battis.net and I'm all out of bubble gum…

A few days ago (well, maybe a couple weeks ago), I was chatting with one of my colleagues about how I go about testing out new plugins and themes for WordPress µ before loading them on our school blog server. It seems like documenting my process might be generally helpful, so…

To start with, I decided (after ten years of mucking out Apache config files and PHP extensions and custom MySQL installs — thank you so, so much Marc Liyange for your timely and helpful installers!), that I was a grown-up and could spend $60 on a tool that makes my life easier: I run MAMP Pro on my MacBook. This means that I have a generic Apache/PHP/MySQL stack that supports commonly-used PHP extensions, Apache configurations, etc. I have redirected the document root of my install to my regular user’s Sites directory in OS X (~/Sites) so that I have ready access to the backend files of for my test installs. The net result: WordPress’ famous “Five Minute Install” is now true of almost any LAMP-based web application — I had a five-minute install of Drupal, Moodle, Joomla… you name it.

I’ve also settled into using Coda ($99) to edit HTML/PHP source code, since I particularly like the built-in terminal and publishing management features.

With WordPress µ installed (which, I guess, is now calling itself WPMU or WordPress MU or even WordPress 3 in betas), I now do the following:

  • I install create a new blog for each new theme or plugin that I want to test out. I follow a pretty intuitive naming scheme: the URL for the blog is the URL for the plugin or theme, and the name of the blog is the name of the plugin or theme (so WordPress Hashcash is at …/wp-hashcash and named WordPress Hashcash).
  • As I create each new blog, I create a new user to be that blog’s administrator. I almost never use this login, but it means that I have one user who is matched to each blog. In doing this, I make heavy use of Gmail’s + modifiers, so new user emails look like mygmailaddress+talyn+wpmu+blogurl@gmail.com — this lets me catch and filter relevant emails easily on the other end. (I developed this system when I was testing plugins that sent email notifications). For the curious, Talyn is the name of my laptop (so I know which server is sending me email) and WPMU is the keyword to distinguish these emails from, say, Drupal notifications.
  • I also have six generic users that I add to most (not all — I add them as needed) blogs, each with their own standard privileges:
    • Anna “Annie” Administrator
    • Edward “Eddie” Editor
    • Allison “Allie” Author
    • Christine “Chrissy” Contributor
    • Samuel “Sammy” Subscriber
    • Nathan “Nate” No Privileges

    I actually included nicknames so that I could control for how different themes displayed usernames (since I’m thinking about FERPA and how it may apply to our students on our school blogserver).

  • I have one blog on which I never activate themes or plugins, which I lyrically call “Is this blog in the blast radius?” This is based on my experience installing Digress.it on WordPress µ at the start of the year (it hosed every blog on the server, rather than just the one where it was activated). I check this before I deem any test complete.
  • One tricky thing that I did was that I set up MAMP to run Apache and MySQL as my local user account on my MacBook, and I have set permissions on my Sites directory so that my local user has all privileges, as does the www group, and other users have read/execute privileges (chown -R seth ~/Sites; chgrp -R www ~/Sites; chmod -R 775 ~/Sites). This means that I usually don’t run into problems with web apps that want to move or create files. This is also, of course, totally insecure. Que sera, sera.
  • I have an extra blog set up on my WordPress µ install that runs Feed WordPress, and it republishes the feeds for all of the other blogs on the server tagged Note. This means that I can post something tagged Note to any blog that I’m working on and then have all my notes together in one place. Adding the subscriptions to the Feed WordPress blog is a manual step, but not prohibitively difficult. And it really does mean that I have one place for all of my notes on how things went (or didn’t went) in my WordPress µ testing. I have the feeds categorized as Plugins, Themes, Configuration and Hacks, since those are generally what I’m testing (and mostly Plugins, at that).
  • One hitch in my system is that I have opted to keep my system entirely up-to-date (I’m running WordPress µ 2.9.2 with the most recent versions of all my plugins), while our school blog server is still at 2.8.4a. Generally speaking, this hasn’t been much of a problem, but when I’m particularly concerned, I will sometimes check things out on a lingering 2.8.4a install before loading it.

