Site Redesign

I’m itching to do yet another site redesign—I have a pretty good idea of what I want and a working test version of it, allowing for a bit of tweaking—but I think it makes sense to wait until the release of WordPress 2.3 so I don’t have to worry about any compatibility issues. I’m considering losing the theme switcher, as well; since I make no effort to make changes to the site backwards-compatible, it’s probably better that way. And it’ll make it easier to rework things for my ultra-minimalist new look.

Of course the whole thing is increasingly irrelevant, since a growing proportion of my (diminishing number of) readers are now accessing HF through feed readers and may never see the design at all. But I enjoy the process.

I’m also intending to start a photoblog. I’ve always liked the idea of photography but found the results slightly disappointing. As a birder I know well the importance of good optical equipment; the difference between a cheap pair of binoculars and an expensive pair can be profound. I never bought a film SLR camera because I didn’t think I would get the use out of it to justify it; now with digital, knowing I can go out and shoot 50 or 60 and discard them all, it seems like a good moment to make a serious attempt to take some good photographs. So the photoblog will be part of that attempt; recording my learning process. But I can’t decide on a name for it. I could keep up the G.M. Hopkins theme and go for something like ‘Plough Down Sillion’ or ‘Shook Foil’ or ‘Finches’ Wings’, but I think I fancy a change. Hmmm. We’ll see.

WordPress 2.2 upgrade hitches

Apologies for the slight messiness: I’ve just upgraded to WordPress 2.2—don’t know why, really, it’s not like there are any compelling new features—and at least one of my normal plugins is broken. I should have a work-around up soon.

EDIT: OK, I think everything’s just about working now. If anything seems broken, give me a shout.

Further comment: One of the claims for WP2.2 is that “We now protect you from activating a plugin or editing a file that will break your blog.” Who knows, perhaps this is brilliant, sometimes. But it didn’t work for me today.

And another comment: One of the changes is that instead of having a built-in preview in the posting window that has to be reloaded every time you save a change, it pops up a preview in a new window when you ask it to. Which is probably a good decision, since it should make writing faster, but it’s a pity it makes a new window each time instead of reloading the previous preview window with the new version. if I don’t carefully close each popped-up preview after looking at it, I end up with a whole row of tabs, each a preview of the post.

Sexy CSS

And no, I’m not referring to Cansei der Ser Sexy. I’m referring to the ingenious way I hacked a WordPress plugin and then did some CSS wizardry to make it display the way I wanted, so that, for a short time only, you can see my Archives By Date the way I want them.

Only slight drawback: they look crap in IE 5.2 for Macintosh (but really, who uses that?) and they also don’t work in Opera. In fact in some circumstances they make it crash, which I find deeply mysterious. Still, this is what they look like for the moment:

What’s so good about that, you ask? Well, without using a table, I have the dates flush right and the post titles flush left, so there’s an even space between the two.

However… I may not care about IE for Mac, but Opera is a proper, current browser (and I haven’t even tested it on IE for Windows). So tomorrow, probably, I’ll change it back. Ho-hum.

upgrade trauma

I just upgraded my version of WordPress, and it seems to have screwed everything up.

Hopefully I’ll have it sorted out sooner rather than later, but bear with me.

EDIT: well, it’s getting a bit better, but after a sequence of painless upgrades, this one is doing my head in.

comment spam

The first comment waiting in my spam filter just now reads “May I borrow some articles from your site? Who should I contact?” And just for a moment I thought it might be a genuine comment which had been mistakenly identified as junk, even though it was apparently posted by someone called ‘daivaufeijau’.

Then I noticed that the next comment (from deawisy, saying “I just want to say THANKS to all people in this community”) linked back to the same webpage. And so did the comments from vujei and ajauxiseag. In total there were 241 comments all linking back to the same address, ranging from “Can you make pages for foreign people? For example Spanish” to “The greatest homage we can pay to truth is to use it.” These fake comments would really be more plausible if there were only one or two of them.

Thank fuck for Akismet, which somewhere in the middle of all that lot caught its 5000th spam comment since I installed it about last November.

A super-glamorous new look for Heraclitean Fire

Which isn’t actually going to happen. I was working on a new look for the blog a while ago, but came to the conclusion it was going to be just too memory-intensive. It’s heavy on the graphics, and because it uses lots of sharp-edged high-contrast shapes, you can’t compress the images very much without getting lots of glitching.

Anyway, I thought I’d produce a mock up to show you. If I’d worked it up into a full WordPress theme, I daresay I would have tweaked various things, not least the text styling. But it’ll give you the idea. I’ve done it as a PDF, although I don’t know why really.

WordPress 2.0 Theme Competition – winners announced

I’ve got a cold and accidentally took Night Nurse instead of Day Nurse, so apart from the general blearghness of the cold, I’m a bit dopey. If I start rambling incoherently, you know why.

But that isn’t what I was going to say. The winners of the WordPress theme competition I entered have been announced. No prize for me. No surprise there; my theme was probably rather too simple and rather too derivative of Kubrick, quite apart from the fact I only discovered too late that it didn’t display properly on some versions of IE/Windows.

