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Curious problem

In which FP has an obscure font problem, in annoyingly specific circumstances

Only a day after the new garden blog went live, I found myself with a problem. This morning, I noticed a problem with it, on K’s PC. Moreover, it was only a problem on K’s PC. On her PC, in Firefox and in IE, the heading font was hugely oversized compared to the rest of the page. In Chrome, everything was fine.

Now, I’d tested the site in all of my browsers. On my Windows PC, running Window 7 just like K’s, there were no problems in any of the browsers I’d tried. On my Linux box, all fine; on my FreeBSD box, all fine. But on K’s PC, apart from in Chrome, the heading font was completely out. Whether I tried setting an absolute size or a relative size, the heading font was completely out.

All of the fonts on the new site are loaded through the Google Webfonts API, because it’s nice and simple and practically no different to self-hosting your fonts. Fiddling around with it, I noticed something strange: it wasn’t just a problem specific to K’s PC, it was a problem specific to this specific font. Changing the font to anything else: no problems at all. With the font I originally chose: completely the wrong size on the one PC. Bizarre.

After spending a few hours getting more and more puzzled and frustrated, I decided that, to be frank, I wasn’t that attached to the specific font. So, from day 2, the garden blog is using a different font on its masthead. The old one – for reference, “Love Ya Like A Sister” by Kimberly Geswein – was abandoned, rather than wrestle with getting it to render at the right size on every computer out there. The replacement – “Cabin Sketch” by Pablo Impallari – does that reliably, as far as I’ve noticed;* and although it’s different it fits in just as well.

* this is where someone writes in and says it looks wrong on their Acorn Archimedes, or something along those lines.

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The Extension

In which an annex is announced

As you can see, as I’ve mentioned more than a few times already, this site has been fairly quiet for the past few months, since we’ve moved house. We’ve come up with a cunning solution, though. Start another blog!

It’s not really a separate blog; it’s more of an annex to this one. A separate side-project, with rather more of a focus than this rambling monstrosity,* with a specific topic, rather than whatever I can conjure up to make 500 words of. The idea being, a narrower topic will make ideas come more easily. It is: The Symbolic Forest Gardenblog.

Gardening posts on this site – all none of them – will now appear over on the gardening blog. Gardening-related photos will pop up over there too. Anything I write that isn’t about gardening, that will still be over here. Keeping it in this domain might end up a bit confusing, because forest gardening is a recognised genre that is almost entirely unlike our garden so far. Hopefully readers will pick up that it’s the Symbolic Forest Gardenblog, not the Symbolic Forest Gardenblog.

* and it’s not going to have footnotes, either.

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Time passes

In which FP gets self-reflective

Well, that was August, then.

I’m not sure why I seem to lose interest in writing here every few months. It happens, though: things pass me by and I don’t have anything to say about them. Things have happened, yes, and I’ve ranted about them to people, but the rants haven’t made it into words. Not yet, at any rate.

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In which there’s no internet, so we’re tweeting instead

We’re still stuck in internet-connection limbo at Symbolic Towers, as mentioned a week ago. We’ve got the phone line all wired up, we’ve told our broadband people that our phone line has changed, and now we’re waiting to be Jumpered. A nice chap from BT Openreach,* to finish the job, has to pop down to our local exchange and plug in a jumper, a short bit of wire that connects our phone line to the rest of the universe. Before then, no internet.**

In the meantime, I thought I might mention that a few weeks ago I thought I might get up-to-date with the top trends of 2008; so I set up an account on Twitter. Well, I thought I’d better get around to it before my preferred username was taken; and it is rather easier to update on my phone than this site is. I’m @forestpines on there, posting such exciting things as “ooh, I’m in the library” and “look, a nice photo”. At some point I will wire up the blog and the twitter account together, so everything is nicely linked, my twitter posts appear here, my blog posts automatically appear there, and so on. That, though, will have to wait; indeed, I’ll probably upgrade to WordPress 3 before that point.

* BT Openreach, I’m told, only employs Nice Chaps. They do tend to drink a lot of tea and eat a lot of biscuits, though.

** I’m in our local library right now, in case you were wondering, just like I had to do last time we moved house.

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With Difficulty

In which FP muses on how hard it is to write something with all the distractions the modern world has to offer

There’s one big problem with computers and pervasive connectivity. The problem is: it’s all at your fingertips. Which means, when you sit down to do some work, it’s all too easy to realise that there are other things you’d rather be doing; and there are a lot that can be done there and then.

In a lot of cases that’s straightforward to solve: disconnect yourself. It’s a bit trickier, though, when it comes to writing blog posts. Particularly, the sort of blog posts that need fact-checking, more information, and so on. Once you have to start doing that, you start getting sidetracked down a line of “research” which is very interesting and distracting, but doesn’t really help you with getting your blog post written. The inspiration fades away amid a mass of non-information.

