acclaimed version of The Game of Life!

On the non-iOS front, some devs are expimenting with Launchpad and internet of things.

Other things

  • Organiser Matt Glover took part in the Middlesbrough Hack Day and came second, using the FB SDK and cameras. The winning app used twitter search terms and libraries to measure whether the tweets were positive or negative, for reputation management.
  • There are speaker calls for iOS Dev UK.
  • Finally, if you’re interested in a Macbook Air, there’s one for sale. (Who needs Craiglist when you have meetups?)

WordPress North East

As a queue of people waited with umbrellas outside the nearby City Hall to watch young Gosforth performers, a small band of people made their way through the maze of Northumbria University’s Sutherland Building for the inaugural WordPress North East.

Building a Better WordPress Application

Regular NE developer event speaker Phil Brown extended his speaker repertoire to WordPress. He pointed out a lot of bad practice in WordPress such as content logic in the theme, repeated (i.e. sloppy code), and difficulty in portability.

His rules:

1. Do not write your application in functions.php

Do it in a custom plugin instead, and keep your theme for presentation! Otherwise, any custom post types etc will disappear should you change your theme. It could be that Themeforest practices are to blame for this being so widespread. For an example of how to do this well, see Woocommerce.

2. Every action should be hooked

function my_plugin_start(){
//fire up app
} 
//wrong 
my_plugin_start(); 
//Right add_action('plugins_loaded', 'my_plugin_start'

3. Use WordPress

Look at options API and posts for not only storing content but as a generic data store for anything that has multiple items, as it’s a powerful API.
Other ones of interest are

  • Custom post types and post meta
  • roles/capabilities, user meta
  • Options and transients
  • Scheduler
  • Remote HTTP

4. Use plugin dependencies

Unlike a lot of plugins (e.g .Drupal), WordPress unfortunately doesn’t allow for plugin dependencies out of a box.

However, there are ways around it, check out Scribu e.g .

if ( !class_exists ('plugin_x') )){
wp_die ('Plugin Y requires plugin x');
}

5. Standardise code

While this isn’t a given, it helps with building on the site (and more employable!)
Check out the WordPress Coding Standards (and it doesn’t hurt to peruse the PHPDoc either!)

6. Choose your PHP version

Decide this early, as it can be a pain to change, particularly if you want to sell a theme or plugin. The standard right now is 5.1.1 but most people are now on more recent versions of PHP. Phil uses 5.3 as most have it (and allows for namespacing etc), though 5.3 also looks interesting with an inherit-like ‘trait’ class.

7. Avoid global scoping

A bad habit of WP coding is that a lot of code has global scope, which can lead to conflicts.
One way to get around it if you have PHP 5.3 is closures (as per jQuery)

add_action('init', function() {
 // do something
});

or with older versions, namespacing.

8. Activation hooks

Activation hooks are useful for once-only (and be able to be ported)

9. define( ‘WP_DEBUG’, true)

This will show you issues that wouldn’t come up usually.
Other good debuggers are DebugBot(?).

10. Release your code

It gives you an oppportunity to show your stuff, and even get feedback. Good plugins to look at include WordPress SEO by Yoast, and Advanced Custom Fields.

Optimising WordPress Images

WordPress Northeast event organiser Stephen Jones spoke of many of the issues for image uploads. They are:

  • File sizes: restrict image size (WP Image Size Limit), reduce baseline (Imsanity), or optimise (WP Smush.it). For theme images: use the right image types (easier for devs than users!) and optimise them e.g. with Codekit “the best $25 I ever spent”
  • Getting images at the right size for slideshows etc: can be done with commands (add_image_size—though needs the Regenerate Thumbnails plugin for any changes!) or a plugin (WPThumb which unlike the beleaguered TimThumb, should be secure!)
  • Per device: can be done with media-queries, or the Hammy plugin. Zurb Foundation is also playing in the space for solutions.
  • Delivery method: get it faster with a CDN e.g. CloudFront, MaxCDN; use sprites e.g. SpriteCow (but don’t go overboard on them!). Also think about using Lazyload, icon fonts.

There was an interesting discussion about the WordPress CDN that is available via Jetpack’s Photon: while it has some advantages (particularly if you’re on shared hosting), it is quite slow.

The next event is TBC but will feature Richard Carter talking about responsive theming (and other talks are welcome). In the interim, over at Lancaster they’re holding a WordCamp on July 13-14 2013.

Aaaaaah! The Twitter Jetpack for WordPress plugin doesn’t work anymore!

Earlier today, I got an email from a client. The twitter widget on their site wasn’t working anymore and was just showing ‘twitter does not respond’. At first blush, I thought it was just a standard twitter issue. It’s the Twitter Jetpack for WordPress (namely wordpress.com) plugin, it must work! But when I refreshed the site, I found that there was a message telling me that the widget was depreciated thanks to Twitter retiring its 1.0 API and to switch to the Twitter Timeline Widget.

Image of Depreciated Twitter Jetpack Widget

Do Not Pass Go. Do Not Collect $200.

OK. I remembered those messages about Twitter unrolling a new 1.1 API, and even that it was shutting down the 1.0 API. But I hadn’t thought of the effect it might have on the embeds in sites. Silly me.

So, I set about doing the upgrade….

All twitter embeds now require authorisation

I quickly realised that gone are the days of lackadaisically dropping a twitter feed on your site. As of the 1.1 API, every twitter feed—profile, list, or even search—requires an authorisation of some point, at the very least through an embed from your account, or more trickily through an app connection.

What this means is that if you’re working on a client’s site, you’ll probably require their password, or, if they’re the paranoid type, to at least do the authorisations from the WordPress backend for you.

Jetpack Twitter timeline: the old twitter embed you hated the look of, just as a shortcode

What I found when I attempted to use the Twitter timeline tool was that, rather than the fully customisable tool of past, it was basically a shortcode for a twitter embed. Which you have to create on your twitter account. I couldn’t even get the plugin to work for some reason, but it’s based on height and width rather than number of tweets, and is generally much more like having a Facebook box on your site. Admittedly, there are some styling options, but it’s certainly a lot more limited than it was in the past, particularly if you like to do a lot of CSS customisation.

Twitter Widget Pro: finicky to set up, but worth the effort

After doing some investigation, I came across Twitter Widget Pro. It’s much more like the previous Twitter Jetpack app in that it gives a lot of options for number of tweets, whether you see the follow button and so on. And is fully themable!

The process is a little more involved though. When you install the plugin, you have to create an application on dev.twitter.com (this will be familiar to people who have worked with APIs in the past), add the generated keys to your setting page, and then authorise your twitter account using OAuth.

Happily, I found that the theme naming system used by Twitter Widget Pro was so close to the old Twitter Jetpack widget (or was it the other way around?) that almost all of my custom CSS immediately worked on it, saving me a fair amount of time.

Twitter Widget Pro in use

Twitter Widget Pro in use

Is twitter turning into a walled garden?

I couldn’t help but remember the outcry a couple of years ago when Twitter announced it would stop actively supporting developers through its framework. While I can understand that they need to keep an eye on their database calls and security, it does certainly feel that the days of a freely hackable twitter are further and further away.

Update June 24 2013: I got another email alerting me to the twitter widget not updating. Unfortunately there’s no obvious fix, but the best hack is to show three updates and hide the older two with CSS.