Some comments about the themes that did win, which hopefully don’t come across as sour grapes:

The overall winner was Durable. I’ve mentioned this before when I was talking about Ajax. I think the use of Ajax is indeed very impressive, although the most striking thing – allowing users to change every detail of the colouring – seems like a bit of a gimmick. Aesthetically I think it’s fine but not exceptional. Overall, though, a fair winner.

Runner up was Kurtina. Personally I think this is a near-miss. The visual focus seems wrong to me; the strong blue-green draws the eye to the top of the sidebar and the line under the header, rather than either the title of the blog or the content. Just tweaking the colours would help a lot. I do think the trend to have the first entry in full and the following ones as exceprts is quite a good one though.

2nd runner up was Ambiru. This might be my favourite. Classy, stylish, attractive. Very nice.

Most Creative was Foliage. I thought this could have scored higher as well. It doesn’t seem to work very consistently in the theme browser, but assuming that’s just a problem with the browser, I like this a lot. It looks cool, the way all the sidebar stuff is hidden in a drop-down box at the top of the screen makes a lot of sense, and the focus is firmly on the content. Nice.

Best three-column design went to Tiga which, frankly, is a complete mess. It seems to be heavily customisable (colours, fonts, header size) through the Admin panel, which is nice for users who don’t like mucking around with their CSS, but it shows no sign of actual design at all.

Best two-column design went to Disconnected. I don’t get it. I mean, I don’t see what the theme is trying to do. It has lots of styling but no coherent look, for me. The diagonal stripey bits at the bottom of the sidebar boxes seem particularly pointless.

Best see of coloursDapit Hapon. Here, I have to strongly disagree with the judges. I think this is an example of very bad use of colour. The colours chosen don’t particularly complement each other – although they’re all browns, they’re rather different browns and they don’t work well together. But nor do they provide strong effective contrasts. A very odd choice.

Best Liquid DesignDarkPad. Well, it’s a liquid design. I don’t think it has much else going for it.

With CSS, it makes it very easy to style every element of your design separately – lists, links, columns, posts, comments, etc etc. I think the most common failing of people’s themes is that they actually do that; everything is styled in some way; a little border, a background colour, a graphic. And even if each detail is very subtle and tasteful, the combined effect of every part of the design being styled is usually that it’s a mess.

  • Me

Announcing Macaws 1.0

I probably should have played safe and released it as 0.1, but never mind. Since the WordPress 2.0 Theme Competition is now closed for entries, it seems like a good moment to officially release the theme I entered. It’s already available on the Official WordPress Theme Viewer, but you can also get it from my own specially set up demo blog, Heraclitean Fire Themes. There’s a permanent link in the sidebar.

I’m not planning to release any of the themes I use on this blog. Where’s the fun in designing your own personal website if it’s not unique?

WordPress Theme Competition

The WP theme comp I mentioned entering before seems to have been a peculiarly elaborate hoax, though I can’t see what they gained from it. Anyway, there’s now a new WordPress Theme Competition set up by people miffed at the collapse of the last one. I’ll probably enter it – after all, the alternative is just releasing my theme. The prizes are less exciting, but at least they exist.

Ajax and the common man

One of the hot new(ish) things in web design is Ajax – standing for Asynchronous Javascript And Xml. To quote Wikipedia, “The intent is to make web pages feel more responsive by exchanging small amounts of data with the server behind the scenes, so that the entire Web page does not have to be reloaded each time the user makes a change.” You’ll have seen the results on websites like Flickr, where you can edit the descriptions on your photos without having to load a new page. An impressive example of an Ajax-rich WordPress theme can be seen here; click on the buttons at the top to get the full effect.

Which is great, of course. Except that one of the joys of the internet is its accessibility for the casual user who wants to make a webpage. HTML is, really, an extremely simple system to use. CSS means a bit more to learn, but once you get the hang of it, it actually makes your life easier. And that’s all you need to arrange content on a page. If you just want to create a static webpage, you can do it entirely from scratch just with HTML and CSS, and how good the content is and how good it looks are entirely up to you.

Even using software like WordPress, it’s easy enough to just use some knowledge of HTML and CSS to restyle the output. The software is built in PHP, and you just have to work around the PHP tags, moving them around as necessary; it’s usually obvious from context what they do. So you can completely change the look of a site without doing any of what I’d call real coding. The various changes to the appearance of this site and its predecessors have all been done without me knowing any PHP. Ajax kills that, as far as I can tell; hacking around a theme to change the styling becomes a suddenly much more technical exercise.

I completely see the point of Ajax – when it’s used well, it transforms the user experience. And I’m not suggesting that anyone stop using it just for my sake. New software makes it easier and easier for people who know little about computers to share their thoughts and pictures on net; it’s just an unfortunate side-effect that as the software gets more sophisticated, it gets harder for a dabbler like me to get my hands dirty and tinker with the machinery.