What I’m going to have to do, I think, in order to get this process going properly again, is to make more notes. Get a notebook, and find a place far away from the internet. Hide my phone. Lie back in bed, maybe, and write my posts with pen and paper first. And after that, put all the links in and do the fact-checking, after the text is already down. It all goes back to something I wrote a long time back, wondering if having a Blog Editor would improve the quality of this blog. An independent Blog Editor is highly unlikely to appear, so I have to fulfil both roles myself; but if I do try to explicitly divide writing time and editing time, then maybe much more will get done.

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In which things turn to treacle

I’ve noticed, over the past few months or so, that sometimes this site seems to load rather slowly. The slow periods didn’t seem to match any spikes in my own traffic, though, so I didn’t see that there was necessarily much I could do about it; moreover, as it wasn’t this site’s traffic that seemed to be causing the problem, I wasn’t under any obligation to do anything about it.

As I’ve mentioned before, a few months back I switched to Google Analytics for my statistics-tracking. Which is all well and good; it has a lot more features than I had available previously. Its only limitation is: it uses cookies and Javascript to do its work. Because of that, it only logs visits by real people, using real browsers,* and not spiders, robots, RSS readers or nasty cracking attempts. Often, especially if you’re a marketing person, that’s exactly what you want. If you’re into the geekery, though, it can cover up what’s exactly going on, traffic-wise, at the server level.

Searching my logs, rather than looking at the Google statistics, showed that I was getting huge numbers of hits for very long URLs, consisting of valid paths joined together by lots of directories named ‘&':

Log file extract

That’s a screenshot of a single request in the logfile – the whole thing being about 850 characters long. ‘%26′ is an encoded ‘&’ character. Because of the way WordPress works, these things are valid URLs, and requests for them were coming in at a pretty fast rate. Before long, the request rate was faster than the page generation time – and that’s when the problem really starts to build up, because from there things snowball until nobody gets served.

All these requests were coming from a single IP address, an ordinary consumer type of address in Italy.** Moreover, the user-agent was being disguised. Each hit was coming in from the same IP address, but with a different-but-plausible-looking user-agent string, so the hits looked like a normal, ordinary browser with a real person behind it.

The problem was solved fairly easily, to be honest; and the site was soon behaving itself again. It should still be behaving itself now. But if you came here yesterday afternoon and thought the site didn’t seem to be working very well, that’s why it was. I’m going to have to keep an eye on things, to see if it starts happening again.

* and only if they have Javascript enabled, at that, although I know that covers 99% of the known world nowadays.

** which made me think to myself: “I know I’ve pissed people off … but none of them are Italian!”

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Public Information

In which people are alerted

Just a quick post to say that: readers who normally use their RSS reader to look at this site might want to click through today. To see what everything now looks like. There aren’t many of you, but you are all regular readers, so I thought I’d let you know.

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The size of things

In which we measure monitors

The redesign is now almost done, which means that soon you’ll be saved from more posts on the minutiae of my redesign. It’s got me thinking, though: to what extent do I need to think about readers’ technology?

When this blog first started, I didn’t really worry about making it accessible to all,* or about making sure that the display was resolution-independent. It worked for me, which was enough. Over time, screens have become bigger; and, more importantly, more configurable, so I’ve worried less and less about it. When it came to do a redesign, though, I started to wonder. What browsers do my readers actually used.

Just after Christmas, for entirely different reasons, I signed up for Google Analytics, rather than do my own statistics-counting as I had been doing. Because Google Analytics relies on Javascript to do its work, it gives me rather more information about such things than the old log-based system did. So, last week, I spent an hour or so with my Analytics results and a spreadsheet. Here’s the graph I came up with:

Browser horizontal resolutions, cumulative %

The X-axis there is the horizontal width of everyone’s screens, in order but not to scale; the Y-axis is the cumulative percentage of visits.** In other words, the percentage figure for a given width tells you the proportion of visits from people whose screen was that size, or wider.

Straight away, really, I got the answer I wanted. 93% of visits are to this site are from people whose screens are 1024 pixels wide, or more. It’s 95% if I take out the phone-based browsers at the very low end.*** The next step up, though, the graph plunges to only 2/3 of visits. 1024 pixels is the smallest screen width that my visitors use heavily.

Admittedly there’s a bit of self-selection in there, based on the current design; it looks horrible at 800 pixels, and nearly everyone still using an 800×600 screen has only visited once in the two-month sample period. However, that applies to most of the people who visit this site in any case; just more so for the 800-pixel users. Something like 70% of visits are from people who have probably only visited once in the past couple of months; so it’s fair to assume that my results aren’t too heavily skewed by the usability of the current design. It will be interesting to see how much things change.

