Review: Forge, a Tool for Bootstrapping a WordPress Theme

Forge is a tool for quickly developing a WordPress theme built by the fine folks at The Theme Foundry.

Forge is a free command-line toolkit for bootstrapping and developing WordPress themes in a tidy environment using front-end languages like Sass, LESS, and CoffeeScript.

During the early development process of this year’s default theme for WordPress, the Twenty Twelve team—Drew Strojny and myself—used Github and Forge to build the theme (view the archived source).

I would like to share my thoughts on using Forge during this process now that the theme is back in the core WordPress environment: Subversion and Trac.

In summary: Forge is too restrictive for general theme develpoment.

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Site Testing With Alkaline and Load Impact

I came across two new (to me) tools today for testing websites, Alkaline and Load Impact.

Alkaline is a new Mac application from Litmus that allows you to “tests your website designs across 17 different Windows browsers right from your Mac desktop.” It works as a standalone app, or with Coda and TextMate using plugins. The free version tests in Firefox and Internet Explorer 7, and if you sign up for a paid Litmus account you can test in all 17 browsers.

Load Impact is an online testing tool to simulate high user loads. There is a free option allowing you to simulate a low load level, and the test results help you see which assets (CSS, images, JavaScript) are slow-loading or problematic as well as how the site performs the more users hit it at once. I don’t see this replacing YSlow for quick and dirty speed tests and load optimization, but it could be an awesome tool for larger websites that need to do “real” stress and load tests.

Google's SEO Starter Guide

Google now offers a guide in PDF form to get you started with SEO best practices. The guide is chock full of great tips on navigation, meta elements, website promotion, headings, and much more.

So, the next time we get the question, “I’m new to SEO, how do I improve my site?”, we can say, “Well, here’s a list of best practices that we use inside Google that you might want to check out.”

Read more and download the PDF guide at Official Google Webmaster Central Blog: Google’s SEO Starter Guide.

Travel Internet Connection: EVDO vs. Satellite

To prepare for the transition to full-time RV living, I invested in a mobile satellite internet kit designed for RVers in early 2006. Until recently, this was my main internet connection.

I have found that the satellite system works great in most places, and generally provides a steady connection when in rural areas where no other connection is available. I don’t always use it; if an RV park or campground has WiFi available, I usually opt for that for general web browsing (I still use the satellite for secure web browsing and as a backup). The strength of the satellite system is its ability to capture a signal almost anywhere in the lower 48 states, and it has saved my bacon in some out-of-the-way places.

Satellite Issues

It isn’t perfect, though. In northern states I’ve visited (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Washington, Oregon), the view angle for the satellite is very low, which combined with the abundance of trees and hills makes the satellite setup difficult or impossible. Even in a good location with a clear view of the southern sky, there is a seemingly endless list of possible issues with the satellite connection: solar flares, weather at the network centers, cloud cover, storms, rain, electrical interference from power lines or other WiFi signals… you get the idea. I’ve spent days agonizing over a trickle-speed connection while trying to get work done.

Since the satellite’s main strength, in my opinion, is its usefulness in out-of-the-way places, I didn’t consider going with a cellular data plan since I wanted more flexibility to truly “use it anywhere.” I’ve found, however, that my travels generally find me close to towns and cities—at least on work days. As much as I thought I’d be in the boonies, it hasn’t turn out to be the case.

Enter EVDO

So, I decided to take another look at cellular broadband, popularly called EVDO1, as an option. My hope was that the technology had advanced enough in the last two years to leave the satellite behind and transition to EVDO. This would mean three big things to me: fewer worries about where to park (trees, latitude, etc), smaller and cheaper equipment, and faster, more reliable service.

I read, researched, prodded, and poked. Several fellow RVers suggested checking out EVDO plans on Sprint and Verizon. Popular online RV forums are filled with success stories from RVers who are connect with EVDO. I also followed Alex King’s experiences with Sprint, which led me to EVDOinfo.com.

The resources and information at EVDOinfo.com helped tremendously, and I was pleased with the speed reports and the price points. Finally, I settled on a Sprint Mobile Broadband plan along with the Franklin U680 USB, a CradlePoint CTR500 router, and a Booster Antenna.

The system arrived, and I haven’t set up the satellite since. One big surprise for me: latency is not as much of an issue as I had expected. With the satellite connection, I’d experienced horrible latency when typing in remote shells, and using Skype or any SSL connection over HTTP had proven difficult and slow. In contrast, the Sprint EVDO connection is fast and responsive over a remote SSH connection, and secure web pages load quicker.

