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.

Continue reading Review: Forge, a Tool for Bootstrapping a WordPress Theme

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.]