May 18th, 2010

Posted In: How To

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Since this is available nowhere else on the internet, I’m posting it here for safekeeping. I believe that this applies to at least FirstClass 10, perhaps also FirstClass 9 (but that’s just a W.A.G.). This is from FirstClass tech support:

An RSS feed can be generated for any FirstClass container object (folder, conference, etc.) which is visible to the Web by adding a template override parameter to the URL. In other words, if the URL to the news conference on your Web site was http://www.mysite.com/News , then the URL to the RSS feed for that conference would be http://www.mysite.com/News?Templates=RSS&items . If you have an RSS feed reader you can simply enter that URL, give it a name, and you’ll have a feed. Usually, sites that offer an RSS feed will put a little icon on their main Web page to show that they have one. If your main page is a FirstClass document all you need to do is:

  1. Paste in your preferred RSS image
  2. Highlight the image in the editor and right-click your mouse, choose “Make Link”
  3. Enter the RSS feed URL, in our example http://www.mysite.com/News?Templates=RSS&items or ?plugin=RSS&Items

Buyer beware: I have not seen this work yet in my own tinkering. But I am hopeful that somehow I’m doing something wrong.

May 18th, 2010

Posted In: How To

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One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to write a weekly “tech tips” column for the online faculty news. This is one such tip.

Even as the end-of-year to-do lists are approaching critical overload, I find that one of the joys of the spring is the contemplation of what I will be working on next year. Not so much in a “next year I’ll do this all differently” kind of snit, but with more of a “year in review” focus: spring and graduation makes me sentimental and reminiscent.

With that in mind, in the past week I have come across two interesting resources both for teaching in general and for thinking about our work as “knowledge workers” in the 21st century (to infinity and beyond!). First, Merlin Mann discusses how we do (or do not) allocate our time and attention to getting our projects done. Thoughtful, provocative and entertaining stuff. Second, Williams College’s Project for Effective Teaching has gone online with a truly exciting, provocative array of professorial reflections and questions around specific aspects of classrooms and teaching and learning. Enjoy!

How, you might ask, do videos like these fall into my hands? I follow-up on the sources of interesting articles that I see. And then on the sources of those sources: I like to find where the ideas are swimming around raw and unfettered. I do this by following a boat-load of interesting “edu-bloggers”, by following (and engaging with) other teachers on Twitter, and by doing a lot of skimming.

May 13th, 2010

Posted In: "Tech Tips" Column

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One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to write a weekly “tech tips” column for the online faculty news. This is one such tip.

As we head down the homestretch of May and June, more and more students (and teachers) are experiencing siyyum for their coursework, either as final papers or presentations or projects. Projects and papers are delightfully straight-forward and easy to facilitate and grade… at least, when compared to presentations, which have the added benefit of being a potential exercise in goodwill and patience to sit through.

The first hurdle our students have to get over is the technology itself — bringing together all the disparate elements of their presentation into one place and time. A few years ago, I wrote up a cheat sheet of tips that help to avoid the most common student pitfalls. I have not run into technical problems with student PowerPoints since I started giving them this handout (I kid you not).

In general, a good presentation has to nail not just the content and technology, but also visuals and public speaking. And this is the hardest thing to do right. For adults, even. Experts have started to decry PowerPoint as not just problematic, but actively destructive when it comes to communicating information and especially nuance clearly.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was shown a PowerPoint slide in Kabul last summer that was meant to portray the complexity of American military strategy, but looked more like a bowl of spaghetti.

“When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” General McChrystal dryly remarked, one of his advisers recalled, as the room erupted in laughter.

New York Times, April 26, 2010

Shifting the focus from a PowerPoint document to the holistic presentation will further the student’s ability to communicate complex ideas — a key skill in today’s (or any day’s) world. Some further reading that is both informative and motivational on that front:

May 6th, 2010

Posted In: "Tech Tips" Column

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One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to write a weekly “tech tips” column for the online faculty news. This is one such tip.

Making Things Run Smoothly

  • Make sure that you always insert pictures into your presentation using the Insert Picture command from the Insert menu. Do not copy and paste pictures into your presentation. For arcane reasons, copy and pasting pictures can make your PowerPoint fail to display your pictures on other computers.
  • Keep a folder of all of the pictures and video that you add to your PowerPoint. Just in case you need to re-insert it (for example, if you messed up on following the tip above).
  • Video is not embedded in PowerPoint, pictures are – share Zip files. That is, you can insert pictures into a PowerPoint presentation and send the presentation to someone else and they can see the pictures but you cannot insert video, send the presentation to someone else, and expect them to see the video. PowerPoint creates a link to the video instead. To get around this, if you are going to use video, put your presentation and your video files in a folder together, then insert the video. When you are ready to share your presentation, right-click on the folder and Send To > Compress or Zip Archive and send out the Zip file instead. Your recipient can unzip the archive and will have the presentation and the video.