If you are an RVer, I’d recommend looking into an EVDO system. If you have a connection with cable or DSL, and rely heavily on it, I’d suggest an EVDO plan as a backup to your main connection. It also works great as a traveling WiFi connection if you are on the road a lot.

EVDO Resources

First, read a good introduction: Easy EVDO. See if your area is covered, first in the official coverage maps (Sprint, Verizon), then in the EVDO coverage maps submitted by users. Then, to start looking at hardware, go to the 3Gstore, a one-stop shop for all your EVDO needs, brought to you by the EVDOinfo folks.

Speeds are comparable to DSL when the EVDO connection is at its best. As a bonus, the connection has three different speed ranges (depending on your location), which is nice compared to a satellite system that is either on or off. When EVDO isn’t available, for example, but you are still within voice range, you can still surf the web and view emails, though at a much slower speed.

Here is how the Sprint speed ranges break down:

  • Best: EVDO-A provides 450–800kbps download with bursts to 3Mbps and 300–600kbps upload.
  • Next best: EVDO Rev-0 provides 400–700kbps download with bursts to 2Mbps and 50–100kbps upload.
  • Slowest: 1xRTT provides 50–100kbps download and upload (dialup speeds). This is available anywhere voice service exists.

To get the most out of an EVDO plan, you will want to be in the EVDO-A coverage area most of the time.

EVDO vs. Satellite

I have to say that the satellite connection I was using doesn’t stack up well against my new EVDO connection. One exception is the “use anywhere” situation, but as I mentioned above I don’t often find myself out of cellular range on work days.

Strengths as compared to satellite:

  1. Doesn’t need a clear view of southern sky.
  2. Faster setup time: no pointing or modem rebooting each time.
  3. Cheaper, lighter, and smaller hardware.
  4. The equipment is confined within the RV, meaning I have no exterior equipment to take down/up each time I move.
  5. Can be used anywhere (coffee shop, in the car) as long as the modem is powered. Or, the USB EVDO card can be used on just one computer to get access. This is a huge deal for frequent travelers that are constantly trying to find a WiFi connection.
  6. Can be used while moving (doesn’t need to be stationary like the satellite dish).
  7. Provides lower levels of service when EVDO isn’t available (slower, but I still have a connection).

Weaknesses as compared to satellite:

  1. Broadband coverage is only around populated areas. (But, both Sprint and Verizon’s coverage areas are expanding.)
  2. 5GB cap of usage per month. My satellite plan also has limits, but they are much higher, and based on daily usage, not monthly.
  3. Signal strength affects the speeds: the closer I am to the tower, the better.
  4. The USB modem’s onboard antenna isn’t very strong; I had to to purchase a booster antenna to guarantee service in all the places I visit.
  5. In reading the service agreement with Sprint, and viewing their marketing materials, the service doesn’t appear intended to be a full-time connection; instead it seems to be designed for as a backup to a regular connection (cable, DSL) or as a travel connection between office and home (for example).

1 EVDO is short for “Evolution Data Optimized.” Sprint calls their EVDO service “Mobile Broadband” and Verizon calls their EVDO service “BroadbandAccess.” Both refer to their lower-speed 1xRTT service as “NationalAccess.”

Update: I added links to the “official” coverage maps for Sprint and Verizon.

Beautiful URLs

In URLs Can Be Beautiful, Chris Shiflett explains how he built beautiful URLs for OmniTI.

I agree whole-heartedly that URLs can and should be beautiful, and I firmly believe they should not only look good, but should also be useful, meaningful, and “discoverable.” In the case of OmniTI, the first subcategory in the URL is based on an action verb, like “is”, “helps”, or “thinks.” This gives the URL a powerful mnemonic quality, since it reads like a sentence. It also describes the content of the page it represents, which is awesome.

The only downside I can see is the “discoverability” for common URLs like “about” and “contact”. A lot of people are used to finding those URLs the same on most sites, especially typical brochure-type business websites. But, you can always have a redirect rule for those if it’s important. The creativity and unique design of OmniTI’s URL scheme might just make up for the loss of predictability.

I’m glad to see a great example of a beautiful and semantic URL scheme to use as inspiration for my own projects.

UPDATE: As a nice follow-up, Nate Abele explains how to set up nice URLs in the CakePHP framework by defining custom routes: Advanced URL Routing and SEO Techniques with CakePHP.

