DePo Masthead

There is a place on WordPress.com where I share various odds and ends about public transport in the U.K. It’s called On Trains and Buses and I try not to go tinkering with the design side of things too much. You only have the ability to change the CSS and my previous experience of doing that with this edifice while it lived on there taught me not to expect too much even if there are sandbox themes for anyone to turn into something presentable, not that I really would want to go doing that in full view of everyone (doing if offline first and copying the CSS afterwards when it’s done is my preferred way of going about it). Besides, I wanted to see how WordPress.com fares these days anyway.

While my public transport blog just been around for a little over a year, it’s worn a few themes over that time, ranging from the minimalist The Journalist v1.9 and Vigilance through to Spring Reloaded. After the last of these, I am back to minimalist again with DePo Masthead, albeit with a spot of my own colouring to soften its feel a little. I must admit growing to like it but it came to my attention that it was a bespoke design from Derek Powazek that Automattic’s Noel Jackson turned into reality. The result would appear that you cannot get it anywhere but from the WordPress.com Subversion theme repository. For those not versed in the little bit of Subversion action that is needed to get it, I did it for you and put it all into a zip file without making any changes to the original, hoping that it might make life easier for someone.

Download DePo Masthead

Where’s WordPress 2.8?

It now seems that WordPress 2.7 has been an unqualified success. The major changes that were made to the administration screens have been well received and the grumblings that were extant about 2.5 and 2.6 seem to have dissipated too. Another observation is that security bugs have not being making their presence felt. All in all, it feels very much like assured progress and may explain why 2.8 has been taking its time in coming.

It’s now pencilled in for the end of this month and looks as if it will be a polishing of what already works well. It seems to me that most of the changes are behind the scenes but there is a new widgets interface that should be ever more user friendly together with an automated theme installation and upgrade facility that is based on what is already in place for plugins (speaking of which, that interface has been tidied too). Another rough edge that has been removed is the whole business of time zones and daylight saving time. In summary, it seems to be a sharpening of a package that already works well anyway. I have been running it on another site without a whimper of drama so that’s probably saying something. Saying that, quite how they are going to get anyone to upgrade is another matter. For one thing, Lorelle VanFossen’s overuse of the word “mandatory” cannot be likely to do it…

In a way, the subject of upgrade fatigue brings me to a recent poll run by Automattic’s Jane Wells. Quite a number want to stick with what works while others fancy a change. This split could be tricky to manage and might even encourage some not to upgrade at all and stick with what works for them. After all, there were two episodes of major upheaval last year and I cannot see everyone wanting to see that happen again. Continual evolutionary freshening would suit me better. Thankfully, any talk of changing the administration screens has been left for 2.9 now and there’s always the option of sticking with 2.8 if what is produced becomes a sufficient irritation. Well, it saves a leap to Habari or another alternative anyway…

Self-hosted web analytics tracking

It amazes me now to think how little tracking I used to do on my various web “experiments” only a few short years ago. However, there was a time when a mere web counter, perhaps displayed on web pages themselves, was enough to yield some level of satisfaction, or dissatisfaction in many a case. Things have come a long way since then and we now seem to have analytics packages all around us. In fact, we don’t even have to dig into our pockets to get our hands on the means to peruse this sort of information either.

At this point, I need to admit that I am known to make use of a few simultaneously but thoughts about reducing their number are coming to mind but there’ll be more on that later. Given that this site is hosted using WordPress software, it should come as no surprise that Automattic’s own plugin has been set into action to see how things are going. The main focus is on the total number of visits by day, week and month with a breakdown showing what pages are doing well as well as an indication of how people came to the site and what links they followed while there. Don’t go expecting details of your visitors like the software that they are using and the country where they are accessing the site with this minimalist option and satisfaction should head your way.

There is next to no way of discussing the subject of website analytics without mentioning Google’s comprehensive offering in the area. You have to admit that it’s comprehensive with perhaps the only bugbear being the lack of live tracking. That need has been addressed very effectively by Woopra, even if its WordPress plugin will not work with IE6. Otherwise, you need the desktop application (being written in Java, it’s a cross-platform affair and I have had it going in both Windows and Linux) but that works well too. Apart maybe from the lack of campaigns, Woopra supplies as good as all of the information that its main competitor provides. It certainly doe what I would need from it.