Making Things Look Pretty

  • Black text on a white background is not traditional by accident. It’s easy to read. Think carefully before trying a novel color combination.
  • One picture per slide lets you show the picture big, in all its glory. Multiple pictures per slide lets you compare pictures. Think about which it is you want to be doing (and remember that postage stamps are hard to see!).
  • Don’t stretch your pictures. You can scale your pictures proportionately by holding down the Shift key when you drag the grab boxes on the corners of the picture. This will make sure that the picture doesn’t get distorted.
  • Use text judiciously. This one is complicated: you don’t want to have too much text on a slide because it will get small and hard to read. You don’t want to put your script on the slide, because then you’ll be reading from the slide, which is deathly dull (unless, maybe, you’re Morgan Freeman). But you do want to present text that will support your arguments and highlight important ideas. And you do want to present quotations that are illuminating. One rule of thumb is the “six by six” rule: no more than six words per bullet point, no more than six bullet points per slide. This is totally artificial and you should violate it as needed… but remember it and what it is really urging: don’t overwhelm your audience with text!
  • Less is more. This is true of almost everything involved in PowerPoint, but particularly when it comes to animation and sound effects. They have a campy appeal, and can sometimes underscore a point you’re trying to make. But you ain’t Spielberg and PowerPoint ain’t ILM, so don’t go trying to put in gratuitous special effects just to make your PowerPoint more appealing. Your research and ideas should be the focus, not your ability to make car crash sound effects.

May 6th, 2010

Posted In: "Tech Tips" Column

Tags: , , ,

One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to post a monthly column on the goings-on in our media studies department (and in education technology in general) to our online parent bulletin. This is one such column.

In today’s world, where “there is an app for that” — no matter what that may be — it is easy to lose sight of the fact that, in fact, when we are dealing with real problems that involve real people and real situations and real information, there often isn’t an app for that. Nor is there a systematic, rational approach for tackling the unknown. It’s easy to find an app that tracks the balance of your checking account… but very, very hard to find an app that can tell you why your portfolio is going up (or down).

The Media Studies department is offering a new course in computer application design and computer science in the coming academic year, to complement our existing offerings in video, photography, web and game design and new media. Seth Battis, who joined the department this year, will be teaching the course, which is designed to complement the robotics learning led by [a colleague] and [Jewish Day School’s Academy of Science and Technology].

Computer science is the study of computation, using computers to process vast mountains of data into that nugget of usable, useful, valuable information. And, in the past decade, it has become the domain not just of computer geeks, but of professionals, scientists and researchers seeking to better understand the information they have and the challenges they are trying to tackle. Computational biology, statistical modeling of markets, physical simulations of wind energy are all being done by people with a foot in two worlds: the world of their chosen, beloved studies and the world of computation facilitates their studies.

Computer science has gone in and out of vogue many times over the last several decades — and with good reason. It can provide a unique perspective on creative problem-solving and ways for humans (us!) to understand vast and complicated data. But it can also be the drudgery of “pixel-stained technopeasants” sweating over line after line of arcane code.

The purpose of the Computer Application Design and Programming course is to, at the high school level, make these same skills and this same practice available to [Jewish Day School] students. Students will have the opportunity to practice their analytic and reasoning skills, while developing new practices in problem solving, using modern tools further their learning. The course will be taught using object-oriented programming practices, applicable in a broad array of modern computational environments — from the iPhone to the web to stand-alone computers to computing clusters.

Students and families interested in the Computer Application Design and Programming course are encouraged to contact their advisor or Mr. Battis or [my department chair] for more information.

May 3rd, 2010

Posted In: Parent Communication

One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to post a monthly column on the goings-on in our media studies department (and in education technology in general) to our online parent bulletin. This is one such column.

In today’s world, where “there is an app for that” — no matter what that may be — it is easy to lose sight of the fact that, in fact, when we are dealing with real problems that involve real people and real situations and real information, there often isn’t an app for that. Nor is there a systematic, rational approach for tackling the unknown. It’s easy to find an app that tracks the balance of your checking account… but very, very hard to find an app that can tell you why your portfolio is going up (or down).

The Media Studies department is offering a new course in computer application design and computer science in the coming academic year, to complement our existing offerings in video, photography, web and game design and new media. Seth Battis, who joined the department this year, will be teaching the course, which is designed to complement the robotics learning led by [colleague] and [Jewish Day School Academy of Science and Technology].

Computer science is the study of computation, using computers to process vast mountains of data into that nugget of usable, useful, valuable information. And, in the past decade, it has become the domain not just of computer geeks, but of professionals, scientists and researchers seeking to better understand the information they have and the challenges they are trying to tackle. Computational biology, statistical modeling of markets, physical simulations of wind energy are all being done by people with a foot in two worlds: the world of their chosen, beloved studies and the world of computation facilitates their studies.