Using Web Cache

If you have built a web site or two you have probably heard of “web cache” technology. Even you haven’t, you’ve probably seen the “cache” settings in your favorite web browser.

While web caching is not hard to understand and implement, it is often misunderstood. Some site owners dislike a cache since they think it will serve “old” content to visitors. Others think that caching can distort site statistics since visitors getting cached content aren’t making requests all the way into the primary server in some cases. Web surfers may think they are getting stale or old content as well.

As with any technology, understanding brings happiness. I came across a great web cache tutorial and recommend it highly: “Caching Tutorial for Web Authors“ by Mark Nottingham. Read it to learn how you can control the way your web site uses cache technology.

Secure Email with Gmail

Who you are:

A Gmail user who wants to improve the way you use email. (If you don’t use Gmail, ask me for an invitation to try it, then read my previous post about why Gmail rocks).

What you want:

A secure way to check your web-based email. By secure, I mean encrypted login (authorization) as well as secure reading, writing, and sending from any computer. This technique will work at home, the public library, or accessing a Wi-Fi hotspot with your laptop.

How to do it:

When you connect to Gmail, type in https://mail.google.com instead of http://mail.google.com. The s after the http stands for “secure” HTTP. If you launch Gmail with that extra letter, it will force the program to keep you locked into secure mode as long as you have it open in your browser. In most browsers you should see a padlock or green key to indicate that you are viewing a secure web page. In Firefox, I noticed that the address bar (where the https:// is) changes to a nice yellow background to show that it is securely connected.

Why it’s important:

If you access an email program over the Internet, chances are that the email traffic you are sending is not encrypted, and can be read by anyone who is willing and able to do so. Secure email is important at home and in the office; it is even more important if you are accessing your email from a public terminal in a library, or using your laptop at the local Starbucks. By securely logging in to Gmail, you will ensure your privacy. And it’s so easy to do!

Update your bookmarks:

The best way to remember this technique is to save it in your bookmarks or favorites. In your browser, find your bookmark for Gmail1. Edit the bookmark by adding in the https:// at the front, save it, and start using always-on secure email with Gmail.

Thank you to Steve Gibson of Security Now for this great tip.

[1] If you are using Internet Explorer, send me an email (so we can chat a bit about getting a better browser). For Firefox users, select Bookmarks file menu, then open Manage Bookmarks. Find the Gmail bookmark entry. Right-click, and select Properties. Then you can add the s after the http and save the bookmark. Test it to make sure it connects securely. Safari and Opera users, I am assuming you know what to do.

[UPDATE: fixed a bad link.]

Windows MetaFile Vulnerability Checker

I already posted this here, but it is important enough for me to put it here on my business site as well. Sorry to those who will get this more than once!

If you are running Windows, especially XP, you should check your computer to see if it is vulnerable to the infamous Windows MetaFile vulnerability.

Steve Gibson, of grc.com has created an small tool to check your computer quickly and easily. Download it here.

If you are not vulnerable, it means you have either installed one of the previous patches or else you’ve used Windows Update to get the official patch (make sure you are using Internet Explorer for the MS Update page).

If the tool tells you that you are vulnerable, make sure to follow its instructions on getting the correct patch.

I just ran the MetaFix tool from Steve this morning, and am now good to go.

Gmail is Email Done Right

I have been asked a lot lately about Gmail and why it is the preferred email program for myself and lots of other people. Read on if you want to know why it is such a big success.

It’s ready for you

While technically still in Beta stage^1^, Google’s “Gmail” is ready for everyone. It is by far the best free web-based email program available. It beats most paid webmail services and outshines common desktop email programs such as Outlook Express and Eudora.

Why Gmail?

Why is Gmail so cool? It’s fast, easy to use, and free. Google also incorporates the power of their web searching technology into your mail archives so that you can search easily and powerfully. And, with 2GB plus of storage you won’t be running out of space anytime soon.

Email from anywhere

Since Gmail is web-based, you can access your email from anywhere. If you want to read and write your work or school email you can do so with email forwarding and address aliasing. For example, the alias feature allows me to write an email from “official-email@simpledream.net” even though my Gmail address is really “my-email@gmail.com”.

Gmail’s approach to handling folders and message saving is perhaps one of it’s most beneficial features. Instead of the typical folder structure, Gmail simply allows you to archive everything in on big folder called “All Mail”. From there you can use the powerful search function, or else highlight (“star”) or label any number of messages or combinations of messages/conversations. Gmail uses this mixture of filters, labels, and highlighting functions to help you organize the bulk of your past email messages with very little effort.