However, while they can be free as in beer, there are a some costs associated with using using external services like Google Analytics and Woopra. Their means of tracking your web pages for you is by executing a piece of JavaScript that needs to be added to every page. If you have everything set to use a common header or footer page, that shouldn’t be too laborious and there are plugins for publishing platforms like WordPress too. This way of working means that if anyone has JavaScript disabled or decides not to enable JavaScript for the requisite hosts while using the NoScript extension with Firefox, then your numbers are scuppered. Saying that, the same concerns probably any JavaScript code that you may want to execute but there’s another cost again: the calls to external websites can, even with the best attention in the world, slow down the loading of your own pages. Not only is additional JavaScript being run but there also is the latency caused by servers having to communicate across the web.

A self-hosted analytics package would avoid the latter and I found one recently through Lifehacker. Amazingly, it has been around for a while and I hadn’t known about it but I can’t say that I was actively looking for it either. Piwik, formerly known as PHPMyVisites, is the name of my discovery and it seems not too immature either. In fact, I’d venture that it does next to everything that Google Analytics does. While I’d prefer that it used PHP, JavaScript is its means of tracking web pages too. Nevertheless, page loading is still faster than with Google Analytics and/or Woopra and Firefox/NoScript users would only have to allow JavaScript for one site too. If you have had experience with installing PHP/MySQL powered publishing platforms like WordPress, Textpattern and such like, then putting Piwik in place is no ordeal. You may find yourself changing folder access but uploading of the required files, the specification of database credentials and adding an administration user is all fairly standard stuff. I have the thing tracking this edifice as well as my outdoor activities (hillwalking/cycling/photography) web presence and I cannot say that I have any complaints so we’ll see how it goes from here.

Investigating Textpattern

With the profusion of Content Management Systems out there, open source and otherwise, my curiosity has been aroused for a while now. In fact, Automattic’s aspirations for WordPress (the engine powering this blog) now seem to go beyond blogging and include wider CMS-style usage. Some may even have put the thing to those kinds of uses but I am of the opinion that it has a way to go yet before it can put itself on a par with the likes of Drupal and Joomla!.

Speaking of Drupal, I decided to give it a go a while back and came away with the impression that it’s a platform for an entire website. At the time, I was attracted by the idea of having one part of a website on Drupal and another using WordPress but the complexity of the CSS in the Drupal template thwarted my efforts and I desisted. The heavy connection between template and back end cut down on the level of flexibility too. That mix of different platforms might seem odd in architectural terms but my main website also had a custom PHP/MySQL driven photo gallery too and migrating everything into Drupal wasn’t going to be something that I was planning. In hindsight, I might have been trying to get Drupal to perform a role for which it was never meant so I am not holding its non-fulfillment of my requirements against it. Drupal may have changed since I last looked at it but I decided to give an alternative a go regardless.

Towards the end of last year, I began to look at Textpattern (otherwise known as Txp) in the same vein and it worked well enough after a little effort that I was able to replace what was once a visitor dossier with a set of travel jottings. In some respects, Textpattern might feel less polished when you start to compare it with alternatives like WordPress or Drupal but the inherent flexibility of its design leaves a positive impression. In short, I was happy to see that it allowed me to achieve what I wanted to do.

If I remember correctly, Textpattern’s default configuration is that of a blog and it can be used for that purpose. So, I got in some content and started to morph the thing into what I had in mind. My ideas weren’t entirely developed so some of that was going on while I went about bending Txp to my will. Most of that involved tinkering in the Presentation part of the Txp interface though. It differs from WordPress in that the design information like (X)HTML templates and CSS are stored in the database rather than in the file system à la WP. Txp also has its own tag language called Textile and, though it contains conditional tags, I find that encasing PHP in <txp:php></txp:php> tags is a more succinct way of doing things; only pure PHP code can be used in this way and not a mixture of such in <?php ?> tags and (X)HTML. A look at the tool’s documentation together with perusal of Apress’ Textpattern Solutions got me going in this new world (it was thus for me, anyway). The mainstay of the template system is the Page and each Section can use a different Page. Each Page can share components and, in Txp, these get called Forms. These are included in a Page using Textile tags of the form <txp:output_form form=”form1″ />. Style information is edited in another section and you can have several style sheets too.