I’m testing the new design in the still-popular 1024×768 resolution, to make sure everything will still work. I’ll probably test it out a fair bit on K’s phone, too. But, this is a personal site. If you don’t read it, it’s not vital, to you or to me. If I don’t test it on 800×600 browsers, the world won’t end. The statistics, though, have shown me where exactly a cutoff point might be worthwhile.

* For example, in the code of the old design, all that sidebar stuff over on the right comes in the code before this bit with the content, which does (I assume) make it a bit of a bugger for blind readers. That, at least, will be sorted out in the new design.

** “visits” is of course a bit of a nebulous term, but that is a rant for another day.

*** Most of that 2% consists of: K reading the blog on the bus on her way home from work.

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In which we anticipate the new design

Incidentally, the Grand Redesign plans, as mentioned here several times previously, are still trundling along at their own pace. Parts, indeed, have already been finished and are up on the server; although, as they’ve not been linked-to, nobody can get to them yet.

The slowest part, though, has been: backtracking through the entire post history and editing every post to conform to the new type: proper tags, proper excerpts, and so on. It’s a long slog, given that there are 3 1/2 years’ worth of posts,* and rereading them all has been hard work. It’s been a strange experience, too, because in many cases I’d forgotten an event, and reading all the posts jogged my memory in unexpected ways.**

The end is in sight now, though; so it won’t be long before I can check everything over, finish tidying up the new design, and put it all live. Fingers crossed that when it does go live, it’s all going to work.

* about 750ish, following the long hiatus last summer

** In some cases I’ve completely forgotten events – there are some posts where, if someone had showed them to me, I wouldn’t even have realised that I’d written them myself. And there are plenty of “guarded posts” where, now, a few years later, I’ve forgotten exactly what events I was describing

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In which we discuss tagging and filksonomies

Another design point that’s come up as part of the Grand Redesign I keep promising you: tagging. The little bundle of links at the bottom of each post that I didn’t really think did very much.

I was a latecomer to tagging. When this site first started, it didn’t have any for the first month or so. After a while I started adding them, pointing them to Technorati. Back then, WordPress was still on version 1.5.something, and it didn’t have any built-in tagging support. I don’t like to have too many plugins, and I didn’t think that tag management* mattered that much; so I wrote all the tags manually. Like this:

<small>Keyword noise: <a class=”tag” rel=”tag” href=”…”>tag</a></small>

Which worked, quite well; there was a visually distinct “tag” class, because I wanted tag links – which all led to Technorati – to be visually distinct from the rest, which would go to something more topically relevant.

Things move on, though, and WordPress has since gained built-in tagging functionality. Given that I’m redesigning the whole site, and putting in new built-from-scratch layout templates, I thought I may as well switch to using a more organising tagging system. For one thing, it means less typing each time I write a post. All that code up above is replaced by one little chunk in the template:

<p id=”thetags”><small><?php the_tags(‘Keyword noise: ‘, ‘, ‘ ,”);?></small></p>

I know all those commas and quotes look a bit confusing; but really they’re not that bad. And the point is: that bit of code there only has to be written once; the previous chunk had to be typed out every time. The most awkward part is that WordPress isn’t flexible enough to let you set the class of each link individually, hence the <p class=”…”> at the start.** The big change this leads to, though, is that the tag links no longer point to Technorati. Now, they point back to the site itself: you get a page containing every post with that tag on. And, already, that’s shown that people do indeed click on the tags. People, particularly people coming from searches, do seem to use them. Whether they find them useful or not is another matter, of course;*** but they do get used.

Doing it this way means that I put more tags on each post, simply because there’s much less typing to do. Conversion, though, is going to be a bit of a job. There are 760-odd posts on this site, all of which I’m having to reread and re-tag. It’s going to take a while, but hopefully the majority of it will be done by the time the new design is finished.**** The only problem with this transitional phase is that: the current template is, because of its age, completely unaware of tags. So it doesn’t really know what a tag-based archive page is; so when you click on a tag, there’s no explanation as to what you’re looking at. I’m not sure if this is going to be a problem for you readers or not; and, hopefully, it’s only going to be a short-lived situation.

The word “folksonomy” has often been used to describe this sort of tagging system. I’m not sure it’s an ideal term for what I’m doing, though. “Filksonomy” might be more relevant: a bit like a folksonomy, but rather more whimsical and silly.

* as opposed to tagging itself.

** it has also buggered about with the quote marks in that fragment of code. Whatever you do, don’t copy and paste it – if you want to use it, retype it!

*** particularly now they point back within the site rather than outwards to see what other people have said on the topic.

**** In any case, there are other parts of the new design that also need each post checking and editing.

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