Lots of nice features

Other notable features include auto-save drafts, time-saving shortcut keys, and a fantastic spam-catching system. I also like the intuitive conversation views which provide a straightforward way of message threading so that you only see quoted text and new responses instead of scrolling through lines and lines of old conversations.

PCWorld gives kudos to Gmail

There is a reason Gmail won 2nd place out of the Top 100 products of the year from PCWorld magazine (they were second only to the amazing Firefox web browser). PCWorld’s review says:

Google Gmail: (Free) Fast, simple, and with 2GB of storage, it has the elements of a paid service, delivering messages sans pesky graphical ads.

The downside

Just to be fair, there are some minor concerns about Gmail:

  • Content-based ads: Ads are small, text-based but based on your email content. Google’s software scans your emails for search terms and then inserts ads based on those works. Google claims that no humans read them so you are safe from prying eyes.
  • Storage on Google: Some people don’t like having their data stored on Google’s servers rather than on their own.

Try it, you’ll like it!

If you haven’t tried Gmail, send me a note and I can send you the link to sign up. The switch is worth it, in my opinion, just for the spam catching and the ease of use. My Gmail experience has made my email communication more efficient and frankly…more enjoyable!

Notes:
[1]: In software development, Beta means that the progam that is still somewhat in development. Alpha is the first release, Beta follows, and usually after that is the true public release.

[Updated 01/10/2006 to reformat markup.]

Ten Uses of RSS

[UPDATE: this is the last of four articles on RSS.]

Even though RSS has been used in many ways, news reading was at the heart of the RSS design and implementation. Since then, just like any good technology, it has taken root in other markets.

Here is a sampling of how RSS is used on the web today. Since RSS is constantly changing, this list will probably look different in a few months—at least for me.

  1. Ecommerce
    Retail web sites can notify consumers of the latest offerings and sales. A typical example is a company like eBay or Amazon that could send you updates on your favorite genre, author, or search term whenever a new product or specially priced item in that category is available. Since RSS can have links and other interactive content, it’s a simple way to market your products and keep customers up-to-date.
  2. Automatic search results
    Online services provide custom search results sent to you via RSS. For instance, as a Chicago area web design company, you can set up a feed to notify you every time the Google Top Ten changes for “chicago web design”.
  3. Project management
    Project managers can update team members of updates to job details, new to-do lists, and milestones. For example, if a group of high school students are working on a paper together online, RSS can be used to notify each student when the paper is updated by another team member.
  4. Event calendars
    Use RSS to update your local calendar from online social networking software. As with many other RSS uses, this one is largely untapped as of yet. I use RSS to update my local machine with web projects milestones from my Basecamp account.
  5. Bookmarks
    Services such as del.icio.us offer RSS feeds for popular tags. I follow a feed for “Neal Stephenson” so that every time a user posts a del.icio.us bookmark with a tag related to Neal Stephenson, I get an update in my RSS reader.
  6. Classified Ads
    Sites such as the wonderful craigslist offer RSS feeds for all of their categories, both big and small. Follow job offerings in your city, or look for RVs for sale (I get feeds for both of those things!).
  7. Photos
    In addition to bookmark feeds, other Social networking services use RSS to send updates. A great example is an online photo gallery called Flickr. Any time a user posts a Flickr photo with a tag of “tucson”, I get a notification with a thumbnail of the photo and link to view it online. It’s a great way to keep up with lots of new photos posted in your area of interest.
  8. Podcasts
    Podcasting relies heavily on subscription services many of which are RSS feeds. Updating and getting the latest audio content for your favorite podcasts is made easy by RSS. An extra plus is the show notes which can get included in the RSS feed as a convenient visual guide to the content.
  9. Package Tracking
    Track your FedEx, UPS, or DHL package with RSS. The way it works: enter the tracking number into your feed reader (such as Bloglines), then you will receive an update every time the tracking information is updated in the carrier’s database. This really beats manually checking the carrier’s site for updates.
  10. News reading
    Whether you are an avid reader of good online content, a writer, or other content producer, RSS can help you either stay on top of new material. Following a large number of blogs is the quintessential use of RSS in my life.

Summary: Though RSS is used in many ways today, blogs and news sites were the early adopters of the technology. This is changing! To see a good diagram of the new RSS usage, check out this blog post on Burning Questions (the FeedBurner blog). The 2005 RSS diagram shows some of the newer RSS uses in comparison to the older 2003 diagram.

Can you think of any other uses that I missed here?