The Txp Presentation system is made up of Sections, Pages, Forms and Styles. The first of these might appear in the wrong place when being under the Content tab would seem more appropriate but the ability to attach different page templates to different sections places their configuration where you find it in Textpattern and the ability to show or hide sections might have something to do with it too. As it happens, I have used the same template for all bar the front page of the site and got it to display single or multiple articles as appropriate using the Category system. It may be a hack but it appears to work well in practice. Being able to make a page template work in the way that you require really offers a great amount of flexibility and I have gone with one sidebar rather than two as found in the default set up.

Txp also has facility to add plugins (look in the Admin section of the UI) and this is very different from WordPress in that installation involves the loading of an encoded text file, probably for sake of maintaining the security and integrity of your installation. I added the navigation facility for my sidebar and breadcrumb links in this manner and back end stuff like Tiny MCE editor and Akismet came as plugins too. There may not be as many of these for Textpattern but the ones that I found were enough to fulfill my needs. If there are plugin configuration pages in the administration interface, you will find these under the Extensions tab.

To get the content in, I went with the more laborious copy, paste and amend route. Given that I was coming from the plain PHP/XHTML way of doing things, the import functionality was never going to do much for me with its focus on Movable Type, WordPress, Blogger and b2. The fact that you only import content into a particular section may displease some too. Peculiarly, there is no easy facility for Textpattern to Textpattern apart from doing a MySQL database copy. Some alternatives to this were suggested but none seemed to work as well as the basic MySQL route. Tiny MCE made editing easier once I went and turned off Textile processing of the article text. This was done on a case by case basis because I didn’t want to have to deal with any unintended consequences arising from turning it off at a global level.

While on the subject of content, this is also the part of the interface where you manage files and graphics along with administering things like comments, categories and links (think blogroll from WordPress). Of these, it is the comment or link facilities that I don’t use and even have turned comments off in the Txp preferences. I use categories to bundle together similar articles for appearance on the same page and am getting to use the image and file management side of things as time goes on.

All in all, it seems to work well even if I wouldn’t recommend it to many to whom WordPress might be geared. My reason for saying that is because it is a technical tool and is used best if you are prepared to your hands dirtier from code cutting than other alternatives. I, for one, don’t mind that at all because working in that manner might actually suit me. Nevertheless, not all users of the system need to have the same level of knowledge or access and it is possible to set up users with different permissions to limit their exposure to the innards of the administration. In line with Textpattern’s being a publishing tool, you get roles such as Publisher (administrator in other platforms), Managing Editor, Copy Editor, Staff Writer, Freelancer, Designer and None. Those names may mean more to others but I have yet to check out what those access levels entail because I use it on a single user basis.

There may be omissions from Txp like graphical presentation of visitor statistics in place of the listings that are there now and the administration interface might do with a little polish but it does what I want from it and that makes those other considerations less important. That more cut down feel makes it that little more useful in my view and the fact that I have created A Wanderer’s Miscellany may help to prove the point. You might even care to take a look at it to see what can be done and I am sure that it isn’t even close to exhausting the talents of Textpattern. I can only hope that I have done justice to it in this post.

WordPress 2.6 out in the wild

There was a time when I tested out a new WordPress release when it made its appearance but I now now keep tabs on development versions too. It helps me to be ready in ample time and avoid any ugly stuff appearing on either here or my hillwalking blog. On the surface, the changes made don’t seem so dramatic after the revamp of the administration interface that came with 2.5. Under the bonnet, a lot of bugs have been fixed and many behind the scenes features have been included for the first time. I’ll leave it for you to go to Planet WordPress or check out the relevant entry on the WordPress Development blog. You’ll find a Flash video tour of the latest version from Automattic below.

Of course, WordPress development doesn’t stop here and there are some considerable changes to the administration interface to come at some point if they ever make out into the mainstream from the crazyhorse branch. I’ll be continuing to keep an eye on how things go from here so as to be ready for whatever might be in the offing. For now, enjoy 2.6 but it’ll interesting to see where it all goes from here.