Computer science has gone in and out of vogue many times over the last several decades — and with good reason. It can provide a unique perspective on creative problem-solving and ways for humans (us!) to understand vast and complicated data. But it can also be the drudgery of “pixel-stained technopeasants” sweating over line after line of arcane code.

The purpose of the Computer Application Design and Programming course is to, at the high school level, make these same skills and this same practice available to [Jewish Day School] students. Students will have the opportunity to practice their analytic and reasoning skills, while developing new practices in problem solving, using modern tools further their learning. The course will be taught using object-oriented programming practices, applicable in a broad array of modern computational environments — from the iPhone to the web to stand-alone computers to computing clusters.

Students and families interested in the Computer Application Design and Programming course are encouraged to contact their advisor or Mr. Battis or [my department chair] for more information.

May 3rd, 2010

Posted In: Computer Science, Parent Communication

Tags: , , ,

I just slapped together a very quick plugin for a teacher’s blog that adds a [category] shortcode to WordPress. Basically, it just passes through all of the attributes of the shortcode as parameters to wp_list_categories(), allowing the user to embed a list of blog categories in any page, post or widget. This feels like something that should already exist (but I couldn’t find it).

category_shortcode.php

April 23rd, 2010

Posted In: Blogs, How To

Tags: , , , , ,

One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to write a weekly “tech tips” column for the online faculty news. This is one such tip.

One of the oft-touted features of social media, blogs, and news sites is RSS feeds. The phrase “subscribe to my feed for updates” probably connotes some twenty-something layabout in a coffee shop, but, in fact, RSS feeds are enormously useful to grown-ups (like thee and me) for managing large (vast, huge) amounts of information.

First, RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. In this case, we’re using syndication in the same sense as a newspaper syndicate (not a crime syndicate — there’s different software for that): suppose Dave Barry writes for the Miami Herald and the San Francisco Chronicle carries the Bizarro cartoon. How is it that we open the LA Times and see both of these in our paper? The newspaper syndicates distribute all of the updates to Dave Barry’s column and Bizarro just prior to the newspaper going to press each night.

RSS, really simple syndication, is a newspaper syndicate for the rest of us: we can subscribe to the RSS feeds on web sites for updates from that web site, and use a feed reader (Google Reader, Newsgator, Bloglines, iGoogle, etc.) to present all of these updated feeds to us in one place. Common Craft has a short (brisk, even) video explaining this:

All of the blogs on our school blog server have RSS feeds. In fact, you can subscribe to updates from a particular category on a blog, or to updated comments on a particular post on a blog, if you want. Major newspapers provide lists of RSS feeds for their articles.

As a voracious newshound myself (I used to read two, three and sometimes four newspapers in a morning), I’m finding that — with RSS feeds — I no longer even open a physical paper. Instead, all of my information comes through Google Reader subscriptions to blog and newspaper feeds. About 5,000 updates a week.

For more plain English explanations of web technology, check out Common Craft’s YouTube channel.

April 22nd, 2010

Posted In: "Tech Tips" Column

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I came across Rahul Mahtani and Yofred Moik’s conceptual design of a Google Mail Envelope a few days ago and was… instantly captivated. I’m not sure if it’s just the aesthetics of a design on the envelope in general, the way it hearkens back to an old school airmail envelope, or the conceptual neatness of the route between the two addresses. I just know that I love it and I want it.

So, I spent some time making a version of it.

Right now, my implementation is very much hacked together (I was teaching myself the Google Maps API as I went — it’s not hard, but it’s not familiar vocabulary, yet — I have a few other projects that will get me more expert soon, I hope). The things to know are:

  • Change the addresses and the map will (should) update to reflect the new information.
  • The first line of the address is removed on the assumption that it’s a name and not part of the address (and users are cruelly constrained to 3-line addresses right now).
  • The resulting envelope template is pretty much exactly a full-bleed letter-size page. Which means that printing it is a hassle.
  • I strongly suspect that there should be a dampening-down of the colors on the map so that the USPS can automatically scan the right information easily. My recollection from constructing bulk mailings a few years back is that the address just needs to have a bit of white space around it, but having a mess of other geographic information scattered nearby may not be helpful…
  • The snazzy orientation of the address infoWindows on the original design hasn’t happened yet. I think I have an idea of how to do it with some CSS (they won’t be “real” infoWindows), but haven’t taken the time to fiddle with it yet.
  • There’s something hinky with the borders of the side-flaps due to the not-yet-standard border-radius CSS.

More to come as way opens.

April 11th, 2010

Posted In: Computer Science

Tags: , , , , , , ,

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