I guess it’s a natural progression with all technologies. In the early days of motoring, you *had* to know how to do basic repairs to your car by the side of the road, and the engine was simple enough that you could probably do it with a couple of spanners and a can of oil. The fact that cars are now so reliable that you barely need to know how to check your oil and tyre pressure is a Good Thing, of course. But it still seems a pity when things get professionalised out of people’s hands to the point where they never get to do things themselves from scratch, whether it’s baking bread or creating a webpage.

WordPress 2.0 Theme Design Competition

I’m somewhat tempted by this WordPress 2.0 Theme Design Competition. I wouldn’t enter either of my curent themes, though. I couldn’t use the swifts one anyway, because the photographer never replied to my request to use his photo, and while I only feel mild guilt about breaching his copyright on this site, I can hardly use it to enter a competition which requires that the theme is released with a GPL licence. So it would be dependent on me having a good idea by the end of the month.

New Theme

I’ve come up with a new design for the site, as I think should be pretty obvious. If you prefer the calmer qualities of the old look, there’s now a theme switcher in the sidebar so you can pick your favourite. The scarab picture is used by kind permission of elina. Fab, innit?

The main problem with the new theme from a design POV is that it looks a bit peculiar if you’re looking at a single post which isn’t very long. But I can’t think of an easy answer to that one. It’s also a wee bit visually aggressive, but hey, that’s what the theme switcher is for – you can take your pick.

WordPress upgrade

Well, I’ve upgraded to WordPress 2.0 – despite the fact that they’re probably about to release 2.0.1 – and so far so good. Most (all?) of the changes are things which aren’t visible to you lot. It seems generally nicer to use, though the WYSIWYG editor doesn’t like Safari. *shrug*. The new Admin pages are a bit ugly. *shrug again*.

The main reason I upgraded was because you can now create categories on the fly as you write a post, although you can’t choose a parent catgory for it at the same time. And the post preview actually shows what it would look like on your blog, rather than just testing the formatting. I’ll have to take their word for it that the underlying code is improved.

EDIT: I’ve just trued tried the wysiwyg editor on Firefox. It does seem quite nice, I must admit.

Though it does that fucking annoying thing of automatically putting white space after a newline. Don’t these people write poetry?

EDIT again:

asdsad
sdasda
asdasdasd
sad

At least it looks like the old non-wysiwyg editor still works for single returns.

blog design

I’ve been thinking about web design recently, specifically as it applies to a possible redesign for this blog. There’s no rush, because the current look is fairly new and I’m pleased with it, but I had set myself a more ambitious target. Inspired by an exchange I had with Will over at Corridor of Uncertainty, I wanted to come up with something which broke away from the standard layout of ‘header and 2 or 3 columns’, which looked genuinely distinctive and sharp.

Obviously you can’t get away from the fact that most of the content you want to present (posts, blogroll, categories) is naturally in a column form. What you can do, hopefully, is break up the boxy visual appearance, both by disguising it – rather as I’ve tried to do with the fading-out of the blue boxes in the current design, which softens their appearance – and by laying them out somewhat differently. And that’s quite apart from all the decisions about typography, visual style, colour-scheme and so on. I would want to get the look stylish without being über-tasteful, modern without trying to present myself as terribly hip (which I’m not), and low-key while still being distinctive. And no Flash or Java, both because they’re completely unnecessary with this kind of site and because I wouldn’t know how to do them anyway – it took me long enough to learn my way around basic HTML and CSS.

I do have a few ideas, but it’s not coming together just yet. In the meantime, I had a (not very thorough) scan through the long poetry blogroll to see what other people have done. Most, sensibly enough, have just used one of the blogger templates. And there are plenty with good, simple designs based primarily on sensible colour and type choices. But here are a few that have managed something a bit more distinctive. In no particular order:

Equanimity (probably my favourite of the lot, though the one-column layout is a bit limiting)
jane dark’s sugarhigh!
Shanna Compton
{lime tree}
JewishyIrishy
Jacob’s Ladder
One Good Bumblebee
Odalisqued
Postcards from the Imagination
Watermark

Note that I’m not talking about anything particularly radical or super-ingenious, just good design.

New design for the blog

As should be pretty obvious, I’ve re-designed the blog. Again. If it looks peculiar on your computer, let me know. I’ve pretty much decided not to make the extra effort to make the site work on early versions of Internet Explorer, but if it’s not looking right on IE6 I might need to do something about it.

Can I just say how fucking annoying it is that CSS doesn’t seem to support blocks where the bottom is defined relative to the bottom of the webpage (i.e. the document rather than the screen).

The swifts are taken from this picture on Flickr.

A silly new feature!

I’ve added a list of music I’m currently listening to in the sidebar on the left. It uses a neat little WordPress plugin called WP-Scrobbler that grabs the info from your Audioscrobbler feed. So that list on the left automatically updates as I listen to music thorough iTunes. Or at least I think it updates every six minutes.

The default setting is to give the song title, artist and date and time for each song. That seemed like too much information, so I’ve got it just giving the last eight artists. But if you click on the name of an artist, it’ll link you to the Last.fm page for the particular song I listened to.

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